Uncomfortable Conversations: Children And The Bad News

On Friday morning, I finally faced the kind of problem I had heard many other parents make note of: how do you talk about the horrifying in the presence of children? On Thursday night, I had gone to sleep after reading the news reports on the murders in Nice, and on waking up, wanted to discuss them with my wife (who had gone to bed earlier than I had, tired and worn out after a long day’s work and then, an exhausting putting-to-bed session with our daughter.) But mornings are occupied with preparing our daughter to get ready for ‘camp’; and I did not want to initiate conversation about Nice with my wife with my daughter listening.

There was, after all, no way to sanitize the descriptions of what had just happened in Nice. I would have to say something like “someone ran over people in France in a truck, killing men, women, and children.” My daughter has given enough indications, recently, of understanding what ‘killing’ means–bizarrely enough, children’s story books involving animals and hunters have introduced her to this concept. She has also been introduced to notion of someone ‘dying’–via a pair of recent conversations about safety on the roads and the death of a beloved pet belonging to my brother’s family. She probably would not be able to figure out the full horror of the killings in Nice from my quick description of it to my wife, but I was still nervous that enough would get through to confuse her severely just before she left for the day.

Besides, I did not want to just stop at informing my wife of the news: I want to fulminate, to agonize, to express shock and anxiety at what seemed to be yet another installment in an insanity slowly building to a world-wide crescendo–and none of that was going to be ‘suitable’ for my child. Over and above the cuss words, my daughter would hear the fear and worry in our voices–and perhaps even sense it in our bodies from the expressions on our faces and our body language–and be driven to anxiousness and insecurity herself. And so I waited till she was gone, artfully avoiding a moment of confrontation that will not be postponed too long.

There is little I can do to protect my daughter–my most precious ‘possession’–from the world she is preparing to enter. I agonized over the decision to have a child in the first place, an unsurprising reaction to the prospect of bringing up innocents in a world apparently going to hell in a handbasket. Days like yesterday introduce a severe cognitive dissonance then: what have I done? Perhaps the only consolation I can offer myself is that last week I took my daughter up to the Atlantic coast in Maine, where she saw sights  that will hopefully retain their vividness as she grows up, providing an acute counterpoint of natural beauty to the ugly man-made horrors  that will continue to force themselves into her consciousness. At those moments of remembrance of the pleasures of childhood, I hope she will forgive me for exposing her to all else this world holds in store for her.

The Intimacies Of Mass Killings

There is an added dimension of the gruesome, the visceral, in reading reports about mass killings where the immediacy and intimacy of the deaths involved becomes apparent. Tales of bombings of distant lands are remote, colorless, obscure, and abstracted; there is a distant plume of smoke, perhaps a spectacular pillar of flame, a mound of rubble; we are told dozens died, but we see no bodies. There are, in the end, only numbers. We cannot even imagine the violence unless we see the mangled and charred remains of the bodies of the dead. Bombs and missiles do their work relatively anonymously, thus ensuring vital cover and protection for their perpetrators and for those who would employ them in their political policies.

Matters change with shootings.  A gun connects the shooter, the killer, with his or her victim; it establishes an intimate bond between them. The killer can see the victims’ expressions of fear and resignation, hear their pleas for mercy, and finally, see bullets do their deadly work, their impact immediately visible and manifest. This final, fatal, scene can be easily imagined; it may come to haunt our waking and sleeping hours as we mentally place ourselves in a similar situation. Watching videos of the street outside the Bataclan Theater in Paris where ISIS’ killers struck last November, you can hear the sound of gunshots as the assassins went about their work; you can conjure up horrible visions of what lay beyond the closed doors of the entertainment venue turned slaughterhouse. You pray for quick bullets and easy death, for no extended bleedings to death, for no charades involving the begging for, and the denial of, mercy.

And there is the horror of what happened last night in Nice where a killer drove a truck for over a mile through a crowd of human beings–men, women, and children. Heavy vehicles driven at speed do terrible damage to a human body; they are heavy, they possess momentum, they destroy bone and tissue and vital organ function effortlessly. Moreover, the truck’s entry into the crowd would have created a stampede of sorts; many of victims would have been run over and crushed after they had been knocked down by someone else fleeing to get away from the vehicle of death. The shock and horror of what happened is, sadly, all too imaginable; the screams of the scared and the wounded would have rent the night; the horror of the crushed and mangled bodies would have been starkly visible; the killer would have felt the bumps of the bodies as he drove over them, seen the terror of those he drove towards.

