While on my way to the airport in LA last week, the radio was reporting a nightmarish event in Portland, Oregon. A shooter had opened fire on Christmas shoppers, sending them scampering and screaming all over the place. A police officer was being interviewed by a swarm of reporters and he spoke with professional authority. The shooter was an adult male wearing camouflage and a white mask. He had suddenly started shooting, killing one person and seriously wounding another. He had now been neutralized.
As it turned out, the shooter, 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts, actually killed nurse Cindy Yuille and coach Steven Forsyth, and wounded 15-year-old Kristina Shevchenko, before turning his gun on himself. It was a case of life imitating a horror movie, Roberts shooting 60 rounds randomly at the crowd while Christmas music played in the background.
I was back here when I saw and read the news about the massacre in Connecticut. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza first shot his mother in the face, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, broke into it, and started firing at everyone in sight with a Glock 9-millimeter and a Sig Sauer semiautomatic. Then he shot himself in the head. In all, he left 27 dead (28, including his mother), 20 of them small children aged six to seven.
It wasn’t the worst shooting rampage in US history—Virginia Tech has that horrible distinction, a gunman killing 32 students and teachers—but that is only as numbers go. As the ages of the victims do, this was the absolute worst. Rescuers wept openly and most of them could not bear to look at the carnage, the sight of the frail bodies torn and bloodied beyond recognition, giving them a glimpse of malevolence, a glimpse of hell, a glimpse of evil.
At the time I heard the news about the Oregon incident while being driven to LAX, one of my companions groaned and said, “WTF is happening to America today?” Good question, and one that New York Times columnist David Brooks has tried to answer.
We’ll probably never know what triggers the sudden compulsion or mania for slaughter, he says, but we do see a certain profile among the killers. “Many of them had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem—a lost job, a divorce, or a school failure—and decided to strike back in some showy way. Many had suffered from severe depression or had attempted suicide. Many lived solitary lives, but most shared their violent fantasies with at least one person before they committed their crimes.”
He concludes: “The crucial point is that the dynamics are internal, not external. These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones.”
Seemingly a reasonable proposition, it in fact goes against the face of two things. One is why shooting rampages in America have spiked to today’s almost unbelievable heights. In the past, they’ve taken place at two or three per decade. This year alone, there have been 16 or so of them, some minor, claiming “only” a handful of lives, some not altogether in the category of “senseless” in that they drew from racist motives. But most were in the category of the Portland-Connecticut rampage, chief of them the massacre in a Colorado movie house after a gunman fired semiautomatic weapons at a crowd watching “The Dark Knight Rises.”
If the reasons are purely, or primarily, psychological and not sociological, what does this mean? There’s a sudden rash of murderously deranged youth and not-so-youth in America? There’s a sudden eruption of a mental zombie plague in America? The abrupt escalation of the drive to slaughter alone must suggest the dynamics isn’t just internal; it is also, and probably more so, external.
While at this, outside looking in, or from a non-American perspective, the explanation even more clearly falls short of reality. The world does not lack for people in the same neurotic or psychotic state but who do not go on a killing spree of this scale. This country is one of them.
We do not lack for people with a grossly exaggerated sense of self-importance (public officials are chief of them). We do not lack for people who have suffered a crushing blow to their self-esteem (we all have after Manny Pacquiao’s defeat). We do not lack for people who have been unhinged for all sorts of reasons, not least soldiers who possess weapons of mass destruction. But even they do not go out into malls and schools and movie theaters and mass-destruct everyone around them.
No, the reasons go deeper than can be explained by individual derangement. The most obvious one, though arguably not the most definitive one, is the proliferation of guns in the United States, the National Rifle Association having as batty an interpretation of the right to bear arms as our anti-RH camp does of the right to life. And which finds in incidents like this more reason to bear arms to defend oneself, thereby creating a local arms race and balance of terror. A crime does not just happen because of motive, it happens because of means and opportunity. Being able to buy a thousand rounds of ammunition for heavy weaponry through the Internet is as glaring means and opportunity as they get.
Of course there are other reasons, probably more compelling, but the hardest things to see are those that are right in front of you. America would do well to heed the counsel of the rest of the world on this, having grown parochial over the years, as its elections discourse showed. Time is pressing, time is running out. The problem has gotten out of hand, like a quiet youth gone berserk. It doesn’t find the answers soon, the question will be on everyone’s lips:
WTF is happening to America today?