Something Rotten in the U.S.A.

The strangest and saddest thing about this week’s shooting in Oregon is that no-one is surprised any more. This is bad for everyone involved – bad for the families who’ve lost loved ones, bad for whichever murderous kid has pulled the trigger this time round, bad for the decreasing number of U.S. schools who have yet to host massacres. This is a society where even the most extreme, brutal form of self-expression has become everyday, and the details beyond the death-toll barely register anymore. And it is (almost) everyday: The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the U.S. had already hosted 294 ‘mass shootings’ in 2015. At the time of the report’s publication, 2015 had only progressed as far as 274 days. The longest stretch of time the U.S. has gone so far without a ‘mass shooting’ (defined by The Mass Shooting Tracker as ‘when four of more people are shot in an event, or related series of events, likely without a cooling off period’) is eight days. This is, for us Europeans, shocking, particularly since we have no access to local state news; that the huge majority of these mass shootings never made it to national or international news speaks volumes.

Chris Harper Mercer, the Oregon shooter, started a blog in early July, 2015. The first post is titled ‘The material world is a lie.’ It goes on: “Most people will spend hours standing in front of stores just to buy a new iphone … I used to be like that, always concerned about what clothes I had, rather than whether or not I was happy. But not anymore.

“Since then I have learned the truth that such attachments are falsehoods and will only bring misery. This is my first blog post, there will be more to come.”

Of course it’s easy to gloss over any statements these people make: they’re disturbed, murderous, confused, probably with a history of abuse. But the consistency with which high-profile school-shooters and serial killers cite social rebellion, or more specifically disgust at the American commercial scenario, is rather striking. Compare Mercer’s blog to Seung-Hui Cho’s manifesto, released after the Virginia Tech shootings:

“You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your Vodka and Cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfil your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”

Or what about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre? Nick Turse wrote about the pair: “Who would not concede that terrorizing the American machine, at the very site where it exerts its most powerful influence (high school), is a truly revolutionary task? To be inarticulate about your goals, even to not understand them, does not negate their existence.”
Turse called them “modern radicals”, and though he has been criticised for elevating the shooting to an academic level, his argument does not fall flat.

This all begs the question as to why the U.S. is so vulnerable to mass shootings – and why do numbers of school shootings seem to be rising each decade and, since 2010, each year? Obvious changes in U.S. social life since 2000 include: a new democratic government to replace the old republican one; fluctuating states of conflict and American involvement in the middle east; the cemented presence of technology, the internet, online identities into every aspect of modern life; a drop in the number of American citizens who consider themselves religious; and, of course, 9/11, the Boston bombings, domestic terrorism.

The problem, presumably, does not stem from guns themselves. Other western nations have gun laws considerably more lax than those of France or the U.K. – Serbia, for example, or The Czech Republic. But neither country has the same problem with gun-crime and high-profile massacres that the United States has. Following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, President Obama called for stricter gun-control laws, and was widely praised (and rightly so) by the liberal media. The problem, however, runs deeper than the “can-shoot-therefore-will-shoot” attitude suggested by pro-gun-control commentators.

Insist upon stringent gun legislation in the U.S. all you want, but attacking the right to bear arms is attacking only a symptom of the problem, not the root – not whatever lurks beneath the façade of American society that motivates so many disillusioned and isolated individuals into such extreme acts of violence.

Please don’t think I’m being all pro-gun here; certainly it’s clear that something needs to change in terms of legislation. American culture, its social mood, the assumptions and assertions that make up the nation’s social, ideological, and political foundations, the hyper-capitalism it represents globally – these are incompatible with America’s current gun laws. In short: America as it stands is no place for guns. It is unstable, immature, and cannot be trusted. This is why it can’t have nice things.

However, gun-control legislation will only ever be a short term solution. While America stands as an anonymous, cold, and vast bureaucracy, while the individual voice is lost in the total cacophony of other individual voices, and when troubled pariahs have nowhere to turn but deeper into their disturbed selves, America cannot be handing out lethal weapons. There is something rotten in the (united) state(s).

The manifestos and letters left behind by these murderers invariably suggest the same process: that of waking up from an American dream and finding no way to re-integrate, to fall asleep again. Slavoj Zizek points to 9/11 as the ultimate national rude awakening, quoting The Matrix: “Welcome to the desert of the real” – but 9/11 is almost fifteen years ago now. It exists only through annual commemorations and on archived news reports and TV documentaries. Mythologised, Romanticised, with a museum built on the World Trade Centre’s foundations, it’s going the same way as slavery, away from public reality and towards curated archives and cinematic reproduction.

The old TV dream is taking hold again, and with mass-murders rendered everyday, they too become a part of that dream. People are no longer shaken, which begs the terrible question: how can you shock when school-shootings become the norm? What hideous methods will arise in the attempt to get through to that most de-sensitised culture?