It sounds morbid but we have come to expect news of mass shootings in North America from time to time. The ritual is a familiar one by now: the usual media outlets descend upon the scene like vultures over a fresh cadaver, setting up cameras and lights. The celebrity anchormen in handsome close-ups spout their usual patter about the need to heal and find closure all the while affecting choked-up expressions which will be packaged into slick teasers to remind the viewers that when the disaster befell Every Town USA, Harry Smith and the CBS News were there to report every painful twist, blah, blah, blah. The victims' families, all media savvy now in the age of YouTube, will be interviewed in two-minute segments looking poised and insightful in over-the-shoulder shots. The experts, the FBI profilers and psychologists trained in thirty second sound bites will provide context for us to understand “the senseless acts of madmen”. The anti-gun advocates will bemoan liberal laws that allow guns in the hands of dubious characters easier than getting a driver's license and the pro-gun crowd ˆ angry white males most of them – will remind us all that guns don't kill people, people kill people.
The perpetrators are also as familiar as movie stereotypes: the middle-aged, middle-class white male, the proverbial postal worker, sick and tired and not going to take it anymore, or the anti-social guy in his twenties who can't get a date or has been bullied all his life; “God's lonely men” making feverish entries in their journals like Travis Bickle or Cho Seung-Hui going back to his dorm room after coolly disposing of two students and making his video manifesto then walking to the post office and mailing his portfolio, as if for an audition, to the NBC News. Why leave your story to others to tell when you can frame it yourself in your desired context? Welcome to the era of mass murder as reality TV. Charles Mason, the original mass-murder-as-theater artist, must be shaking his head in admiration. Cho has done him one better by committing a postmodern mass murder.
Americans have a strange love affair with guns. The old saying “violence is as American as the apple pie” should really be understood as gun violence. Theirs is not the “respect for your gun as a sacred object” folklore of some warrior cultures, say the Kurds who have fought insurgency battles for decades; nor is it the rural tradition of having to shoot an occasional deer or scare off the odd fox of the Germans and the French. The gun, solitary, cool, independent, is an abstraction that stands for a certain concept of Americansim itself. It's also democratic. God may have created people unequal but Samuel Colt made them equal. Put a gun in every citizen's hand and they'll have a level playing field in their pursuit of happiness.
Fire arms have been part of America from the very beginning. The Founding Fathers, forever suspicious of Thomas Hobbs' Leviathan, the sovereign that is to monopolize violence for the good of all citizens, enshrined the right to bear arms in the US constitution as a guarantee against the tyranny of a standing army and a central government. But there was a darker side to the story. The United States was founded by settlers; settlers needed guns to protect themselves from the natives whose land they had stolen, from the competing settlers to the south of Rio Grande, and from rebellious slaves in the cotton fields and urban slums. That's how the West was won and the great states of Texas and California were born and how slavery and then de facto apartheid was enforced. Over two hundred years later the Indians are only to be found in reservations, the blacks are out of the cotton fields, the borders are firmly drawn, and an empire has replaced the old Republic but the Americans' love affair with guns simply goes on.
The rationale that no one dares to speak of now seems to be fear, fear of the mostly black and Hispanic underclass by the mostly white middle and upper classes. We need guns to protect ourselves from the criminals sneaking into our gated communities trying to steal our possessions and raping our women. But not just any gun; not a single action revolver to fend off a potential mugger or rapist in the supermarket parking lot but semi-automatic assault rifles and AK-47 machine guns. The United States must be the only country in the world where you can legally prepare for armed rebellion. The FBI may eventually wise up and start to monitor your activities but depending on what state you reside in can't stop you from stockpiling weapons. David Kureish, the wacko of Waco, and his flock of armed-to-teeth fundamentalist would be apocalypticos are still a fresh memory.
Of course guns don't kill people, people kill people. True but guns sure help, don't they, especially if you can shoot 30, 40 rounds before having to reload. A gun is murderous physics. It can obliterate the distance between the perpetrator and his victim and transform an insignificant physical action, the squeezing of the trigger, into great violent energy. Try killing 32 people with a knife, or a machete or a nail-studded baseball bat in a span of few minutes. Imagine the mad-as-hell postal worker or disgruntled anti-social student chasing their victims around the post office or the classroom trying to nail them with a samurai sword. Chances are they will be rushed and overpowered by the crowd if not trampled to death. The plain fact is that a gun in a man's hand, transforms the geek into a cool avenger, the enraged driver stuck in the traffic into Dirty Harry, and the slightly built postal worker into god's vengeance. Gun is the great leveler.
100 years ago when the muckraking novelist, Upton Sinclair in his book The Jungle exposed the appalling working and sanitary conditions in Chicago's slaughterhouses, the ensuing national outrage brought about sweeping reforms in labour laws and food manufacturing industry. You'd think an event of Virginia Tech's shooting's magnitude (Cho's death tally equals almost half of shooting deaths in New York City in the first quarter of the year) would bring about a national psychological crisis and ignite a profound dialogue free of clichés and hypocrisies. So far that hasn't happened. There is talk of new legislation limiting sale of guns to those suffering from mental problems (common sense, wouldn't you thing?) but it appears to be more election year posturing than real political will. The gun culture is too deeply ingrained in American psyche and the gun industry, taking any curtailment of gun ownership as an existential threat, will fight meaningful legislation tooth and nail. With fierce competition from the War on Terror and Iraq and the Basketball play-offs and custody battle over Anna Nichole Smith's baby and the new episodes of Dancing with the Stars, the Virginia Tech shooting story is fast losing its currency. In a couple of weeks it'll be old news.