February 2001


Multiple slayings in the United States are conveniently explained as the deranged actions of crazy individuals.  But what kind of society creates individuals with such disorders?

By Jeremy Seabrook

Third World Network Features

Multiple slayings happen so frequently now in the United States that they have ceased to be news, and merit only a few lines. On 11 January 2001, it was reported that a gunman walked into a county social services building in Nevada City and shot three people, killing two of them. A fourth suffered a broken leg jumping out of a window to escape. The gunman is then believed to have shot dead the manager of a nearby restaurant.

This followed the killing of seven people by a gunman in a Boston Internet consulting company at the end of December. Seven people were also killed at a Xerox Corporation office in Honolulu in 1999, and in the same year, a man who had lost money on investments killed nine people and wounded 13 at two Atlanta brokerage offices before killing himself.

None of these incidents received the same coverage as the Columbine High School shootings, although they occurred so shortly afterwards. By that time, the shocked nation had been counselled back into normality. These events have become ordinary.

There is one common factor in the public response - these actions are the consequences of the derangement of a lone crazy, a pathological individual, a psychopath. American society always emerges squeaky-clean out of all the investigations, post-mortems, examinations, inquiries that follow. Its guiltlessness is asserted by implication that the motives for such slayings are incomprehensible, unfathomable.

The tireless insomniac media, which always have an answer for everything, are, on this one point, unequivocal. We shall never know; a condition rendered easier by the fact that the gunman almost invariably turned the gun on himself. Human wickedness is at the root of the evil.

The script is now word-perfect. Whenever some violent event erupts in the US, the chronology is identical. The shock is followed by flowers at the site of the deed, which is transformed into a temporary shrine, the comforting of the bereaved and injured, the assertion of solidarity, the lessons to be learned. In the end, American society becomes the hero of the tragedy, with its perpetual penitence, its never-again reflex, its openness to the cleansing effects of trauma, its avowals of solidarity, its ritualistic counselling which is a form of cancelling, as people ‘come to terms with’ their grief.

What is never asked is, what kind of social pathology creates such disorders? ‘No Entry’ signs are posted on all avenues of exploration where some clue is most likely to be found.

The sovereignty of the individual is what America is most justly famed for. This is at the heart of the culture - the worship of celebrity, ‘personalities’, the famous, glamour, heroes, singers, actors, sports stars, the gifted and the talented who are drawn from a whole world into America, where their prowess, intelligence, beauty and money can be justly displayed and appreciated. This one-note celebrity with its perfect teeth and unblemished skin, its ubiquitous smile serenely accepting the homage that is its due, how can it not call forth its shadow?

And that means an equally spectacular failure - the lone gunman, the secret grudge-bearer, the racist hate-merchant - these are the counterpart of the flawless beauty, glamour and wealth that are the public face of America.

I have often been struck by the enthusiasm of the successful of other parts of the world, who have relocated in the US, since they feel that their true worth is more justly appreciated there than in their own country. Their energetic lifestyle rarely comes into contact with a failure that hides itself in the dank cellars of the house of affluence, that huddles in doorways with its foul breath and scarred skin, its bag-lady nomadism, driven out of its mind into the homeless back-lots behind the shopping malls and under the car-parks, into the trailer-park ghettoes, where hate and malice are bred, which signal their existence only by some brutal act of desperation.

Ever since its creation, the commitment of the US to the individual has been paramount. This became more extreme in response to the exaggerated collectivism of its former enemy, the Soviet Union. Now that this is defunct, the obsession with the individual has become psychopathic.

There is an epic irony in this: the power of the Soviet Union to freeze ideology in America from beyond the grave says much about the ‘ultimate’ triumph of the West. The demonisation by America of individuals, such as Osama bin Laden, the threat to its security from global terrorists and outcasts is a projection of its own ideological blindness, and one likely to cost the world dearly in the shadowy phantasms evoked by Bush in his paranoid exemplification of the American ideology on the global stage.

Society, in the USA, has disappeared into its own universalising pretensions, which is why it is powerless against dramatic acts of despairing individuals. There can be no social, only personal determinants in the behaviour of such people.

In place of social structure, we have only human nature, which, as we know, is changeless and eternal and distilled to exquisite perfection in its adventitious American form. The US embodies freedoms which make all social arrangements melt away - a bit like the State in Marxist mythology. Because of this, there can no longer be any question of social justice or social reform.

The extinction of social hope is not without its consequences, since socially produced wrongs can now only be remedied by the actions of individuals. The rich have long acquiesced in this, by their ready recourse to litigation. But the poor have no option but to take the law into their own hands to redress the evils that afflict them, not least among them terrible inequality and social injustice.

A wiser, more balanced society might not be so anxious to deny such things, but the ideology of the US disables it from any such recognition. Hence the wonderment and fear at the spectacular criminal acts performed by those convinced that there is no other way to draw attention to their griefs and grievances than to go on a shooting spree, alas usually of innocent bystanders.

None of this would matter to those of us living in other cultures and other countries, if the US would rest content in keeping its pollutants - like its more material toxins - to itself. The pathologies of the US would not be our concern, but for its incontinent desire to promote its model of civilisation across the globe. For this is the social accompaniment to which all alternatives have been irrevocably cancelled. In these social pathologies are inscribed our future, our development, our fate.

Let those who imagine that their culture, their traditions, their values and beliefs are rooted and resistant, and who think they can take the economic benefits of globalism and none of its social costs, observe and understand. These are not isolated aberrations, but are part and parcel of the model to which our leaders have committed us all.

Until recently, whenever some new social atrocity from the USA was reported in Britain, people used to say complacently, ‘Oh America, what can you expect. It couldn’t happen here.’ They have stopped saying that, for they know that whatever barbarities appear in the US - say drive-by shootings, snuff movies, drug-wars, an adolescent knife-culture - will surely happen here, and in double-quick time.

A society that creates a myth of sovereign individuals unencumbered by influences upon their behaviour apart from their personal biography, is in the grip of an ideology the more pernicious for being unable to recognise itself. In this version of the world, multiple slayings are a natural phenomenon, to be accepted with the same fatalism with which cyclones and earthquakes are accepted by societies allegedly more ‘primitive’.

Whatever their stage of material advancement, there can be few societies on earth more primitive than the mighty power that denies its own existence, the better to promote an individualism so extreme that flesh and blood is daily offered up to its version of salvation. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.