March 2008

Welcome to MurderWorld

by Jonathan Wallace

Not a week or two pass any more without the news that someone has walked into a school, office or shopping mall somewhere in the United States with a semiautomatic weapon or a rifle, killed five to thirty or so people, and sometimes themselves. In a parallel hell which has its points of similarity, every day someone in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan walks into a wedding, bird market, wake, soccer game or other public venue and detonates an explosive vest. Murder has become the currency of the day, a means of self expression, of expressing anger, frustration or boredom, or of making a religious or political statement.

As a child, I was very impressed by Kurt Vonnegut's formulation in Slaughterhouse Five that war is a kind of weather human beings create when they don't want other humans to live any more. Looking at these parallel, overlapping hells today, I conclude that if someone decides for their own purposes that you shouldn't live any more, chances are that you won't. Once Osama bin Laden decided to make an example of the denizens of the World Trade Center, they didn't have much of a chance. We live our lives now hoping not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; to remain so obscure that no-one fixes their attention on us; not to be randomly saddled with a sociopathic co-worker, student or acquaintance; not to work or shop on the wrong day in the store where someone has decided to impersonate a private hell. Somewhere, I heard the story of a boss who kept an incompetent employee for ten years because of a conviction that the man would become a workplace killer if terminated.

The old moral debate over whether people are means or ends has been partly superseded by the remarkable question of whether murder itself is a means or an end. The paradigm of murder was a means to get money or revenge. Today, mass murder seems to be glorified as an end in itself, an act of speech, communicating the worthlessness of human life.

When a death is at first ambiguous--in, for example, a plane crash not yet traced to accident rather than design--we are relieved to discover that those who were lost died randomly rather than as a result of someone's intention. This is at first bizarre--why would it matter, as the victims are just as dead either way? But in reality, it is quite natural. People who die of natural causes, or by accident, "own" their deaths in a way that they do not if they have died as a means for someone else to express their sociopathy and nihilism. In the six years after 9/11, I boarded a plane only twice, out of duty, once to attend a wedding and once a funeral. It wasn't so much from a fear of dying, as out of an awareness of the helpless rage I would feel at being made into someone else's token.

Episodes of mass murder, as common as they have become, never cease to shock me because of the compelling and unanswerable question of why the killer believes his desire to make a statement trumps the desire of five, thirty or (in the case of some suicide bombings) one hundred and fifty or (on 9/11) three thousand other people to continue living, to realize their own aspirations, to marry, pursue a career, have children, fall in love, write a book or read one. (I will never forget the devastating ending of the Hemingway story: the dying boy who never got to see the Garbo movie that was disappointing all Madrid that week.) While suicide bombings give a religious/ideological veneer to the answer, I believe that this is fundamentally superficial. There is really not a profound difference in nature between killing for Allah and killing your high school classmates out of anger and boredom. In both cases, the killer believes that the message trumps the lives and aspirations of others.

The inclusion of suicide in the mix adds an interesting wrinkle. In the sixties, when terrorism first became prevalent, ideologists specialized in planting bombs and escaping. They were willing to die for their cause, but never planned to. While blowing yourself up allows the accomplishment of some goals that could not be achieved otherwise (the World Trade Center, as the 1993 attackers discovered, was hard to bring down unless you died in the attempt), the papers report almost daily examples of missions (like the bombing of a bird market) that did not require suicide, but in which it was used anyway. From many of these, you can unpack a triple message: Al Qaeda has no respect for the lives of its members; the bombers have no respect for their own lives; and neither see anything sacrosanct in the lives of ordinary Iraqis who took their children to look at the pretty birds.

On a similar note, secondary only to the astonishment I felt at the paradigm shift represented by the 9/11 attacks, I remember my surprise when bin Laden sent two men from London posing as journalists to kill one of the leading adversaries of the Taliban. While I could imagine a perverted desire for lasting glory which would motivate strategic mass murderers like Mohammed Atta, al Qaeda also proved capable of persuading people to die for merely tactical goals.

Of course, suicide in literal terms is the ultimate "get out of jail free" card. Anyone can turn our system of justice inside out by not caring about punishment or consequences. The saying "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time" is easily inverted: "If you don't mind the time, do the crime". Someone who wants to die, or is willing to, is precisely someone over whom our entire system of rewards and punishments has no influence whatever. As the means of murder become more powerful, I imagine (as a thought experiment, but perhaps soon a reality) a single individual, the pilot of something like a Star Wars X-wing fighter, who can train a single weapon on the earth, press a button and end the lives of everyone on the planet. When the capability exists to do it, there is no doubt that humanity will throw off a sociopath who will seize the opportunity if it is available. One truth we dare not speak, or even silently confront within ourselves, is that the difference between murdering six people and six billion is not in kind, but merely of degree.