In a terrible irony of sorts, the massacre last night took place during Bastille Day celebrations–a commemoration of the singular revolutionary event that set France on the long road to becoming a post-monarchical republic. Yesterday’s act was a counterrevolutionary act; it threatens to hand over France–and possibly even the US–to the forces of reaction, to those who will heed its dangerous call to escalate a war against the wrong enemies.

Mass Shootings, Gun Control, And Masculinity

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. There is a great deal of truth in this, er, truism. But having acknowledged that, one can then move on to ask: why do so many people kill people in the US? What are the factors at play in the network of actors and causes and effects that produce, as a grim unblinking result, an epidemic of shootings–two campus shootings so far on this Friday–and a steadily growing heap of corpses?

Gun control advocates–and I am one of them–think that the answer must include the ready availability of guns of all kinds in the US. The NRA and its allies would have us look everywhere but the regulation of guns. I’m going to join them today. What else could it be then?

One pat conservative answer–as typified in Bobby Jindal‘s verbal assault on the father of the Roseburg shooter and Wayne LaPierre‘s response to the Sandy Hook massacre–is the kind of moral degradation conservatives have been bemoaning for years: unwed mothers, children with missing fathers, teenage pregnancy, drug use, video games, the ‘gay lifestyle,’ atheism, premarital sex–the usual harbingers of the apocalypse. In this theoretical framework, the mass shooter is merely the end product of a social pathology which disdains individual responsibility, which is self-indulgent and narcissistic, and which finds ultimate violent expression in nihilistic assaults on the social order. Cure these social ills; bring back prayer in schools; strike the fear of God into all; and then watch these mass shooters fade away quietly, content to read a holy book and go for long walks with their large families.

I agree with this diagnosis in part. Social pathology is to blame for the itchy trigger finger. (The lack of gun control supplies the gun for the finger.) But the pathology I have in mind has other shades to it. There is here, a masculinity that is reared on violence, on an understanding of itself that is dangerously limiting and limited, and which is always fearful of failure in the sexual dimension. The kinds of men this masculinity produces are all too often, angry, lonely, misogynistic, resentful, and scared.  In the pathology I have in mind, these men see themselves as mere atoms in a sea of other human atoms; they are told, relentlessly, that they must be ‘heroic individuals’ and ‘self-made men’; they are instructed that to take help–or give it–is a sign of weakness; it is not in keeping with the ‘frontier spirit’ which made this nation. Militaristic images surround them; soldiers–men with guns–are heroes; war, just another contact sport, is a testing ground for manhood; combat still a rite of initiation;  violence is pornographic. Their imagination finds ample inspiration in this imagery.  They experience an acute dissonance; this world provides as much evidence for its most sympathetic understandings as it does for its cruelest. They still crave the gentlest of human sentiments, but they know that to manifest this need will be considered evidence of failure as a man.

They have failed; they are strangers in a strange land. They have no more need of it, and those who live in it. They won’t go quietly; they’ll let everyone know how this world failed them. Because it made them feel like failures. And kept guns handy for them.

Note: On re-reading some of my older posts on ‘gun control’ I realize I’m reiterating themes I have touched on before. So be it. These shootings repeat themselves too.

Black Lives Don’t Matter In Charleston

Gore Vidal once said that it was mighty convenient John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King had all been killed by loners, by curiously isolated killers, who just happened to not be part of a broader conspiracy.

Same as it ever was.

A lone gunman shot nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last night. The victims were black; the gunman white. The predictable, boring, American conversation about gun control will now take place and fizzle out; calls to have a ‘conversation about race’ will be made; many folks will point out the double standards employed by the media when reporting on attacks by Muslims and African-Americans (or any other threatening minority). This is all depressingly familiar. So desperate has the business of gun control become that I suspect some folks might actually wish for a mass shooting to be conducted by a Muslim or African-American person just so that the NRA and its right-wing allies could be galvanized into accepting some form of firearm regulation.

How could this come to be? What could possibly have motivated the gunman? South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, who as Chase Madar pointed out, likes to fly the Confederate flag in the state capital, claims that  “‘we’ll never understand what motivates’ the massacre in Charleston.” Au contraire. We know or can surmise with reasonable certainty the following about this latest installment in America’s long, dark, double-barreled, automatic loading nightmare: The gunman was a racist, one infected by paranoia and prejudice, who had easy access to guns. He was possessed by rage, he had the means with which to give expression to the rage.

