Trickle-down violence

Thursday, March 17th, 2005

Pop, pop, pop.

And just like that, 13 people dead.

The murders were unrelated except for the coincidence of timing and the fact that all three shooting sprees, in Chicago, Atlanta and a suburb of Milwaukee, targeted symbolic pillars of society — two judges, a minister — and were, for that and other reasons, yet again “unthinkable.”

The fact that these three crimes, two culminating in suicides, are merely the latest in a long series of “unthinkable” domestic atrocities ought to initiate public soul-searching that culminates in more than just minor tinkering with the security state and the creation of some new category of people to fear, such as pro se litigants.

It’s getting worse — this violent society we are birthing. At some unplumbed level, these crimes are related. They are part of the crucible of fear, rage, handgun accessibility and gruesome pop-culture glorification of schlock violence that we all live in.

“No people in history have had so many lethal images imprinted on their brains,” writes Glenn Paige in Nonkilling Global Political Science, a book that ponders whether violence is somehow part of the human genetic code or whether, under the right conditions, a “nonkilling” society is possible.

And theoretically it is, though not under these conditions: “Since a proven military technique for overcoming reluctance to kill in training commandos and assassins is to force them to view films of gruesome atrocities — head in vise with eyes propped open — it is as if the whole nation is being desensitized from empathic respect for life to unemotional acceptance of killing. Judges,” he writes, “report that juvenile killers increasingly evidence no respect for human life.”

It’s a crisis of empathy, a massive and growing failure at every level of American society to foster a nurturant reverence for life, which, when in place, is our only true security. And when it’s not in place, anything can happen.

“But however harmful to civil society,” Paige goes on, “violent media socialization is useful for a state in need of professional patriotic killers.” He then describes an ad shown during a recent Super Bowl: “Millions of viewers see a sword-wielding medieval knight from a video combat ‘game’ metamorphose into a modern saber-saluting United States Marine.”

In our soul-searching over what caused Bart A. Ross, Brian Gene Nichols, Terry Ratzmann and so many others before them — Timothy McVeigh comes to mind — to play petty avenging god against the innocent, we must understand that a militarized society brings this on itself.

We can’t perform what I call “ritual soulectomy” on an enemy beyond our borders — declare, that is, a whole anonymous mass of people sufficiently inhuman that we can slaughter them for strategic purposes — and not expect the same idea to take unauthorized root at home.

McVeigh borrowed from the lexicon of Gulf War 1, in which he participated, to excuse the deaths of the 19 children who were among the 168 people killed in his explosion. The children, alas, were “collateral damage.” Bart Ross, in his rambling letter to NBC’s Chicago studio, wrote: “. . . although I killed them” — the husband and mother of the federal judge who was his intended victim — “I am not a murderer. U.S. soldiers who killed innocent Afghans, Iraqis, etc. are not murderers.”

An aggrieved loner, consumed with private misery, sees a way out: Kill the enemy. With the government as his role model, he can do so with a clear conscience. This is trickle-down violence.

And wouldn’t you know, around the time these killing sprees were in the headlines, the downside of the war on terror was back in the news. A GI was just charged with manslaughter in connection with the beating deaths of two Afghan detainees at Bagram two years ago, and a total of 28 soldiers and reservists have been implicated, the New York Times reported.

Yawn, we’ve already had our spasm of nausea about dead detainees. Now we’re celebrating elections, democracy and all the good such deaths have produced. Still, the details of this incident cut like shrapnel.

The prisoners had been chained to the ceilings of their cells. Pfc. Willie V. Brand was accused of kicking one of them in the knee 37 times, “destroying his leg muscle tissue with repeated unlawful knee strikes.” Took the poor guy five days to die. Feel secure yet?

The eyes of tomorrow’s killers are wide open. We’re teaching them right now how much a human life is worth.