I Believe We Can Make Them Disappear: Thoughts on Mass Murderers

Mbot reads the news on "TV."

Mbot reads the news on “TV.” His news was about how the ants had a picnic. Do we have the power to make our news so benign?

I have been stalling with this post because I feel the need to address the shootings on Friday and I don’t want to. There is so much to say and at the same time such despair that silence seems the only reasonable course. Becoming a mother dissolved some binding agent in my emotional chain mail, allowing news items like the shooting deaths of twenty children (and seven adults who used to be children and who have children and who are the children of others) to penetrate deeply between the links. I believe this phenomenon–of weakening the binding agent that protects the one in order to allow the formation of empathy throughout a group–is a biological trick. Even Hollywood’s caught on–“women with children” is one of four demographic groups considered in the marketability of any big movie. We are different, which is the reason I nearly wept on Friday when the friend I was meeting for lunch–himself a parent–told me the news. Our server thought their was something terribly wrong. I assured her I was fine.

But there is something terribly wrong.

This isn’t the place for a scholarly diatribe and I’m not equipped to deliver a policy statement. I speak as a mother and a reasonably well-educated citizen.

This event is just the latest in an epidemic of mass shooting murders by young men. It is an epidemic, as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, in which he investigates social epidemics from the crime wave in New York City’s subways to the decade-long wave of teen suicides in Micronesia.

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell, in an interview about the book:

 In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical
realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can. In fact, I don’t think you have to go to Micronesia to see this pattern in action. Isn’t this the explanation for the current epidemic of teen smoking in this country? And what about the rash of mass shootings we’re facing at the moment–from Columbine through the Atlanta
stockbroker through the neo-Nazi in Los Angeles?

That inteview was from before Senator Gifford, before the theater in Arvada, before multiple shootings in other public places, before Friday’s horror.

We can’t change human nature–violence is our birthright. But behaviors within groups can be changed.

The question, of course, is how do we stop such an epidemic? The answer to making New York’s subway safe again began in a five-year effort to remove all the (then rampant) graffiti from the underground transport system. The theory behind the successful campaign: change the context, change behavior. It worked. A well-taken care of environment sent the message that criminal activity wasn’t expected. And people did what they were expected to do.

We’ve all seen that mentality at work time and time again: when children join other raucous kids on the playground, they become more raucous. I know that my own behavior shifts depending on my environment.

Offhand, I can think of three changes to our environment that might make this country a safer place for us all, and particularly for our children.

The first and most boring–because it’s been said a million times–is to ban ownership of semiautomatic weapons. I believe in gun ownership–I was raised by a father who provided his family with venison from deer hunting, and I married a bird hunter who shoots nothing he won’t eat. But people don’t hunt quail or deer with semiautomatics. People hunt people with them.

The second is to recognize schools–especially schools for children and teens–as the sacred spaces they are. There have been recent shootings in churches and mosques in this country, and so obviously, sacred spaces are not immune to the epidemic. But elevating our schools to the position they deserve–by paying teachers more, by valuing education more, by spend more money on programs, facilities, and protection for these facilities–we would be publicly recognizing these places as the most important places in our society, off-limits to such violence.

But I think a third change would be even more important. Peter Gabriel’s song, “Family Snapshot,” comes to mind, about a lonely boy fantasizing about assassinating a public figure:

“I don’t really hate you –

I don’t care what you do

We were made for each other –

Me and you.

I want to be somebody –

You were like that too

If you don’t get given you learn to take

And I will take you.”

It’s a chilling and horrible mentality. And we need to start sending the message that we don’t care about the gunmen. That our society doesn’t have one ounce of time or energy to spend on thinking about them or the troubles they’ve seen. That by taking life, they annihilate their own individuality, rendering them faceless criminals. Their names and the memory of them vanish; they become the equivalent of Untouchables in the Hindu caste system.

