Monthly Archives: December 2012

First-person shooter

Christmas is in the air.  All the children are excited.  But some of the kindergarteners in the land are not nestled all snug in their beds because 20 of them were shot to death last week in their classrooms.

The savagery of mass gun violence was visited on a community that, in our collective images about such things, would seem the least likely place for it.  About 28,000 people live in Newtown, Connecticut.  They are 95% white, have household or family median incomes of over $100,000, and three-quarters of the households are married couples living together.  It’s about as comfortable, affluent and safe as one can imagine a town being in the white imagination of America.

If you are white and if you didn’t grow up in poverty, examine your reactions to this massacre.  If you’re like me, you instinctively feel the contradiction between the images of Newtown you have been seeing and the concept of gun violence.  Newtown is everything our white parents left the City to find, including the ‘good’ schools.  They wanted to get us away from all the bad stuff in the City—to escape the drugs, crime and violence.

The City is where the Others live.  These Others are immigrants, willing (Hispanics, Jews, etc.) or not (Black), who because of their Lack of Self-Worth or Lack of Initiative are condemned to dwell amid the drugs, crime and violence of city life.  In our racist white American imaginations, we have always encouraged a close conceptual link between safety and the absence of Others, especially (since they can so readily be identified as different) people of color.

The lack of Others and (yet) the mass gun violence are among the images that white America, and the media that serves us exclusively, are trying to sort out in the wake of the killings.  It is almost entirely inexplicable to us how such a ‘safe’ community can suddenly have turned out to be so to tragically deadly, and for its youngest and most defenseless members.

Two ‘reasons’ immediately jump to mind as we grapple with these images.  The perp must have been a random crazy—and there are too many guns floating around.

Well, not exactly.  The perp, Adam Lanza, spent most of his life in Newtown—he moved there from New Hampshire in 1998, when he would have been six years old.  There have been reports that he was ‘developmentally disabled’ in some way—but there were also reports, starting early and persisting for quite a while, that it was his mother’s classroom where he opened fire.

Authorities say he shot his mother several times in the head, with a gun that was legally owned and registered to her.  She was a gun enthusiast, who owned the two powerful handguns and the M-4 rifle her son carried to the kindergarten after killing her with them.  He could only have carried out the slaughter with some kind of awareness of what he was up to—he didn’t just open fire at random in a crowd, but shot his mother, drove her car to the school, and broke his way in past their security system.  Reportedly clad in combat gear, he seems to have started with two adjoining kindergartens, killing any adult who got in his way, including a number of incredibly brave women who tried to stop him.  He killed women and children, like he had his mother, shooting each of them multiple times.  According to Connecticut’s Chief Medical Examiner, the children were killed by fire from the rifle, a .223 Bushmaster M4 semi-automatic.

James Barron, writing in the Times, led

The gunman in the Connecticut shooting blasted his way into the elementary school and then sprayed the children with bullets, first from a distance and then at close range, hitting some of them as many as 11 times, as he fired a semiautomatic rifle loaded with ammunition designed for maximum damage, officials said Saturday.

This rifle takes a 30-round clip so he must have reloaded multiple times.  That means, doing the grisly math, at least three clips and probably more where emptied, from spare magazines he would have had to have preloaded and brought along with him.  I’m trying to articulate this gruesome process because as much as I agree that guns are far too easy to get in this country, I don’t think this is a case where that issue is relevant.  For what it’s worth, all the guns he carried to the school were legally owned (though of course, not by him).

What I think is most important to understand about this methodical, extensive and horrifically violent killing is the perpetrator’s belief that this was an option he could exercise.

Even if we assume a state of psychosis, he carried out a terribly familiar drama.  It is the drama we see in images of combat in Afghanistan or Iraq, fictional or real.  It is the drama carried out by President Obama with his “unmanned” drone strikes that not surprisingly are less than surgical and usually kill a lot of bystanders, including young children.  It is the drama enacted by President Bush when he decided to give Saddam a more successful beating than his father had managed by invading Iraq, again.  It is the drama manifested across a significant part of the $25B annual video game market.  In fact, the only thing that makes Lanza’s actions different from those carried out in the virtual world by millions of players of “first-person shooter” games like Halo is that he was a first-person shooter in the real world.

I have no idea if Lanza played video games, and I’m not arguing that video games ‘cause’ mass murder.  I’m just wondering why what he did looks so similar.  Why it looks like a firefight in Afghanistan or the slaughtered families of alleged terrorists in northern Pakistan.  I’m talking about this: you have to move through a landscape full of threats, seen and unseen.  If you make a mistake, you will die.  Sometimes death will just fall out of the sky.  The only way to survive is to preemptively slaughter everything that moves.

