Jared Loughner tried to kill Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and shot 19 people. In this, he was as reckless and inefficient as our military. Attempting to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, America massacred about 3,500 Afghan civilians during the first eight months of that war. We have occupied Afghanistan for nearly a decade now, with no end in sight. Our Nobel Peace laureate president, still a beacon of hope to many American progressives, has expanded the conflict into Pakistan. Almost daily, we hear of Pakistanis being massacred by our drones. It’s not clear who we’re trying to assassinate, only that plenty of innocents have died, hundreds in 2010 alone, according to the BBC.
There is no outcry. We must kill them over there so we don’t have to kill them over here. It doesn’t matter who we kill, as long as the ratings go up, corporations cash in and the masses get some bonus thrills before returning to the regularly scheduled programming.
Initial responses to the Tucson tragedy have tried to shoehorn Loughner into being a Tea Party, Sarah Palin zombie, but this grinning dude is even more messed up than that. A high school drop out, aimless and living with his parents, he was also kicked out of the community college. Loughner tried to join the US Army although he considered as war crimes our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Among his favorite books are Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto. He dismisses others as illiterate and ungrammatical, yet barely makes sense in his own writing.
Let’s face it, sanity and coherence are no longer our strong suits. From President to busboy, we babble in slogans and sound bites. For over a century, the mass media have corroded our syllogistic chops. Browsing some crime story, one is distracted by a shoe add. A genocide photo may be juxtaposed with a new, improved laundry detergent. On sale too, no less. All become spectacles and life is a meaningless collage. With jump cuts and commercials, television accelerates our derangement. The mind is not supposed to blink that fast for decades on end without deadly consequences. Speed kills, period. With remote control, five hundred channels, ipod in one ear, cell phone in other and laptop a humming, we can hardly remember who got wiped out yesterday, or even a minute ago. We no longer have reality, only reality shows.
With a national decline in articulation, is there a surprise that there’s a vertiginous drop in the literacy of our mass murderers and assassins? A man used to be able to hold a gun or knife in one hand, pen in the other. Not no more. Charles Guteau, who shot President Garfield in 1881, could wax, “I weave the discourse out of my brain as cotton is woven into a fabric. When I compose my brain is in white heat, and my mind works like lightning. This accounts for the short epigrammatic style of my sentences. I write so rapidly I can hardly read it,” and, “Life is a fleeting dream, and it matters little where one goes. A human life is of small value. During the war thousands of brave boys went down without a tear.”
Fast forward to Seung-Hui Cho. From his play Richard McBeef, Sue kvetches, “What are you doing to my son! You said you would have a nice chat to get on terms with him. And this is what I catch you do! What kind of step-father are you? Pretending to be nice to him with a fake smile on your chubby face!”
Is it possible to be more tone deaf? Oh, the bathos of atonal youth! Granted, Cho had problems with speaking and socializing his entire life, but he was also an English major in a well regarded writing program. He even took advanced fiction. As poet Richard Hugo observed, “A writing class may be the first and last place where many young people are taken seriously,” so inside they duck, though it may cost them a pretty penny, payable in infinite installments. Anything to get out of the suburbs, I suppose. In any case, count Cho as another young, inarticulate American with a hazy beef against nearly everything. Impotent, many look up to the military. Loughner tried to enlist, Cho dressed up as a Marine.
They like to flash that hard, reliable tool of lethal discharge, rat, tat, tat, tat! Extending the body’s reach, it feels agreeably snug in the hand.
Military culture provides a subtext to the Tucson shooting. Giffords’ opponent in the last election, Jesse Kelly, ex Marine and Iraq war vet, staged a fund raising event advertised as “Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” (If Loughner was so disturbed by bad grammar, why he didn’t target Kelly for this punctuation-free snippet?) Shot through the head, Giffords was then treated by Peter Rhee, among others. Rhee served for 24 years in the Navy, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Discharged, he worked for five years in Los Angeles, where he dealt with around 30 gunshot wounds a day. Improved emergency care has helped to hold down our murder rates. To get at the real index of violence, one should look at murder attempts.
Responding to the Tucson shooting, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik cited “vitriolic rhetoric” in the media as a poisoning influence. “This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in.” How nice it ever was for how many is debatable, but it’s undeniable that our culture has turned more savage. We haven’t always enjoyed caged fighting, people eating maggots on TV or popular music that openly advocates murder.
Mammie Smith recorded the first blues record in 1920. It contained this passage:
Now I’ve got the crazy blues
Since my baby went away
I ain’t had no time to lose
I must find him today
I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
So yes, drugs, guns and cop killing are not entirely new in pop music, but this song was an aberration. More typical of that era was a cheese wagon like “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” Can you imagine Eminem singing, “One leaf is sunshine, the second is rain / Third is the roses that grow in the lane”? The current top hit is “Grenade” by Bruno Mars. A love ballad, it features these sweet lines: “I would go through all this pain, / Take a bullet straight through my brain, / Yes, I would die for ya baby.”
Looking tough has become de rigueur and even pre-teens now strut around like gangstas. America also leads the world in the adoption of military fatigues as casual wear, where T-shirt slogans such as “Kill ‘Em All” and “Made in America, Tested in Japan,” over a mushroom cloud, are deemed witty. Our soccer moms steer military trucks. Rush Limbaugh used to open his show with a sustained salvo of automatic weapons.
Interviewed by M. Thomas Inge, Truman Capote spoke of the prevalence of tattoos among murderers, “I have seldom met a murderer who wasn’t tattooed. Of course, the reason is rather clear; most murderers are extremely weak men who are sexually undecided and quite frequently impotent. Thus the tattoo, with all its obvious masculine symbolism. Another common denominator is that murderers almost always laugh when they’re discussing their crimes.” Well, Americans have become the most elaborately tattooed people on earth. Not all of us are murderers, of course, we just want to look like we’re always ready to bust a cap. By flexing our masculinity so insistently, so insanely, we’re distorting both the male and female aspects of our nature.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.