I wanted to put down a few thoughts on this week’s shooting spree in Colorado at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll try to put them down freely, without my usual self-obsessed care. But I’ll fail at that. I’m a self-obsessed man from a self-obsessed culture.
In the wake of this tragedy – ha, we know the drill, don’t we? We reflexively use the requisite sound bites: “in the wake of this tragedy”. The cliches come pouring out. Even the accounts of the victims become cliches: “I heard a popping sound”, “He just started shooting”, “I tried to get behind — “, “I saw someone lying on the ground”. It all paints the same spine-tingling picture, a kind of sentimental poetry of violence. But in the wake of this tragedy, the search for answers begins, the national debate begins, and we’ve heard it all before and done it all before. It’s as if the entire country is on autopilot, moving step by step by step through a predetermined media pseudo-grief drill. Attractive people on television will moderate discussions on gun control, on media violence. They will be moving through the same hypnotized routine, repeating scripts, emphasizing talking points. And each player in this mass, nationwide psychodrama will be using the mass murder to further his or her own agenda. There will be talk of “Why?”, “How did it happen?” But that will all be secondary to the pushing of agendas. Silence would be most appropriate, I guess – not a minute of silence, but days of it, a month of silence – a month of contemplation and grief.
We do this, we Americans. We go on sprees. We go on shopping sprees. We go on dieting sprees. We go on exercise sprees. One of the great inaugural American sprees was the mass murder by Charles Whitman, a student at University Of Texas at Austin, not terribly far from my birthplace. In 1966, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 more, with a rifle from the top of the university’s bell tower. “Ladybird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, graduated from the university, as did former First Lady Laura Bush and Mostafa Chamran, a Defense Minister of Iran.
I like violent stories. I write violent stories. I like Macbeth and Clive Barker and the history of medieval torture. I like Lawrence Of Arabia and The Wild Bunch and Dawn Of The Dead and Tom And Jerry. Being immersed in the violent action, then somehow surviving it, surmounting it, analyzing it, seems to give my animal brain a sense of power. And power, or the illusion of power, is what that animal brain craves most of all. To the animal brain, power means all the food, all the sex, and all the years that ever were or could be. The animal brain doesn’t know that these things are impossible to have. The animal brain believes it’s possible to have everything and an infinite supply of everything. The animal brain has faith.
America was founded on this idea that there was an infinite amount of everything and it could all be yours. European settlers arrived in a completely uninhabited land – not a human soul on the whole continent – no, not a single one. The only thing that stood in your way was Mother Nature. And through the power of your own will, vision, courage, faith, you could have anything and everything you wanted. It was all there in front of you in raw form. If you had the talent to shape it, there was nothing that you couldn’t have.
“I can make the world in my own image” is the American Dream. This is the American Tragedy too – the certainty that I am separate from the world. This belief is the prime motivator behind all American civilization. It’s the thing that got Charles Whitman to kill his wife and mother, then head up to the top of the belltower.
This separation of self from the world – the separation of me from nature, separation of me from the spirit, separation of me from my fellow human, separation of me from my self – is what has made America great. You can’t have a world empire without believing that you are separate from the world – superior, or worse maybe, than others. Or that your God is different from other Gods. The American success story is built on two ideas: Glorification of self and objectification of the other.
If I can objectify you, then I can conquer you, I can buy and sell you, I can blow second hand smoke in your face or believe that Likeing your Facebook status is meaningful contact, I can kill, I can ignore science and reason, I can disbelieve my eyes, I can destroy the future of my children, and more with no sense of any consequences. I can believe there is an infinite amount of what I want and that I can have all of it. Any crime becomes possible. And history has shown over and over that objectification of the other goes hand in hand with atrocity whether you’re shooting American Bison from a train, drawing up plans for gas ovens, drone warfare and human enslavemet. Or firing bullets into human-shaped targets in a movie theater.
Japan has for years had a far more violent media culture than the US. Japan brought us “Battle Royale”. In “Battle Royale”, school kids fight to the death on a remote island while the world watches, yet there have been no “Battle Royale” copycat killings. We know that violence in media is not the cause of random acts of senseless violence. We know it’s not the availability of guns either. Truye, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, but Switzerland and Finland also have a high gun ownership. What Japan, Switzerland and Finland lack is a 300 year old culture celebrating the triumph of the self over its environment. Although this culture, the culture of narcissism, is America’s biggest export and it has begun to deform other cultures, reshaping them in its image.
I do not own a gun and do not ever plan to. But it just doesn’t stack up that the source of American violence is the number of firearms available. I think it’s rather the other way around. The obsession with the inviolable “Me” and dread of “The Other” stokes the desire for guns – and for money, for food, for entertainment, for guarantees of absolute safety, for immortality, for super-heroes who will kill and die in your name – and the more you cling to security and protection, the more insecure and vulnerable you feel.
Already, various special interests are using this latest Colorado shooting to promote their own agendas – as I am probably doing here. It’s unnerving – the stampede to again find enemies, to again and again point to a problem outside the self, the elimination of which will solve everything. As Einstein famously said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”
But there is no desire to solve the problem. The media conversation that will judder on over the coming weeks will resemble that of a confronted narcissist – heavy on self-justification and blame and really slick sounding. Seeking personal humility and self-honesty and striving for the unity of ourselves with our fellow creatures, our world, our own futures would mean an assault on the fabric of American Civilization – of Western Civilization. And this civilization is well-armed and obsessed and will not be stopped.
Orwell, as usual, describes our situation with pinpoint accuracy. From 1984:
“A world of fear and treachery in torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy, everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. “