This is the message that has been sent to a generation of children who have come of age in the wake of 9/11, and force-fed to the rest of us through a constant media clamor.  Rather than sharpening our intelligence capacity to deal with an asymmetrical threat, the ‘right’ thing to do is to rain down death and destruction on the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq through the sheer dominance of firepower.  Rather than figure out how to protect our citizens from terrorist assault, the right and necessary thing to do is to murder supposed terrorists extra-judicially, and outside any kind of international law.  Because someone is threatening us, we have the right to strike preemptively, regardless of any other concept of right, law, or reason.

What is this kind of thinking?  What is a Lanza acting out when he slaughters kindergarteners?  All you have to know is that he thinks he has the right.  This is the right of the privileged, and he doesn’t have to feel privileged himself to act on it—he just has to be a member of the class that owns that privilege: white, male and affluent enough.

In the wake of Colombine, Gloria Steinem noted that “supremacy crimes” of multiple murder are “committed disproportionately by white, non-poor males, the group most likely to become hooked on the drug of superiority. It’s a drug pushed by a male-dominant culture that presents dominance as a natural right”.

As Elliot Leyton reports in Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, these killers see their behavior as “an appropriate–even ‘manly’–response to the frustrations and disappointments that are a normal part of life.” In other words, it’s not their life experiences that are the problem, it’s the impossible expectation of dominance to which they’ve become addicted.
…it is truly remarkable, given the relative reasons for anger at injustice in this country, that white, non-poor men have a near-monopoly on multiple killings of strangers, whether serial and sadistic or mass and random. How can we ignore this obvious fact? Others may kill to improve their own condition–in self-defense, or for money or drugs; to eliminate enemies; to declare turf in drive-by shootings; even for a jacket or a pair of sneakers–but white males addicted to supremacy kill even when it worsens their condition or ends in suicide.
[…]
I think we begin to see that our national self-examination is ignoring something fundamental, precisely because it’s like the air we breathe: the white male factor, the middle-class and heterosexual one, and the promise of superiority it carries. Yet this denial is self-defeating–to say the least. We will never reduce the number of violent Americans, from bullies to killers, without challenging the assumptions on which masculinity is based: that males are superior to females, that they must find a place in a male hierarchy, and that the ability to dominate someone is so important that even a mere insult can justify lethal revenge. There are plenty of studies to support this view. As Dr. James Gilligan concluded in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, “If humanity is to evolve beyond the propensity toward violence…then it can only do so by recognizing the extent to which the patriarchal code of honor and shame generates and obligates male violence.”

Regardless of Adam Lanza’s mental state (and there is a huge discussion about access to mental health services that is being ignored here) the patterns of supremacy were available and allowed to Lanza by his status.  And since 9/11, when a handful of terrorists killed three thousand people and took down two of our biggest erections, they have been blessed by those in the highest office in the land in the most explicit way yet in our history.  They have been replayed in a thousand television shows and a million Halo sessions.  Everyone knows that certain people have the right, in self-defense against an enemy who frustrates us by being so hard to reach, to preemptively crush any semblance of their existence with any force necessary.

I am not for a minute arguing that being attacked merits no response or that Lanza is not responsible for his actions or that this awful massacre is somehow ‘caused’ by Halo or militarism.  I’m not arguing causation at all.  When water runs downhill it fills the lowest available paths, and it is the same with acts of anger and hatred.  We have to recognize that the path has been well worn and is now explicitly allowed as a matter of national policy to those white males who as a class are destined to rule the Homeland.

President Obama said in Newtown on Sunday night that we have failed in our duty to protect our children.  Yet how could the community of Newtown have done more at the Sandy Hook Elementary School?  A clearly planned and effectively designed security protocol had just been published to the community by the now-murdered principal.  It seems to me that the community could not have done more to protect their kids.

We have failed our children in a way far more fundamental than I think the President is willing to admit.  We have failed in the most important duty of adults and parents—to set the right example.  We have normalized the application of brutal force—as the children in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan, who are surely as blameless as those in Sandy Hook, know only too well—in situations where we only perceive that our security is threatened, in order to compensate for our sense of shamed white male honor.  A feature of the Bush regime, this is now also Obama’s legacy.  Under the cover of “Homeland Security”, we have allowed our society to indulge at multiple levels an unthinking, blatantly reflexive lack of impulse control.  Not only does this reaction fail to secure us when we clearly need to be secured, it illustrates by example a deadly but sanctioned outlet for those among us least able to control their rage and anger.  And, as always, children pay the price.

(h/t Jessie Jacobs-Brown for pointing to the Steinem piece)

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