I believe we are not powerless to fight this epidemic of killing. We may live in a country where violence is embedded into society. But also embedded into it is freedom of speech. We have the power to lobby our lawmakers to ban semiautomatic weapons. We have the power to lobby our communities and government to turn our schools into holy places. And we have the power to pressure the media to make murderers not into Somebody, but into Nobody.

T Minus 19 Days: Ironman, The Killer Pinata, Part 3

It would be so much simpler to just drape Robert Downey, Jr. in wet newspaper, allow it to dry, and then gently snip it off.

Isn’t there some culture out there with a creation story involving balloons and masking tape?

This is Stage One of Ironman’s left leg. Did I mention I am beginning to dislike Ironman? And not just because his legs are longer than mine. But because, as the project continues, I am faced at every turn with several ways to do things right and several thousand ways to do things wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, in which he explains cultural and social reasons for the existence of, say, Bill Gates, and The Beatles, explains that it has been calculated in cases from Mozart to McCartney that it takes a person 10,000 hours of doing something before he truly becomes an expert.

Bill Gates was able to spend about that much time in front of a computer with a modem–almost unheard of at the time–before he turned twenty-five. The Beatles played nightly six-hour sets in a German club before they returned home to change history. And Mozart, of course, if he began composing at the age of four, had about that many hours tucked under his frock when he wrote The Marriage of Figaro.

And so, assuming that I possess an innate ability, if I practice paper mache three hours a day, every day, even on Christmas and when I have a hangover, I should be an expert at Ironman pinata-making by Malcolm’s fourteenth birthday. A sobering thought. Do you force your fourteen year-old to use the Ironman pinata you’ve been perfecting for ten years? Maybe my time (not to mention my Times) would be more wisely spent elsewhere.

I’ve got nineteen days to get this big boy (way too big) ready to hang. I will  not be an expert by then. But I might be 100 hours closer. (And when I put it THAT way, I am really quite unsure about whether I want the crap candy beaten out of him!)

It seems to just keep getting messier.


The Ex-Con’s Rule

This morning at 6:30 on our way to the park via the Starbucks Church of Mercy, we cruised east down Camelback Road between fields laying fallow and furrows greening with organic arugula. Coming too fast up a dead-end farm road off Camelback was an old red hatchback. It gunned  out onto Camelback without stopping at the stop sign and accelerated west. The driver obviously couldn’t wait to get outta there.

My husband and I lived on that road in a travel trailer after we were married (because it was free). I knew what I’d see if I glanced north to the patch of shade under the three eucalyptus trees Grandpa Ferdie had planted thirty years ago. Red-tailed hawks perch in them. Great horned owls nest in them. Laborers nap under them. Dealers sell drugs under them. Sure enough, a battered pick-up was lurking there.

I drove on. The guy in the hatchback had obviously just paid a visit to The Man. If a cop had happened to be driving by when he ran the stop sign, he’d be out his stash and his freedom.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains that seven things generally go wrong before pilots lose control of an aircraft. There is usually inclement weather. Sometimes there’s a problem on the ground, say, a faulty navigational beacon, in addition to a mechanical failure on board. Sometimes a pilot near the end of his shift is tired. There’s miscommunication. Errors in judgment multiply. Any of these things by themselves would be fairly inconsequential. Together, they are fatal.

I once dated an ex-con who taught me about this phenomenon long before Malcolm Gladwell came along. He was caught in a sting operation just after his eighteenth birthday with three thousand hits of LSD. “It’s a good thing they didn’t find the rest,” he said, “or I’d still be sweating in a cell block in Bergen County. He passed on an important piece of advice, and it was this: Never break two laws at once. For example: If your license is suspended, don’t change lanes without signalling. If you’re stoned out of your gourd, don’t go over the speed limit.

If you’re going to break the laws of gravity, don’t break the laws of aerodynamics.

Don’t grind your teeth. But if you’re going to, don’t leave your occlusal guard on the bedside table night after night after night. Tomorrow I’ve got an 8 a.m. date with an endodontist. My first root canal. Now please excuse me while I go pluck my nose hairs.

Do you ever break two rules at once?