The December 5 massacre at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, wasn’t a school shooting, but from the sounds of things it might as well have been. This nearly seasonal horror has accustomed us to several telling elements—most importantly, the trivial pretext followed by a burning desire to achieve infamy on the scale of the Hindenberg disaster. Sure enough, the killer “had . . . recently broken up with his girlfriend, and then lost his job.” In a news report worthy of a mockumentary (you can almost see Parker Posey snapping gum and twirling her hair), a local muses: “I had no idea that he was this troubled. I don’t know if it was because he got fired from McDonald’s.”
The treatment of “troubled” as something akin to “good at baseball,” albeit less palatable, is an unmistakable sign of the times. “Desensitized” doesn’t begin to cover it. The fact that an ordinary person can credit losing a fast-food job as a plausible, if not exonerating, defense for opening fire at a shopping mall is disturbing, but hardly surprising. When Seung-Hui Cho killed over two dozen people at Virginia Tech, the Wall Street Journal reprised a painful, disconcerting editorial called “No Guardrails,” which deserves to be quoted at length:
The gunning down of abortion doctor David Gunn in Florida last week shows us how small the barrier has become that separates civilized from uncivilized behavior in American life. In our time, the United States suffers every day of the week because there are now so many marginalized people among us who don’t understand the rules, who don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control. We are the country that has a TV commercial on all the time that says: “Just do it.” Michael Frederick Griffin just did it. . . .
As the saying goes, there was a time. And indeed there really was a time in the United States when life seemed more settled, when emotions, both private and public, didn’t seem to run so continuously at breakneck speed, splattering one ungodly tragedy after another across the evening news. How did this happen to the United States? How, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, did so many become undone?
I’m reluctant to draw major sociocultural lessons from the deeds of a sad little man with a gun in his hand, but every time this happens it gets clearer that “marginalized people,” and not the inexorable forces of randomness, are to blame. The murderer, Robert A. Hawkins, wrote that he was “going to go out and be famous.” It’s impossible not to assign some responsibility to our overblown celebrity culture, so at variance with shame that a Christmastime butchery is more likely to elicit creepy soul-searching than the simple disgust and sorrow it deserves.
Pay attention to Hawkins. He is terrorism in microcosm—the vicious, malevolent imposition of infantile will upon everyone else. Put aside the conviction that he was mentally ill; he knew what he was doing all along. We’ve made it something less than pitiful, something interesting, to be violent:
It may be true that most of the people in Hollywood who did cocaine survived it, but many of the weaker members of the community hit the wall. And most of the teenage girls in the Midwest who learn about the nuances of sex from magazines published by thirtysomething women in New York will more or less survive, but some continue to end up as prostitutes on Eighth Avenue. Everyone today seems to know someone who couldn’t handle the turns and went over the side of the mountain. These weaker or more vulnerable people, who in different ways must try to live along life’s margins, are among the reasons that a society erects rules. They’re guardrails. It’s also true that we need to distinguish good rules from bad rules and periodically re-examine old rules. But the broad movement that gained force during the anti-war years consciously and systematically took down the guardrails. Incredibly, even judges pitched in. All of them did so to transform the country’s institutions and its codes of personal behavior (abortion, for instance). In a sense, it has been a remarkable political and social achievement for them. But let’s get something straight about the consequences. If as a society we want to live under conditions of constant challenge to institutions and limits on personal life, if we are going to march and fight and litigate over every conceivable grievance, then we should stop crying over all the individual casualties, because there are going to be a lot of them.
We’ve just had a few more as an early Christmas present. It’s time we decided not to celebrate this kind of atrocity.