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Why are we killing each other?

AP analysis

POSTED: April 10, 2009 1:21 p.m.
PITTSBURGH — Does the name Byran Uyesugi ring a bell? Odds are not. What about Robert A. Hawkins? Or Mark Barton? Terry Ratzmann? Robert Stewart?
Each entered the national consciousness when he picked up a gun and ended multiple lives. Uyesugi, 1999, Hawaii office building, seven dead. Hawkins, 2007, Nebraska shopping mall, nine dead. Barton, Ratzmann and Stewart — 24 dead among them in 1999 (Atlanta brokerage offices), 2005 (Wisconsin church service) and last week (North Carolina rehab center).
And each has been largely forgotten as the parade of multiple killings in America melts into an indistinguishable blur. We bemoan, we mourn, we move on.
What’s even more disturbing is that the list was cherrypicked from a far lengthier tally of recent mass shootings in the United States. And now, this weekend, on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, the lives of three police officers ended in gunfire after a domestic dispute turned lethal.
The mass shootings that left 14 people dead in Binghamton, N.Y., last Friday were horrifying, depressing, nationally wrenching. They were also, to some extent, unsurprising in a society where the term “mass shooting” has lost its status as unthinkable aberration and become mere fodder for a fresh news cycle.
“We have to guard against the senseless violence that this tragedy represents,” President Barack Obama said in Europe on Saturday. Senseless violence: Two centuries from now, if we’re not careful, it could be an epitaph for our era.
Even in a media-saturated nation that encourages short memories, these numbers are conversation-stopping: More than 50 people dead in the past month in American mass shootings and their aftermaths. It’s to the point where on Saturday, dizzyingly, the mayor of Binghamton found himself offering Pittsburgh his sympathies.
It becomes almost impossible to keep up. By Saturday night, there was more dispiriting news from another corner of the country: In Graham, Wash., five children between 7 and 16 years old were found shot to death in a mobile-home park — apparently at the hands of their father, who then killed himself.
Put aside for a moment the debate over guns. This isn’t about policy. It’s about asking the urgent question: What is happening in the American psyche that prevents people from defusing their own anguish and rage before they end the lives of others? Why are we killing each other?
This is not an era of good feeling in the United States. We have under our belt eight years of pernicious terrorism angst, six years of Iraq war weariness and, now, months of wondering how bad the American economy’s going to get and when — or, worse, whether — it’s going to come back. People are tense. There’s less inclination to help out your fellow human being.
Meanwhile, anchors and analysts and witnesses and bloggers cast about in an information-age fog trying to make sense of something that is, in the worst way, nonsensical. They rush to offer solutions, but the thing they typically dodge is that we seem to be powerless to stop it all — that our community, our neighbors, may be next. That’s too terrifying to contemplate, not to mention too open-ended for American news consumers reared on tidy Hollywood endings.
The Binghamton newspaper, the Press & Sun Bulletin, seemed to acknowledge the resignation in a glum editorial Saturday that wondered if it was simply, sadly, and inevitably Binghamton’s turn to give up a few of its people to the juggernaut.
“It is our turn to grieve and to rally in support of those whose lives have been shattered,” the newspaper said. “And it’s our turn to hug those in our own families and wonder how a quiet, rainy Friday in a peaceful place became the setting for such a nightmare.”
The strangest of contradictions hangs over the Binghamton shootings. The shooter and many of the victims were immigrants — part of the pool of human beings who look to America as a place of opportunity and take often anonymous steps to realize their dreams here. On Friday, the idea that had beckoned them betrayed them.
The man believed to be the shooter, Jiverly Wong, had lost his job at an assembly plant, was barely getting by on unemployment and was frustrated that the American dream, so highly billed and coveted, wasn’t coming through for him. Early reports suggest that the suspect in the Pittsburgh officers’ killings, too, was angered at being laid off from a glass factory.
People are of course responsible for their actions, but it’s hard to avoid wondering what’s afoot in the darkest recesses of what we like to call American exceptionalism. For so long, the national narrative has been so bullish about equality of opportunity, so persuasive in its romance of possibility for all. Is it so subversive to speculate, then, that when the engine of possibility runs into roadblocks, people can’t cope?
Without excusing one whit of the violent tendencies that ended with so many bullets in so many bodies from Binghamton to North Carolina to Alabama to California in the past month, isn’t it time, finally, to figure out where this national dream makes a wrong turn?
“Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type,” a man named Charles Whitman wrote one day in 1966. Then he ascended a tower at the University of Texas, looked out over the campus, pulled out a shotgun, three rifles and three pistols and killed 16 people.
Forty-three years and countless reams of research and lost loved ones later, we have not figured it out. Today, the American Civic Association in Binghamton says so. The Pittsburgh Police Department says so. The vulnerable people at the Pinelake Health and Rehab Center in Carthage, N.C., say so.
Of Jiverly Wong, Binghamton police Chief Joseph Zikuski had this to say Saturday: “He must have been a coward.” Perhaps. But that’s the beginning of an answer, not the end of one. Last Friday, the federal government announced that 663,000 Americans lost their jobs in March. What’s truly unsettling in America’s new era of gloom and dead ends is wondering how many of those 663,000 might be deeply, irrevocably angry about it — and might have a gun.
Because the American tragedies that haven’t happened yet are the most terrifying ones of all.

Anthony covers American culture for The Associated Press.
 

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