Monday, January 10, 2011

'Natural Born Assassins'

From the moment I woke up yesterday morning, I knew it would turn out to be a strange day. Nothing I did or said yesterday seemed to make much sense, and then when I got home from workshop and was writing my entry, I begin to hear the story break on the shooting in Tucson from the television in the other room. As I was writing, I was listening to little bits of information coming over the news, and stopped from time to time to confer with my brother, who always flips from channel to channel, but the news was relatively the same, eighteen people shot in Tucson by a twenty-two year old man who had written rambling essays on the internet.

When I finished my entry for yesterday, I went into my own room and began to listen to the story. The first thing I always notice about news like this, is the choice of words from the media to characterize what happened and what is currently happening. If you remember, when the nine-eleven story broke years ago, the major story of the day before-was the murder of Sandra Levy, the young intern who had been having an affair with a congressman, and that story had been lingering for weeks. When nine eleven broke, suddenly newsrooms were filled with experts, journalists, and members of society that you had never heard of before... So as not to chase a rabbit down into the ground of the twin towers, my point is that when a story breaks of any significance, it is something akin to a feeding frenzy. It's as if everyone in the media has been starving and choking, trying to survive on the little bit of death, mayhem, politics, and drama that they given. And then, suddenly there is so much food that they just can't contain the impulse to gorge themselves, trying to eat it all at once. The language is peppered with all the sympathetic rhetoric in their vocabularies, some doing it much better than others. And now the race will begin between them all, dissecting, gorging and spitting out details until there is nothing left but bones, and then they will make soup.

Of course, politics is the variable that seems to be a part of every news story in modern times, and I noticed that this story was more of the same, from the political pundits to journalists all over the world, quickly taking advantage of the moment, and the idea that this mass murder was politically motivated, expounding on conspiracy theories and political rhetoric, trying to make some immediate sense of it all. All of the media outlets begin the mad scramble to interview anybody having any thing to do with the story, from 'eye witnesses' to friends and neighbors of the wounded and deceased, and, what they love to do, find and create heroes.

Last summer, I found in one of my many boxes of random items, the movie by Michael Moore, 'Bowling for Columbine'. It was the deluxe edition, with interviews, award shows, and parts of the story that didn't make the final cut of the actual film. It is a film that stays with you for days, and although I'd seen it before, now I had the time to think about it. The information that stayed with me the longest, was the irony that on the very day of this horrible shooting, the US had employed a bombing in Bosnia that had produced a vast number of casualties, many of them civilians, calling it 'collateral damage'. There were many ironies to the story, another being that one of the largest weapons manufacturing plants, I believe, Boeing, was right there close to the neighborhood where the shooting had taken place. The publicist of the company, could not make the correlation between the two events happening simultaneously, and it was pretty shocking to watch and hear.

So, last night, not being able to sleep, I found another documentary on Klebold and Harris, the two shooters in the killing at Columbine. It was a compelling documentary, filled with footage of the two making movies, diary entries, drawings, and conversations between them. Four months before that shooting, Klebold was the sound operator for a school play, something I could relate to, having spent ten years in an arts high school where I witnessed many a troubled youth. There was footage of him respectfully listening to the drama teacher, and the film pointed out how knowledgeable he was at all things technical. I always had my 'tech' kids too, and many of them wore trench coats, strange hats, and wore black clothing. (the trench coat is often part of the 'theatre kid's' attire) Many of my students said strange things, listened to speed metal and Marilyn Manson, but none of them killed their high school classmates. The film did point out the gray area in the thinking of these two, that area where fantasy mixed with reality, and the possible inability to distinguish the two. It was also interesting to listen to the FBI profiler, who pointed out that each one of them had personality disorders that independently probably would not have caused an actual killing, but together, the collective disorders created a perfect storm for murder and suicide. As I looked at the footage, and studied the content of the movies they were making, as shocking as they may have been to some, it was fairly typical in theme to me. I've watched many a short film made by high school students whose subject matter was similar. Being misunderstood, bullying, negotiating and navigating a clique mentality, unrequited love, violence, racism, the subjects which many high school students think about. I'm still baffled at what caused them to eventually act out their angst, but I do know that all of these issues mixed with a strong enough penchant for suicide, throw in some extreme narcissism, get some really powerful weapons, and you have the right climate for some possible shocking action. Usually, it's a single suicide or a drug overdose. I was a troubled kid with some similar issues, but I don't believe I had the narcissistic tendencies I could see in studying these two young men. I was a kid who had self-esteem issues, trying to change the equation with alcohol and other substances.