In the '60's, there was a strong skein of rhetoric which, if it stopped short of praising political murder, certainly apologized for it. This was at the time the New Left conversation which went along the lines of "is it any wonder that, after centuries of oppression, the Algerians would rise up and kill their oppressors?" This tied very nicely into a sort of pathetic liberal handwringing (we heard a little of it after 9/11) about our own responsibility for engendering murderers. For bringing on our own murder.

The day after 9/11, after writing about my own experience beneath the towers minutes after the second plane hit, I said that I would not personally do any hand-wringing. Though I believed we made profound moral errors in our dealings with the rest of the world--and tactical, situational errors in even greater numbers (Talleyrand: "not only a crime, but also a mistake"), I believe the self-imposed obligation to correct errors never translates into an obligation to accept being murdered. I want to live to be able to take responsibility, to change, to fix mistakes. I will therefore do anything I can reasonably do to protect myself against murderers, including those who have a detailed ideological or philosophical justification. (What happens when we start torturing or murdering people to fight murder is a very important question I will not deal with here. Suffice it to say that I am still optimistic enough to believe we can fight monsters without becoming monstrous.)

By the way, though I cited sixties leftist rhetoric above, the left has no corner on the justification of murder. Years ago I collected some quite chilling quotes from NRA board members, daydreaming about the murder of gun control advocates. After accepting an invitation to join a debate on a pro-NRA mailing list, I received disturbing and credible email from a gun owner stating he would end my life if his eyesight were a little better. And I have quoted in several Spectacle essays Henry Kissinger's joke about the justifications for murder in Chile, that it was "a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica".

Murder is not philosophically any different when dressed in one set of ideological or philosophical rags or another. Dylan Klebold's philosophy and Mohammed Atta's do not differ in any important way.

It is a slight consolation that in most cases when murderers attain power, the murder does not stop. People who believe they are fighting for a better world all too often discover that the people who killed the "oppressor's" children to obtain freedom will keep killing children for recursively less important tactical goals. I used to daydream about the "Lab", a quadrant in outer space where there were hundreds of uninhabited Earth-like planets. You could give them away to every variation in humankind, sit back for a few centuries and watch the results. I always thought that "Palestine Liberation Organization" planet would continue for hundreds of years to be a world of murder, even though there were no Israelis or Americans to kill. Similarly, the Taliban's reign of murder represented the closest thing that has existed in modern times to the Al Qaeda dream world. If we hadn't ended that experiment early, how would it have played out over a period of forty or fifty years? I believe that murder would have engendered murder until the Taliban was overthrown by its own people.

There is a marvelous early novel by Ursula K. Leguin, The Word for World Is Forest, in which a peaceful alien race oppressed by humans learns to use violence. At the end, when they have expelled the oppressor and govern themselves, there is a final scene in which we learn that random murder, which never existed before, has continued in their society.

After watching the peaceful relinquishing of power in the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa, I hoped that over time, people tire of murder. It is true that even under Communism, we saw Kruschchev renounce the mass murders of Stalin; in China, the government seems to believe that Mao acted in excess. But the experience of both the former Soviet Republics and of South Africa today seem to show that murder is always with us, burning low or almost imperceptibly like a brush fire, then coming back when conditions are right.

Our responsibility for creating Dylan Klebold or Mohammed Atta, if we have any, can be examined on both a moral and practical level. I have learned in personal life that moral self-recrimination often translates into useless self-laceration, while practical evaluations tend to lead to more useful actions. In other words, lets concentrate on the mistake aspect, rather than the crime, when something we have done partakes of both. (This is not to say that we shouldn't confront those crimes which have great practical application.)

The problem, bluntly stated, is that the world seems to be throwing off an unprecedented number of monsters these days. I say "seems" because I am relying on anecdotal and common sense evidence. Although school killings aren't new--Whitman climbed the Austin bell tower more than forty years ago, and I remember reading about a teacher who blew up his own school with dynamite in the early decades of the 20th century--there seems to be a fad of murder, copycat mass murder, to an extent unprecedented in earlier times. One thing to remember is that mass murder is not exactly a modern phenomenon. Mass or serial killings have existed at all human times, and--except for those cases where we find forensic evidence like piles of ancient skeletons with crushed skulls--are hidden from us by a lack of records, of the journalistic reporting or sociological studies invented later, or by being masked in politico-religious moments like the Inquisition or Crusades. What seems to be new is the nihilistic rationalization of murder as a means of self-expression. Even Machiavelli might have laughed at the pretentious rhetoric of the more outspoken killers today--the stilted, cliched videos made by suicide bombers, the maunderings of the Unabomber, the various utterances of school killers who did not take themselves out at the end of their sprees.

