School, mall and workplace shootings: Why so many? No, why so few?

The second in our “Cult of Crime” series
(Part 1: Foxy Knoxy and the case of the honorary Missing White Woman)


Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion
by Mark Ames
Soft Skull Press, 2005
360 pages, $15.95

In April 2007, when a Virginia Tech student killed 32, it was one of the worst ever, to coin a phrase, “social shootings.” Earlier, in February, five were killed in a Salt Lake mall and then, in December, nine in an Omaha mall.

Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion by Mark Ames was published by Soft Skull Press back in 2005. But the continued popularity of school, mall, and workplace shootings as a practical solution for troubled souls obligates us to revisit this essential work.

When social shootings first burst upon the scene, they seared the national psyche like a wildfire. Though since overshadowed by 9/11, Iraq, and Katrina, the regularity with which they flare up keeps them from slipping off our radar.

In 1986 postal employee Patrick Sherrill couldn’t have imagined the trend he sparked when he opened fire on the Edmond, Oklahoma post office. “Going postal” soon spread to the workplace at large. Few are aware of the numbers, but from 1998 to 2003 there were 164 shootings resulting in 290 dead and 161 wounded. In 2003 alone, 45 workplace massacres left 69 dead and 46 wounded.

The frequency of school shootings is just as mind-numbing. For example, bet you didn’t know that two weeks before Virginia Tech, two were killed at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Afterwards, while the bodies are autopsied, the culture audits itself. In the case of school shootings, perennial culprits like the broken family, gun availability, and bipolar disorder inevitably boil down to, “the parents,” as in “I blame the…” or “Where are the…”

Never mind that, according to Ames, love for their parents is expressed in the suicide notes of Klebold and Harris (who the adolescent Internet has canonized as Saints Dylan and Eric of the Columbine order).

Ames is a founder and the editor of the eXile, a Russian alternative weekly for the English-speaking that’s so wild and wooly it forces us to confront the painful truth that there may now be more freedom of the press in Russia than in the US.

Ames, pugnacious by nature (at least in his writing) is battle-tested by a decade in post-perestroika Moscow. He’s thus equipped to handle the accusation for which a superficial reading of Going Postal leaves him wide open — that he’s justifying the killings.

“Rather than looking outside of the office world for an explanation,” Ames writes of workplace shootings, “why not consider the changes within America’s corporate culture itself?”

Because it results in the death of innocents, a massacre by a heretofore unknown entity obscures what causes it. Difficulty identifying exactly who was targeted masks the motive. But Ames chronicles case after case of a worker who’s singled out for scut work and judged by separate standards. Wilting under the pressure, he invites further abuse, before ultimately erupting in a random shooting.

Except, Ames maintains, there’s nothing random about it. Besides hunting down a hated supervisor or executive, the killer also mows down co-workers. Why? Because he seeks to destroy the company as an entity. This is the stuff of which uprisings are made.

In fact, Ames devotes part two of Going Postal to building the case that today’s workplace shootings are akin to slave rebellions. At the time, outbreaks like Nat Turner’s were viewed as inchoate and devoid of political context by a public blissfully unaware that the victims of slavery might have a problem with the institution.

But institutions, like the state whose instrument they are, have a way of steamrolling the little guy. In fact, good old American bullying is at the heart of Going Postal. But, we remonstrate, hasn’t bullying in the workplace and schools become a thing of the past since civil rights laws and an ambient political correctness?

On the contrary, according to Ames. Besides labeling the killings uprisings, he has the audacity to invoke slavery to describe the working environment that’s evolved since the Reagan years.

“Reagan’s legacy to America and modern man is not the victory in the Cold War, where he simply got lucky.” (Remember Ames has an inside view of Russia.) Instead it’s “one of the most shocking wealth transfers in the history of the world…”

“Historians,” he conjectures, “may look back at this time and wonder why there weren’t more murders and rebellions.”

Regarding school shootings, he reminds us of what many forget: When Reagan was running for president in 1980, he pledged to abolish the federal Department of Education. But by exactly what mechanism does school carnage become a toxic byproduct of the economy?

Ames explains. While, for example, the “Top 20” universities remain the same in number, the entrance bar is constantly raised because of an ever-expanding pool of applicants.

Furthermore, “The kids are stressed out not only by their own pressure at school, but by the stress their parents endure in order to earn enough money to live in [a prestigious] school district….Everyone is terrified of not ‘making it’ in a country where the safety net has been torn to shreds.”

But it’s not enough for Ames to justify the shootings to a certain extent and comparing the millennial work environment to slavery. He gives the reader even more bang for his or her buck. Ames concludes Going Postal by going out on a limb and tracing the killings back to one infamous moment in American history.

