Friday, February 8, 2008

Suicidal Times

Something has been bothering me lately. This is going to get into some pretty dark territory pretty fast, I suspect, so if you are here for the Blog Snark Spak (TM), you might want to try back later.

I did two stories today about shootings. One of them was actually pretty ridiculous. Quick version: The good people of Tempe, Arizona won't let this poor guy start his castle-themed bar, so, he concludes, the only answer is to take an assault rifle to the Super Bowl and open fire. In his mind, this has something to do with the revolution, class warfare, and quite possibly Hitler. Beforehand, he mails threatening shit to the news networks. In the end he decides not to do it though, so it's okay to laugh.

Other story? Less funny. We know virtually nothing yet, but the short version is that a nursing student walked into a full college classroom, shot exactly two women dead, and then turned the gun on herself.

The thing about that story? It's not that shocking. You'd like to be shocked, and maybe the details (Woman! Nurse!) intrigue, but ultimately, the series of events is just too common. Too scripted.

I don't know if the Columbine kids wrote this script, but they certainly popularized it. Ever since we've had a steady diet of psychopathic egomaniacs going on killing sprees with no intention of living through them.

And, if we're being honest, there's some comfort in this script. There is the shocking senselessness of it, of course, but there is also instant closure. There is no killer loose. He (or, yes, in this case, she) has in effect given himself the death penalty, but without sullying the conscience of those of us who aren't crazy about the death penalty.

This is, of course, a trick of story telling. Few, I'm sure, have the same reaction to suicide bombings, even though they are the exact same thing. The shooting allows the comfort of narrative - evil act followed by self destruction, as though one was caused by the other, instead of being part and parcel as they always were. Suicide bombings, with their single moment of mutual destruction, tell the true story. The suicide and the killing are in both cases one act, and in both, the killer is triumphant.

But I digress. The point is that somewhere in the last, say 20 years, suicide became the preferred escape route for killers everywhere, particularly those who projected their anger on large societal groups or forces. It's an astonishingly bleak development, and one that we haven't yet wrapped our societal consciousness around.

School shooters and terrorists are astonishingly similar phenomenons, happening at the same time, despite radically different breeding grounds. There are differences - the terrorists, of course, believe some ridiculous reward awaits them, something I'm sure the school shooting crowd has few illusions about. But both acts reveal a deep overriding hopelessness and aimlessness. In both cases, the rage so overpowers that some unrelated persons can be held accountable for your ills. In both cases, the culprits want to spill what the would-be Super Bowl killer so lucidly called "the blood of innocents," because they are perceived as representative of some larger societal enemy.

Is there something about our age that is fundamentally hopeless? Or, rather, breeds hopelessness? Perhaps.

In the US, so many are doing so well that all social ills are background noise, problems, maybe, but not ones to be dealt with on a serious level. Our political discourse, when it verges on substantive issues at all, focuses on shuffling around half percentage points in complicated appropriations bills. Gone are the days of FDR, when the country could move and respond to the world. There are no new deals coming. Gone too are the days of Kennedy, when the sky seemed to be the limit, when science seemed to be accomplishing ever greater things. Now, technology has been reduced to hand held gadgets, and no one is seriously dreaming about flying cars, jet packs and life in outer space. Mass media has made us fully aware of how hollow all our heroes are, how corrupt our government is. We live in an age without legends or heroes.

In the rest of the developing world, US power is unbreakable and unreachable. An enemy so distant as to be unreal seems daily to be behind some evil (real or perceived), all while its people revel in total ignorant bliss, lapping up the pleasures of the world, and, of course, listening to the devil music and letting their kids walk around half naked.

Maybe it has always been this hopeless, but again, in the past, it was probably harder to know. And, you know, society has gotten steadily better over the last few hundred years, at least in our neck of the woods, so at some point, people had to feel some kind of overriding optimism, right?

And maybe it's wrong to attribute all this to societal forces, because surely, psychopaths of all stripes are moved most by the winds of their own lives, the private bubbles of desperation they build for themselves.

But I think the rash of suicide killings cannot be a coincidence. Enemies of society generally romanticize themselves, but in ages past they have tended to strive to escape, live to fight another day, because intrinsic in this was the hope that another day would bring victory. Today's unabombers don't see a point in dealing with the mail - they see no hope for survival, and no hope for victory.

And okay, maybe it's a little weird to sit here wondering how to give hope to killers and psychopaths and terrorists. Maybe that is the other comfort in the suicide bombing: killers knowing they can't win.

Why doesn't that feel like comfort?

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