While we can certainly blame some of the conditions we create which are favorable to the birth of monsters, I want to stress that each monster arises also from a unique act of self creation. Just as we can fight the influences of our own genes, every monster has a last clear chance not to be one, and the only moral scheme which makes sense to me dictates that that last step--the choice to be a monster--is not predetermined but is in fact a profound shedding of one's own humanity for which the monster must be held completely responsible. The best boss I ever worked for once wrote a memo after a litigation imploded: "I take 100% of the responsbility. How much do you take?"

The search for the causes of monstrosity has become puerile. usually, we hear the same things over and over: violent movies and games, easy availability of guns, etc.

Every time I watch a violent movie--and I have to admit that I enjoy them, from Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" through Johnnie To's "Exiled" which I watched day before yesterday--I always have the same reaction during the balletic shoot-out scenes. As a thug we never saw before, or only for a minute or two of the film, is punctured by bullets, sprays blood, twists and falls with a look of irritation or comical surprise, I think: "That was someone's child, friend, lover, husband and father, who had desires and aspirations for thirty-five years before arriving at this moment when he is thrown away like a used tissue in an instant as a pawn (in the internal world of the movie) in a dispute between two other people and (on an external plane) for our entertainment." I can't prove, but have come to believe, that the violence in our movies and games encourages the violence of monsters. However, like an "evil" gene which an individual bears for a lifetime without becoming evil, the world is full of people who have seen both "The Wild Bunch" and "Exiled" without becoming mass murderers.

I have written extensively about the morality of guns and gun control; the Virginia Tech shooter, a sometime mental patient who had been institionalized for evaluation of his violent tendencies, had no problem acquiring an arsenal afterwards. However, I find that I spend less time thinking about the ease with which monsters acquire ordinance; it is easy to concentrate on this to the exclusion of the more fundamental problem of why monsters come into being and seek weapons in the first place. One of my tenets is that all problems should be solved, or at least understood, as far upstream as possible.

More fundamentally, mass murder can be understood in this country as the by-product of a culture of entitlement, and the rage generated when our selfish needs are denied. I noted elsewhere the correlation between the increasing obesity of children and buffness of toys. We are continually promised more for less, until we expect everything for nothing; we are at once great, and powerless; promised everything and denied everything; until some of us, who knew nothing but these delusions, incapable of humility or compassion, lash out.

Another explanation of monsters in the world has gone largely unconfronted. There are twice as many people in the world today as there were in my childhood: three billion in the '60's, six billion today. Regardless of whether the billionaire population or the middle class has doubled in size, this would mean there are at least twice as many monsters as there were. Since every indication is that the majority of world wealth is concentrated in fewer hands than ever before, I suspect this means that a disproportionate number of the new additions to world population live in desperate circumstances that are conducive to the creation of monsters. However, to put this statement in perspective, Mohammed Atta was a privileged, well educated, upper middle class man who had never been personally oppressed, and most of the school shooters come from middle or upper middle class backgrounds as well.

I want to end (I know its not really a conclusion, with a tidy moral or recommendation) by talking, somewhat gingerly, about the situation in Gaza. I don't want, however, to give the impression that this whole essay has been a buildup to, or an excuse for, a statement about Israel. Regular readers of the Spectacle will know the extent to which I have criticized Israeli morality and policy over the years. If I had been a member of a commission of Jewish people charged in 1946 or earlier with the decision whether to formally create a Jewish state, I believe I would have voted against it, on the grounds that it would be a huge mistake and lead to many crimes. And I think it has fulfilled these gloomy expectations.

However, the Israeli people exist, and do not have an obligation to die. There is hope, and has always been at the worst of times, of a negotiated two state solution that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace.

A brand new element exists today, however: The people of Gaza democratically elected an administration, that of the terrorist group Hamas, which supports and commits murder, via suicide bombing and otherwise, as an official policy. What is particularly astounding about this (and would be amusing, to a Martian who did not care what we do to each other) is that Gaza is bordered by Israel and largely dependent on it for food and energy. The outcry in the world for Israel not to cut off gas, medical supplies, and food imports for "humanitarian" reasons is remarkable. What this really translates to is the proposition that we should not hold the civilians of Gaza responsible for the murder committed by their democratically elected representatives. This seems to me to be something new in the world. While we can endlessly debate the morality (if not the efficacy) of affirmative actions such as the firebombing of Dresden or the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, I have never heard anyone argue that we had a responsibility to ship food or gasoline to Germany while Hitler was still in power. A complete cut off by Israel of any movement of supplies into Gaza might well lead to the fall of Hamas. The Israelis refrain from doing so not because they are convinced of the moral arguments in support of sustaining murderers, but because they do not wish to get beaten up in the court of world opinion. That world opinion is nothing more than a not-so-new iteration of the sixties rhetoric I described above, justifying the commission of murders by oppressed populations.

Melville said of whales and men:

[T]he moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The final episode of mass murder on Earth may send a message about our worthlessness which there will be no-one left to understand.