Someone asked me some days ago if we were likely to have more shooting rampages like the one Ronald Bae wrought last week. The context of his question, confirmed by several other questions, was whether we had on our horizon a reign of terror like the one that grips America today. Something along the lines of Sandy Hook and the other “senseless” shooting sprees that have erupted like a pent-up volcano there.
I was a little startled by the question because I hadn’t really thought about it. I had always assumed the Cavite incident was a fluke. I still think it’s a fluke, but now for reasons that are a little clearer in my mind.
To begin with, Bae’s rampage is not exactly comparable to Sandy Hook. There are similarities, of course. Adam Lanza shot down kids along with adults, Bae shot down adults along with kids, the difference in the sample probably only owing to the fact that Bae did not happen to live near, or walk by, a schoolhouse. For which we may thank heaven; in his state he wasn’t exactly making distinctions in age or gender. Lanza massacred without a thought, as though he were picking apples, Bae massacred without a thought as though he were firing at pins in a shooting gallery. Lanza did not particularly care about his life and shot himself to death at the end of his rampage. Bae did not particularly care about his life and shot it out with an army of cops.
But there the similarities end. What stoked Bae to his ghastly deed was fury: He first shot at the three kids, killing one of them, a 7-year-old, after they told him they did not know the whereabouts of a man he was looking for. What goaded the gunmen at Sandy Hook, a movie theater in Colorado, and a mall in Oregon to do what they did only they can say. That’s the truly frightening thing—that they wreaked havoc coolly, calmly, emotionlessly, for seemingly no reason at all. Or at least a reason we can wrap our heads around.
What stoked Bae to his demonic deed were the fumes of drugs roiling in his brain; he probably didn’t know whether he was awake or in the throes of a nightmare. What goaded the gunmen at Sandy Hook and other parts of America to do so, again only they can say. That, too, is the truly frightening thing: that they were not in the throes of drugs, alcohol, or any mind-bending substance. They were perfectly sober. They were in their right minds doing the most wrong things. They were in their sanest states doing the most insane things.
A crime isn’t just about opportunity and means, it’s about motives, too. It’s not just about the proliferation of guns, it’s also about what drives people to use those guns, the weapons of mass destruction in particular, to mass-destroy. The motives are entirely different. Over the past couple of months, and with Congress debating gun control, the United States has been undergoing an angst-filled self-examination trying to find the causes of the malady, the thing that triggers (to use an unfortunate word) the mayhem. The culprit has ranged from too much violence in movies and video games to the ease with which guns can be put in the hands of deranged individuals.
Doubtless there are merits to one or the other argument, but one thing that doesn’t seem to have been raised, which I’ve always thought stared America in the face, was the effect of their wars on their own culture. Newsweek had a brilliant article last December titled “Moral injury,” about the breakdown in the moral makeup of servicemen—primarily the disintegration of the instinctive taboo on taking a life—which hounds them the rest of their lives. It’s not hard to glimpse the impact of that on the entire culture of the country itself, a culture that has been exposed to too many immoral wars over the last six decades. The last time Americans went out to fight for an arguably “right cause” was World War II, and even that was blighted by the mass destruction of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that’s another story.
Suffice it to say here that we haven’t reached the point that could precipitate zombie-like alienation, zombie-like annihilation. Of course we have people like Zaldy and Andal Ampatuan, too, of course we have people like Bae, too. And of course we have amoks, too—the English phrase “running amuck” in fact comes from “running amok,” which was how the Americans described the Moros’ reaction to their attempts to pacify them—which persists to this day, and not just among Moros. Of course we have massacres aplenty, too. Lest we forget, Kris Aquino used to be called the “Massacre Queen” when she was starting out in the movies for portraying all those victims of mayhem. But the motives are far more explicable: grinding deprivation, intolerable oppression, brains melting from the fires of drugs.
No, I don’t think the Bae incident will turn into the plague Sandy Hook et al. have been for America. I don’t even think Sandy Hook in its pristine form will happen here. At least not yet.
But that is cold comfort in the scheme of things. We do have more than our own share of murder and mayhem to be worried about, we do have more than our share of barbarity and monstrosity to be alarmed about. The fact that the motives for them are more understandable doesn’t make them more acceptable. Certainly not to the kin of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre, not to the victims of drug-crazed slaughterers, not to the hundreds of political activists and scores of journalists and countless other victims of the culture of impunity. With guns teeming more plentifully than classrooms in this country, and with a great many of them in the hands of those who like to shoot rather than read, you have to wonder how very safe your children are when they are out there at night.
The comfort is one very cold one.