I also hung out with other troubled kids, many of them now dead or in prison. I experienced a lot of extremes, from thinking about suicide to believing I was immortal. (Okay, some narcissism). When I was in elementary and junior high school, I spent many an hour drawing war scenarios, my ships and war scenes peppered with swastikas and bloody wounds. I wrote poems about death and addiction. My best friend had become a master thief before we ever got to high school, so there was always bottles of liquor to fuel my angst. My friend's father was an abusive alcoholic, and often 'my friend' would show up at my house with bruises or black eyes, inflicted by his father. Along with the robberies we meticulously planned out, we also at one time planned his father's demise. I hesitate to use 'murder', only because when we discussed it, we felt justified. That's a fact I'm only revealing because I was willing to do anything to help my friend not have to suffer these beatings. We never carried it out, but we did fantasize about it, and I know he did much more so than I did. He and I were also a perfect storm of eventually ending up dead or in prison. (He did for a several years.) We used drugs and drank to cope with our lack of power. And that really is what a lot of it is, if you are violently captured in a continual cycle of abuse, its not a far step to think you would eventually try to stop it.

These two kids, Klebold and Harris, were not abused by their parents, (if anything they were ignored) but they were certainly abused by their school peers, which is a fairly common occurrence, especially in a large high school. There is footage of them walking down a hall and being pushed out of the way by the jocks of the school, which is a cliché, and not at all uncommon. They also had access to weapons of mass destruction, or guns that can kill very quickly and methodically. My scenario was a bit different, because we fought back in a much different way, and we were pretty tough kids. My friend, was especially tough, you would be too if you had consistently been beaten by your father. He protected me like I was a young mafia boss walking around with a pit bull. If anyone said or did anything to me, they would very quickly be in a confrontation with him. If he was not there, I learned to also fight my own battles. Even the jocks thought better of pushing us out of the way. But it was also a period before guns became a source of power for teenagers. We did have guns, but they were not for killing.

I was watching the news this morning, as they interviewed one of his college teachers. (Fox news called him professor.) It was not a great interview, and I wasn't actually in the class room, but it sounded like Jarod Loughner was speaking out in class, and answering questions with answers that had nothing to do with the question. This is more common than one would think, I had plenty of students who did the same thing. (Remember, I taught at an 'art school' where many of the students were teenagers whose parents did not know what to do with them.) I had students who were anarchists, addicts, (or in recovery) revolutionists, emotionally disturbed, etc. I also had students who were brilliant but troubled, and certainly students who were there because they were really good students and artistically inclined. The point is, there are always those students that you worry about. There is always that student who will speak out in class. They will test you, test themselves, and test their peers. Being a teenager is a really tough age to get through, (for seemingly different reasons now, but let's face it, whatever the day and age, there is a universality of being a teenager, but there are some differences now). We live in a day and an age where many of the kids were from one parent homes, or living with a friend. One of my favorite students lived in a group home because she had been taken out of her home by CPS because she was abused. It's tougher than it has ever been to be a teenager. I'm certainly not condoning the actions of this young man, what I am saying is that how and why teenagers make it into their twenties is partially a mystery, because for many of them, (including myself) there isn't any logic to their survival.

Amongst many revelations in this story, is the idea that it is politically motivated, and this young man was making a political statement. It doesn't seem to me that he was a political genius or a strategist, just someone who was had reached a point of some real mental illness, and someone who began to believe in his own fantasies. Leave it to the politicians and the media to make it totally political. History is littered with assassins whose reason are convoluted, whose reasons don't really make sense at all. One of the most famous assassins in history, John Wilkes Booth, was an actor and an anarchist, and we are not even completely sure whether he said, "Death always with tyrants" or "the south is avenged!" (there is more to this idea but I digress) I agree, however, that because it was a politician who was the main target (if it turns out to be the case) that it stands to reason that the motivation needs exploration, but I'm not convinced in the least that this man is in his right mind. The loss of that mind, who knows? From his writings it does sound like he was pretty bitter over his treatment. Out of control anger to this degree from being treated unfairly is quite often augmented by extreme narcissism, as it was I believe with Klebold and Harris. Perhaps there is a glitch in the idea that as a society we raise our children to think they can and will become anyone or anything they desire in this country. As I'ts often said with war, "the first casualty of war is the truth…" Are we still hyping the American dream to the extent that the hyperbole has become an obvious lie that young people quickly see through? To me, it does seem like we have entered into a cold war in our own country. No one is really listening to anyone else. You can be so caught up in your convictions that you lose the capacity to listen to any other point of view. I'm no political junkie, but I do listen to the war that has broken out in politics, and it has become fairly extreme. And of course, using allegorical references to war is never really a good idea, is it Sarah Palin?

