Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reacting to an Epidemic Violence

The reporting around the horrific events at Northwestern Illinois University has, as in past school shootings, focused on the grief of families, biographical details about the suicide shooter, and the tangental issues of gun control, emergency safety procedures, and how society should perceive those with mental illness. It is certainly reasonable enough that reporting should cover these topics, but there are other issues just as much in the public interest.

Many of the shootings that become national events are not presented in a national context, despite commanding national attention. With over 20,000 gun homicides annually in the United States, there are certainly scores of similarly grieving families who do not get a national audience for their suffering, nor a national discussion of the conditions surrounding their personal tragedies.

How does the media choose which events to make into a national spectacle? The answer is not clear, but I think it's reasonable to suppose the decision-making bears a strong relation to what news management thinks consumers and advertisers want to hear about, and what sorts of lessons journalists and officials want to teach.

The narrative is that our society is changing in disturbing and dramatic ways, and that these events are evidence that, among other things, radical security measures are in order.

In this most recent instance, we are told the shooter recently discontinued his psychiatric medication. It is unlikely that discussion of this fact will touch upon why we decide certain thoughts and behaviors indicate a mental illness, or why we should not be at liberty to determine our own brain chemistries (even though corporations can patent our genes).

Perhaps these events are more likely to grab our attention when a shooter ends a rampage with a suicide. There are a number of reasons this should be especially startling to Americans: the perpetrator escapes judicial retribution; the shooter doesn't care about heroism -- however deluded such a conception of heroism might be -- and doesn't appear to be motivated by anything resembling a clear ideology (except perhaps the most brooding, escapist sort of nihilism -- although this shooter seems to have been dedicated to working for public welfare programs). Many people passionately believe suicide is a sin. And there's a frightening -- if not subconsciously-perceived -- similarity to the suicide attacks that we hear about in Iraq.

What could promote those feelings of helplessness here in America which one might otherwise presume to find among suicide bombers over there in Iraq, where citizens have been brutalized for decades by dictatorship, sanctions, war, and occupation? We live in a first-world nation, not a war zone.

To me, it is frighteningly indicative of what despairs such a shooter might have felt when I consider what it might mean to starving or homeless families that 50% of the world's military spending is by America's 5% of the world's population; or what it means to disenfranchised voters or children missing a parent that the United States has as many people behind bars as China and Russia combined. How many people are trapped in indentured servitude to pay off student loans, credit debt, or bad mortgages? How many people lost their retirement when they were laid off, when the dot-com bubble burst, when Enron imploded, when the housing market crumbled? How many people work two jobs but still can't make ends meet? What would the inflation rate be if food and fuel costs were factored in?

Why should anybody be made to feel like a piece of meat manipulated by some bean-counter somewhere with a spreadsheet?

Where I live, televisions have recently been installed on the city busses. There are three televisions on each bus; typical programming on these televisions includes yesterday's weather, news and entertainment headlines, 3-minute cooking shows, inane word puzzles, and an occasionally-crippled route map. And advertisements: frequently for no-name companies asking you to text them arbitrary strings of numbers from your cellphone.

These televisions also speak and play music over the bus's intercom, making it difficult to read a book. The exterior of the busses are sometimes painted over with advertisements, so it's difficult to even look out the windows. You can talk on a cellphone if you talk loud enough so nobody else can think.

On its website, the company responsible for the televisions boasts to prospective advertisers:

"Transit TV's unique medium and compelling programming offer a truly captive audeince [sic.] -- no channel changing, no DVR's -- maximum impact for your message."

A truly captive audience
: yes, we are treated as captives even on our way home from work. This is how we are regarded by those who fight for our eyeballs, our pocketbooks, our hearts and our minds.

Although we are raised to believe we live in a republic governed by law-abiding and democratically-elected representatives, we often find ourselves voiceless, powerless, repressed or ignored. Our minds have been occupied and our bodies entrapped: we must try not to be personally offended by affronts to our dignity perpetrated by systemic blindnesses, even as we are systematically alienated -- by identity politics, psychoanalysis, bureaucracies, and institutions -- from the effects of our own lives and from the most profound questions of self-determination from the time we become old enough to think a bit for ourselves.

Politicians rarely speak about citizens any longer -- we are more important as consumers: corporatist serfs rather than citizen electors. We are only seen insofar as we are seen as consumers: predictable statistical constructs defined by feudal corporations. The role of our legislature has been relegated to managing our demographics for the corporate policy-makers, in strict accordance with the tyranny of statisticians and bureaucrats trained in the blind rituals of quantitative reasoning. Our strings are tugged by nationalist rhetoric in the interest of multinational corporations who owe no national allegiances whatsoever.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher in large part responsible for our modern conception of a constitutional republic, suggested that "the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery."

Psychological captivity would seem to be a complex pathology. We see the symptoms more clearly than the cause: the language of disease is familiar, the image plain. We can readily find ways to identify with those who are victimized by straightforward afflictions.

It is easier to identify with young university students filled with potential than it is to identify with the Afghan children about whom General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked: "It is unfortunate that the cluster bombs -- the unexploded ones -- are the same color as the food packets. Unfortunately, they get used to running to yellow."

Even as we offer our sympathies to the victims of this awful crime, and the families of the victims, we should keep in mind that our public discourse about these events will leave important questions unasked -- or decided by numbers long after this story has left the headlines, or incoherent amidst a multitude of obscure details.

The causes for such events are complex, and the despair that makes such actions seem reasonable is not limited to sensational expressions of destructive discontent. We are not made aware of these events for objective or disinterested reasons, nor because it is in each of our best interest to have accounts of such events periodically thrust before us.

Somehow the failure to understand these things is our own failure -- for these events were not random, but rather, performed in a deliberate fashion. Yet the meaning escapes us, and we find only the fierce competition among those who would tell us what this all means. And should this have truly been a random occurrence, for all our analysis it may not in the end be possible for us to know any more sense in these horrors than any among those who witnessed them first-hand.

As we offer up our sympathies to those who have suffered here, we should remember that the shooter too was human and deserving of our sympathies, as this would seem to have been an individual tormented in some way -- whose last thoughts were some terminal nightmare, and whose parting deeds defy all logic. And yet, we can't rightly say what this man will find in the next world.

And though he may not see judicial retribution, we must also remember that justice is not the same as retribution, but rather, that harmony which makes retribution unnecessary.

The rapid police response at Northwestern Illinois University should demonstrate this is not at its core an enforcement issue, but some social problem that is not being adequately addressed in our public discourse. Perhaps the social problem is not that too many people can buy guns, but that too many people want to buy guns. Perhaps the fault here is not with numbers or procedures, but with where we look for faults in the first place.