The Reagan years and the rocketing stock market of the nineties convinced most Americans they were rich people waiting to happen. They became too proud, Ames says, to identify themselves as the working people they remained in the interim. But those who are old enough to remember Reagan’s first term can’t help but feel the sting of Ames’s coup de grace at some level.

“When Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981,” he asserts, “he told America he was literally willing to kill us all [in plane crashes, presumably] if we didn’t give in to his wealth-transfer plan….The air controller’s union broke — and so did a whole way of life.”

Ames renders the shooting incidents with the skill of a crime novelist. But while many in the competitive world of crime writing escalate the violence from one death to serial murders, Ames, as dictated by his subject, has no choice but to top them with serial massacres.

It’s no reflection on the author, but the horror wears you down. After a while, it begins to seem like there are as many bullets flying around the country as there are cockroaches crawling around.

At times, Ames works too hard to convince us of his thesis, when the facts speak for themselves. But it’s only in the service of giving voice to a generation of workers left to twist in the wind without unions, their children buffeted by the harsh realities of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Virginia Tech generated as much hand-wringing as any shooting. And it resulted in the passage of an important gun-control act, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Erecting obstacles to gun ownership is a no-brainer. Closing gaps in mental health care as well as remedying misinterpretations of privacy laws (like those that left the Virginia Tech killer’s deteriorating condition untreated) are steps in the right direction, too.

But it’s hard not to agree with Ames that failing to address the structural issues of, no, not society — but the economy — will continue to impose intolerable strains on Americans.

As long as the gap between the rich and the rest of us continues to widen, social shootings will remain the meltdown of choice for many. Just like suicide bombings in the Middle East.

13 replies »

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  2. Mass shootings are caused by wealth disparity. That is a bit of an over-simplicfication, and a stretch. The individuals involved each have their own reasons for going ‘postal’. Some mass killings are the result of a divorce or broken relationship. This has nothing to do with the economy. And, not all school/mall/workplace shootings happen in the United States, so Reagan’s policies would have little direct bearing on massshootings in Canada, Britian, Tasmania. All in all, mass shootings are too rare, too unique a phenomenon to explain from broad social catagories. Let’s end poverty for the sake of the poor, not for fear of another Virgina Tech.

  3. He’s a Russian and he don’t know a psy-op when he sees one? You said it yourself, the Virginia Tech shootings got a new gun bill railroaded through. Please!

  4. Xalem, totally agree.

    Russ, as far as declaring that Russian press freedom is greater than that in the US … there’s a joke we used to tell here in South Africa during the worst of the dictatorship:

    An American and a Russian are talking: “In my country I can say whatever I want. I can stand on the steps of the White House and yell, ‘Reagan is a fascist!’ and I won’t get arrested,” says the American.

    “So what?” says the Russian. “I can stand on the steps of the Duma and yell, ‘Reagan is a fascist!’ and get a commendation.”

  5. I sort of tangentially deal with some related concerns in my dissertation. My sense is that we’re now into a moment of radical upheaval that isn’t at all unlike the Luddite Rebellion, where significant technological and economic dislocations shattered the established culture and created all kinds of new sources of stress and anxiety while annihilating the structures that had previously assured stability.

    I was invited (as a result of a piece I did in the wake of Columbine) to respond to an essay written by Nicholas Turse a few years ago, in which he sought to parallel Harris and Klebold with ’60s radicals like Hoffman and Mark Rudd. I wrote, in part:

    Moreover, I suspect that we’ll look back, as we construct our histories of this moment, and link these killers to the likes of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, as well as to a larger body of neo-Luddites whose discontent with technological society finds voice in the writings of Kirkpatrick Sale, Sven Birkerts, and Mark Slouka. The public mind hasn’t yet put these things together, but I suspect a critical minority will do so eventually. While Harris and Klebold weren’t attacking the machine per se, it’s hard to argue that the monolithic educational infrastructure that helped spawn them is somehow unrelated to the trajectory of technological society generally.

    Historians are going to have what military types refer to as a “target-rich environment” in untangling our current moment. Thanks to Ames for tackling the subject, thanks to Soft Skull for publishing it, and thanks to you for such a thoughtful review.

  6. Xalem – millions of people get divorced, etc. without going postal, but I could see that as the trigger for some of these events.

    As far as Russian freedom of the press, I have one word: Politkovskaya.

  7. “When Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981,” he asserts, “he told America he was literally willing to kill us all [in plane crashes, presumably] if we didn’t give in to his wealth-transfer plan….The air controller’s union broke — and so did a whole way of life.”

    right. except not sure how wealth-transfer figures into that

  8. it’s hard to argue that the monolithic educational infrastructure that helped spawn them is somehow unrelated to the trajectory of technological society generally.

    Well, yes. The hard part is determining, demonstrating and predicting the outcomes of the relationship.