There is, of course, another dimension to the white rage on display. Over the past year or so, white ragers could not have failed to notice that black folks have gotten awfully uppity. They relentlessly document police shootings and make those videos go viral; they march and protest; they block traffic; they lie down on the street and play dead, all the while chanting stuff like “I can’t breathe“; they level one damning accusation after another of systemic racism at this country’s political, economic and social institutions; heck, they’ve even come up with a hashtag about how their ‘lives matter.’ This constant blaming, this futile dredging through past ills like slavery and the denial of the vote and lynching and red-lining is deeply counterproductive; it prevents us from moving onwards to a consideration of which bankers’ pet will be on television most for the next sixteen months, all the while filling our airwaves with vapid promises and extravagant claims to keep this country safe from overseas threats.

The man who stepped into the church yesterday and let fly might have had enough; perhaps the anger on display in the marches and protests was unsettling; perhaps the constant calls to police the police, those folks who guard him against the advancing forces of blackness, had made him fearful.

He wasn’t alone in his feelings, and he won’t be the last one to act out his fear by exercising his Second Amendment rights.

A Couple of Reflections Prompted by Sandy Hook

Yesterday, on Facebook, I reposted a link to a post I had written here in response to the Aurora shootings in July. You could change the title of the post slightly to reference ‘Sandy Hook’ rather than ‘Aurora’ and nothing else would need changing. This morning, still clearly unable to write anything coherent in response, I posted the following three messages on my Twitter feed and Facebook page:

Guns don’t come up with half-assed arguments against gun control. People do.

Guns aren’t scared of the NRA. People are.

Guns don’t say after every tragedy: “Lets mourn, no time to talk politics’. People do.

You get the picture; I’m still not capable of making a reasoned contribution to the ‘national debate’ on gun-related violence.

But I do want to make a couple of points about the nature of the ‘debate’, such as it is.

The first is prompted by the third quip above. For an outstanding feature of the political response to the sickeningly common and soon-to-be-mundane massacres is the loudly broadcasted call to immediately seek refuge in bromides and palliatives: the usual mix of mourning, counseling, holding hands, which is supposed to bridge political divides, apply ‘healing balms’ and bring peace to all us traumatized folks. There is never, ever, seemingly any desire evinced by our political classes to prevent the recurrence of the massacres, for they are, as noted before, inevitable. This call is then faithfully parroted by the media (always at its ghoulish worst in its coverage of these kinds of tragedies). This is what I’d much rather see the next time: ditch the candlelight vigil and tell your local politician, congressman, senator, or anyone else that matters that they don’t get your vote unless they start a ‘national conversation’ about guns. Or something else. (The broad similarity of this call to the calls that electoral disputes be settled quickly so that the nation’s citizens don’t get embroiled in something as messy as a politically tinged dispute, one that might produce a little heat and light, is unmistakable and not coincidental. As always, the most important thing is to keep citizens numb, not provoked. God forbid that a difficult issue be aired in all its complexity and that the inevitable disputes it provokes be allowed to get a decent hearing.)

The second is prompted by noticing how mental health is sought as an obfuscatory factor in this debate.  That is, a familiar slogan soon starts making the rounds in two variants: one, ‘this is a mental health issue, not a gun issue’ and second ‘people will find a way to kill people, so banning a particular weapon is unlikely to bring these massacres to a halt.’   These are particularly egregious; they amount, roughly, to saying that no actions need be taken that might make it more difficult for mentally deranged people to go on brutally effective and successful killing sprees. We can control the damage done by the insane by treating them and by making sure they cannot lay their hands on dangerous weapons. The two are not mutually exclusive.

It is truly amazing that a nation, so willing to put up with the evisceration of its civil liberties in order to guard against shadowy, poorly understood threats from elsewhere, is unwilling to countenance the most minor of inconveniences in order to guard against a clearly visible threat from within.

The Snowtown Murders: John Bunting and his Barrels

Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders) is one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever seen. It took me three viewings to finish watching it: I called the first one off because the accumulated horror and dismay had become too much; I restarted it hours later, stopped again after a few minutes, and then finally, on the third viewing, went all the way to the end. I was apprehensive about starting the movie again and was relieved, very, when the closing titles began. So, Snowtown is a hard movie to sit through. Is it any good? Answering this question seems to be required of anyone that writes on it, so let me answer with a brief ‘Yes.’ Indeed, I might watch it again. That won’t make it any easier though.

