The Quiet Killer at the Core of Patriotism

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

By Robert C. Koehler

What? Another mass murder?

Almost missed this one: Virginia Beach. Twelve killed on May 31, plus the killer himself, who was a city employee — an engineer. He had legitimate access to the building where he shot people on three floors. His guns were legally purchased. Nothing about him, prior to the tragedy, indicated he was unhinged.

Except, well. an anonymous source told the New York Times “the suspect had no history of behavioral problems until recently, when he had begun acting strangely and getting into physical ‘scuffles’ with other city workers.”

So something had come loose — and the passing news coverage lurches into Lonerville. Another lost, isolated loser with a bunch of guns takes out his perceived enemies. We mourn, we shake our heads . . .

Have you noticed that the only time there’s a reference to some sort of collective mindset in a mass shooting is if the shooter was a Muslim? Then it’s an act of terrorism. Otherwise, it’s a lone nut or two, separate from the rest of the human race. How fascinating that we have so many lone nuts in the United States. According to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks the incidence of shootings in this country, we have — I kid you not — an average of one mass shooting a day.

Isn’t it time to scream at the top of our lungs: WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

Some are calling it an epidemic. I call it climate change — social climate change, to be a little more precise. But like the other kind of climate change, it’s the result of collective human activity exploiting and profoundly disturbing a complex natural order. Getting along with others is a far deeper, more complicated process than simply hating and dehumanizing them. Creating peace is far more complicated than waging war.

To put it another way, who could possibly serve as a bigger role model for a mass-murderer wannabe than an American president?

Here, for instance, is a Donald Trump tweet from last July, in response to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s refusal to be intimidated by U.S. militarism: “Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence & death. Be cautious!”

And here’s George W. Bush on May 1, 2003, declaring “mission accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln: “Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision, and speed, and boldness the enemy did not expect, and the world had not seen before. From distant bases or ships at sea, we sent planes and missiles that could destroy an enemy division, or strike a single bunker. Marines and soldiers charged to Baghdad across 350 miles of hostile ground, in one of the swiftest advances of heavy arms in history. You have shown the world the skill and the might of the American Armed Forces. . . .

“Our war against terror is proceeding according to principles that I have made clear to all: Any person involved in committing or planning terrorist attacks against the American people becomes an enemy of this country, and a target of American justice.”

That was, uh, 16 years ago, and the war is still sort of going on, a million or maybe more Iraqis have died, the country is in shambles. This is what it’s like to be “a target of American justice.”

War is a combination of dehumanizing and then killing an enemy along with any civilians in the way (a.k.a., collateral damage), and then glorifying the process: that is to say, it’s mass murder plus public relations. Here on the home front, we get a lot more of the latter than the former. Corpses in mass graves become, abstractly, targets of our justice, which doesn’t sound so bad.

Doesn’t it make sense, in this land of 357 million guns, that our national glorification of war will have some unintended consequences here at home — that war itself will come home, as troubled souls (many of them vets) arm themselves and decide to make their personal enemies or, even more eerily, strangers who for some reason symbolize what they perceive as a terrible wrong, targets of justice?

And then, when a mass murder hits the headlines: “We all already know the script by heart now,” writes Caitlin Johnstone. “A loud demand for gun control legislation will come from Democrats and progressives, while conservatives will insist that America’s mass shooting epidemic is a mental health issue, not a gun issue. This debate will rage on impotently for a few days to a few weeks, and exactly zero changes will be made in U.S. gun policy or in mental health care. Happens every single time.”

Johnstone describes this debate as “fighting to control the position of an on/off switch that isn’t connected to anything.”

Missing from every post-massacre discussion is the collective mentality that unites this murder with all the others, that unites the killer with all the rest of us, and that euphemizes killing — on a scale almost unimaginably massive — as just and necessary and glorious. This collective mentality is the unquestioned belief in war as the quiet killer at the core of patriotism.

Back to the New York Times for a moment. Reporting on the background of DeWayne Craddock, the Virginia Beach killer, the story notes that in 1996 “he enlisted in the Virginia National Guard, where he was assigned to the First Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment, in Norfolk as a cannon crew member.”

This is mere background data, as neutral as the nature of his college degree, except for that one little tick of irony. He was a cannon crew member? He had training in blowing people up. Even if he never saw action in a war zone, he had training not simply in how to kill but how to justify doing so.