09 August 2014

Social Amnesia and the American Culture of Carnage

On 20 April 1999, armed to the teeth with bombs and automatic weapons, two teenaged students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed into their suburban high school in Littleton, Colorado, and carried out a horrific display of murder and mayhem before committing suicide. When the smoke cleared, 12 students and 1 teacher lay dead, with many more wounded, and Americans were left to sort out another seemingly senseless act of what has come to be called 'teen violence.' Law enforcement and the media soon swarmed the site as investigators looked for clues and reporters sought answers. National news outlets entirely pre-empted normal programming for several hours afterwards, in a bizarre spectacle of suffering, anguish, and confusion. Over the next few days, as the events in Littleton had receded somewhat into the usual corporate media stew of consumerism and the latest war, speculation about the incident ran rampant.

In often contradictory and partial accounts, the youths were said be part of an outcast group known as the 'trenchcoat mafia,' who were connected to 'goth' culture and who had a vendetta against the 'jocks' that taunted them. Other observers saw connections to white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups, citing the black student who was among the dead, and noting that the incident occurred on the 110th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth. But April 20 was also found to be 'International Marijuana Day,' fueling speculation of drug abuse. Soon, when a large bomb was discovered in the school, police began seeking a conspiracy. Meanwhile, experts jostled to gain attention for their totalizing theories of youth angst, social immorality, parental breakdown, and media violence as the primary cause, and others called for beefed up school security and weapons legislation.

American officialdom soon entered the fray, revealing the schizoid character of American public discourse. President Clinton urged school children to use 'words not weapons' to solve their problems, just after he ordered another round of bombing on Belgrade. Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore joined the crusade against violent media, deflecting criticism from the multiple sites of violence in America. Ohio Representative James Trafficant urged Americans to attend more church, suggesting that 'people who pray together are not likely to kill one another,' oblivious to the long and horrid history of religious wars and persecution at the core of Western civilization. With a major election year approaching, other politicians used the incident to push their own cynical and hypocritical agendas, from gun control and censorship to school surveillance.

Over the past 18 months, 12 people were killed and over 40 injured in seven similar incidents of suburban and rural school shootings, not to mention the numerous and not as widely publicized incidents of school violence in urban areas. From Mississippi and Arkansas, to Kentucky and Oregon, images of teenagers shooting up schools have become commonplace. Like teen suicide pacts, postal worker rampages, and fast-food restaurant massacres of the previous decade, the school shootings have come in waves. And the current wave does not seem to be over yet, with several incidents reported after Littleton in which students have threatened or shot each other.

Although Littleton was dubbed the 'worst case of school violence in US History,' this really reflects either journalistic laziness or some sort of social denial. For example, in 1927, near Lansing Michigan, 45 people (including 38 children aged 6-8) were killed when a local farmer and school board member blew up a schoolhouse with 500 pounds of dynamite. The bomber, who was distraught at rising school taxes that threatened his farm, had just killed his wife and farm animals and blown up his own home, and was killed as he tried to blow up a car near the school.

With their country founded on genocide, slavery, and racial hatred, Americans seem to suffer from amnesia about how their violent past informs the present. After wiping out millions of Indians and enslaving millions of Africans, Christian white supremacist Americans turned on immigrants and other outsiders, before fighting in two massively destructive 'world wars.' This violent legacy has multiple effects on American culture and in the way Americans see themselves in the world. Violence, war, and destruction are internalized in many ways, some obvious and others obtuse.

As many critics have pointed out, violent media are certainly a factor in youth carnage. Parents in Arkansas have filed a lawsuit against the producers of a Hollywood movie that depicted a student shooting up his school. But this is just a drop in the bucket, as one television watchdog group was quick to point out, since 'the typical American child will have watched 100,000 graphic portrayals of violence, including 8000 murders, by the time he or she finishes the sixth grade.' Violent video games, like 'Doom' and 'Quake,' are also cited as causal factors in teen murder sprees. Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old shooter in Paducah, Kentucky, was a 'point-and-shoot game fanatic,' who was described by witnesses as having assumed a stance like in a video arcade. FBI officials noted that Carneal had deadly accuracy for someone who had never fired a real gun: he squeezed off eight shots, hitting eight victims and killing five, ranking him among the best police marksman.

David Grossman, former military psychologist, and author of books on the psychology of killing, sees deeper links between youth violence and media. In a recent book, he notes several ways in which military training tactics and violent media share similar methods of acclimating people into a culture of violence and killing. Beginning with systematic desensitization, which teaches trainees and children to accept death with dispassion, and proceeding to forms of 'classical conditioning,' in which violent acts are paired with sensual stimuli, the foundations are laid for building detachment from and pleasure in violence. Once this is achieved, Grossman continues, techniques of killing can then be honed by way simulations, which utilize forms of 'operant conditioning,' training recruits and video game players to shoot first as a matter of unthinking reflex, and 'modeling,' which creates authoritative cultural 'templates' to which soldiers and youths can aspire. Grossman sees these links producing a society that is entertained by violence, and witnesses recall that Harris and Klebold were laughing as they murdered their classmates.

But in addition to criticizing media and entertainment, one ought not to forget other factors. For instance, American suburbs were largely born of war and racial hatred. During the 1950s, at the height of the maniacal Cold War, the US government encouraged white middle class migration to suburban enclaves, dispersing populations away from cities. The policy was intended to ensure survival for at least a segment of the populace away from urban centers in case of a nuclear attack, because military strategists wrote off cities as collateral damage in the event of a global nuclear war. This came in a climate of ongoing racial hatred that coded cities as 'slums' and 'ghettoes,' teeming with colored people, the poor and crime. For many, the seemingly secure pleasantries of American suburbia became a fantasyland, where white people could live with their bunkers and bomb shelters in serenity and comfort. Incidents like those in Colorado shatter this fantasy and hearken back to the reality of the venal and violent nightmares that pervade American history and culture.

In a related twist of fate, on the same day that the Littleton shootings occurred, the news media reported that the 'heroic' American 82nd Airborne Battalion had landed in Albania to join the war in Yugoslavia. But few commentators noticed that the 82nd Airborne was infamous for the My Lai incident in Vietnam nearly thirty years ago, in which brave American GIs massacred over 600 men, women, and children in a village that would come to represent all that was wrong with America’s murderous adventure in Vietnam. The incident was fraught with denial, and the eventual inquiries led to one officer getting nothing more than a gentle reprimand. One could cite many instances in which mass murder is even rewarded, such as the case of the Iranian airbus that was shot down by an American warship, whose captain was later given high and heroic honors.

In many ways, then, Littleton represents a norm in American history and society, albeit one which most Americans deny or refuse to talk about. Teens like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are only following their adult role models, whether they be neo-Nazis or a host of cultural icons like 'Dirty Harry' and 'Rambo,' or the military and law enforcement personnel who carry out acts of  murder and mayhem with impunity. Recall, too, that Timothy McVeigh was trained by the US military, before venting his rage in Oklahoma City, while the New York City cops who pumped 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo boasted 'we own the night.' The two youthful shooters in Littleton are no different--they are simply following their esteemed adult leaders and highly publicized cultural heroes. It is a sad and tragic irony that the acts of carnage and cruelty in Colorado are American to the core.

[By Yusef Progler, this essay was originally published in Crescent International, May 1999.]

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