I also think that all forms of leadership in our society are effected and influenced by the leadership that are our elected officials, from the top on down. I really believe that the eight years of George Bush was a demonstration of what Robert Greene's 48 laws of power will get for you. It has radically changed how influence is rendered. As the middle class continues to disappear, you can bet there will be more of these shocking and extreme actions, some will occur in desperation and some will be politically motivated. I wonder what people thought of John Brown in those months before the civil war? Did they see him as mentally ill? He was certainly a radical. Revolution in a society has been a hard truth from the beginning of our being able to make fire, why would we believe that it's going to be any different now? When the gap between rich and poor becomes to extreme, revolution is imminent.

I don't think Klebold and Harris were revolutionaries anymore than I think this latest killer is, but I do think the change in our values are sending messages throughout society, and the disenfranchised youth are the most vulnerable and reactive to it. When you are of that age, your thinking can be so raw and reactive. I think as a society, we are creating these kind of killers, but I don't think the answer as to why is an easy one. And I do know that when you take away the middle class, and a possible secure place within the middle class when you are young, you take away the dreams of people who are able to keep balance in our society, and when you take away that balance, you do have the climate for revolution and all kinds of radical thinking. I don't think it's an immediate danger, but it's not far off, and I'm not sure that those in power don't really care if its stopped, for they can certainly protect themselves.

I do feel at a loss of what to say to about this congresswoman and her family, and all of those wounded or killed in this tragedy, it has changed their lives forever. It will be interesting and very sad to watch it all unfold, as the media frenzy is on, and well, politics, as usual…


Cheryl said...

There is so much about this tragedy to try and wrap your thoughts around. I hope there will be more dialogue around what happens when our leaders both political and celebrity hype up the rhetoric and use violent language thinking it is only self expression. I have yet to hear anyone talk about how we have abandoned helping people with mental health issues in our society. The old mental hospital concept was at least an option for those who were struggling now we only have limited counseling options and only if you are rich enough to pay the cost. Good thinking here. You work in education at all you have seen this boy and struggled with how to help.

Chuckh said...

My worries as a parent echo a lot of what you have said. I too hung with a bad crowd. Some went to jail, got arrested for this and that. Loyalty was high amoung us, until I started to see I was headed nowhere and I got away from that life and into the life I deserved. Powerless people. In a nut shell, it seems killing a person of perceived power, in the killer's mind, is empowering. In a very real sense, leveling and changing the playing field. As a parent, I worry about my 16 year old son falling in with the wrong crowd, about him being too shy, about him being bullied, not fitting in. He is a quiet, shy kid and I worry I have failed him in some way not yet apparent. But then I take comfort in the fact that he knows he is loved and has been taken care of, listened to, told he matters, that his opinion counts, that we in my family all have a sense of love and a sense of humor. He knows he can tell me anything and I will listen. (Although I'm sure he wouldn’t tell me many things.) He was raised to know and believe following rules in society are important and family comes first. He has a very strong sense of himself and knows right from wrong. I just hope as he trudges through his days trying to find his place, it's not too painful, and I have in some small way helped to ease that journey to adulthood. For I have tried to give him the love and attention I wish I'd had growing up.

Gerry said...

Living in a government subsidized (HUD) complex where a number of the chronically mentally ill have been housed, I have had a occasion to think about my own safety when a neighbor starts into a meltdown. I naturally read all the articles that are written periodically about the chronically mentally ill especially after deaths occur at the hands of one of them. In fact, because we had a chronically mentally ill person in the family (Uncle Reed) I have probably been thinking about these issues since childhood. Being incarcerated in psych wards three times also gave me a lot of information about how people are behaving deranged enough to land in there, but I do think that when a person first starts to have mental issues, not much thought may be given to how dangerous they are until they do something that scares a number of people, but hopefully does not take the lives of as many as this young man has done with what sounds like a fairly early flare of extreme violence.
When Greg in here started to have a meltdown and began threatening and scaring people after a year or so, other residents were saying, "where is his father? He hasn't been to see him in some time. He needs to come in here and calm Greg down!" I didn't know the story. Had the father abandoned him. Early on I did see the father around.
There is usually a concerned parent visible quite often in the lives of some of the chronically ill, but if there is nobody it seems very sad indeed. My female neighbor is now having a meltdown, and it is one of the saddest things I have seen. Nobody ever comes to see her. Now she is avoiding people where she used to try to talk to us all at least a few words. She was never very good at long conversations but seemed to have some difficulty with the language since she is Korean. Now she is ominously silent. Never smiles anymore. Losing weight, shrinking. But her illness seems to be going internal rather than finding expression in external hostility and violence. I think the big key to this assassin's illness will be whatever light his parents can cast on his behavior from childhood since he seems to have been such a loner. He should be studied. We don't know enough about mental illness.