Most notably, Snowtown is as brutal as it is because the series of killings that are the subject of the movie are enabled by human manipulation. Wills are broken before bodies are; this is the story of those who kill, and those who help them kill. And this is why the image of Jamie Vlassakis, who was convicted of four of the eleven ‘Snowtown murders’ with John Bunting, is portrayed so prominently on the movie’s posters: Bunting  had accomplices, those that he talked into aiding him in his horrific acts, those that found, in aiding Bunting, some way of connecting with a world they felt themselves cut off from. Their manipulation is as much centerpiece of the movie as the murders and can be just as disturbing. There aren’t any happy endings in the movie, those that could make any of this manipulation worthwhile.

There is overt violence in Snowtown: stranglings, torture and rape. But there is violence of another kind too, that of verbal manipulation and abuse, the slow, relentless, corrosion of lives–humans can not just terminate other humans’ lives but also distort and warp them. Movies about serial killers are, at their best, deeply unsettling glimpses into a netherworld of psychological affliction and pathology, one in which standard conceptions of our fellow humans fail to find purchase. But their effectiveness relies on their portrayal being realistic enough to engage us  so that we cannot merely mock them as monsters through the bars of their cages. What makes Snowtown work is the almost-documentary-like feel of a particular kind of modern suburban life, documents we’ve seen before and come to associate with the pathology on display: the slow, decaying tableaux of video games and televisions in frumpy living-rooms, of grim supermarkets and small-town streets, and most of all, the seemingly aimless, yet chilling, conversations that animate them.  (Every good director devises a palette of colors all his own; Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel employs a ghastly grey and dark scheme that works as a visual metaphor for the slow bleaching out of life). One of the most horrifying thoughts triggered by Snowtown is that our modern lives and worlds are full of settings like these, theaters in training for the acts showcased here.

Aurora is All-American, Grimly So

I consider myself to have some facility with words but I’m struggling today to find a term that will describe a political debate that has progressed to the point where the most perspicuous contributions to it are made by satirists, cartoonists and professional humorists. (Should all political debates be so blessed? I wonder.)  The ‘debate’–for reasons of accuracy, I must enclose that term in quotes before proceeding–that I refer to is the so-called ‘relationship between gun control laws and mass murder in the US debate.’ The Onion is first out of the blocks in responding to the Aurora shootings, quickly taking the lead, and it is closely followed by Tom Tomorrow (that link is the response to the Tucson shootings last year, in which fact one might find some resonance with the content of this post today). Having read those two, one is done.

For yes, the endlessly repetitive discussion is upon us again, its numerical parameters tweaked to accommodate its toll of the dead and wounded, with its inevitable grief counseling, Presidential consolations, NRA push-backs and hyperventilating television anchors to follow. And all too soon, we will settle back into our seats, waiting for the next time the New York Times will break out the 18-point font to let us know ammunition manufacturer stock prices have gone up again. As the penguin says, putting up with these mass killings–in one form or another, sometimes as audience, sometimes as participant–is the price we have to pay for living in this nation of ours. It’s a tax, one that won’t be up for repeal any time soon.

The mass murderers come from everywhere and anywhere; their backgrounds straddle ethnic and class divides; sometimes they ‘go postal’, sometimes they ‘go academic’; sometimes they are black, sometimes white, sometimes Asian; they are young, and they are old; sometimes they did badly in school, sometimes they were academic overachievers; they kill when they are laid-off and they kill when they are employed; they kill in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas, Chicago, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, California, Alabama, North Carolina, Washington, North Illinois, Nebraska (from sea to shining sea?); they kill rich, poor, student, mother, father, daughter, son, all alike; they use all kinds of guns, ranging from simple hunting rifles to high-powered assault gear suitable for invading oil-rich emirates; they kill in shopping centers, university campuses, movie houses, prayer services, high schools; they kill strangers, they kill family members, they kill fellow-workers and students, they kill the young and they kill the old; sometimes they turn themselves in, sometimes they kill themselves, sometimes they get shot. It’s a melting pot, if there ever was one.

In years to come, perhaps it will become a true American rite of passage: you’ve either carried out a massacre yourself, been a survivor of one, or know someone who is a victim or survivor of one. Perhaps in these so-called divisive times, the murderous violence of the gun-toting mass killer will bring us all together, united in blood-soaked gunpowder and attendance at a memorial service.

As American as apple pie? How passé. As American as a loaded ammo belt and a rifle with a scope.