american despair and mass murder

Who remembers James Oliver Hubert? That was the McDonald’s Massacre, 21 killed, July 18, 1984. He screamed as he shot, I’ve killed thousands. How about Patrick Sherril, post office worker, who killed 15 in the Edmond Oklahoma, post office, August 20, 1986? How about William Bryan  Cruse? That was the Publix in Palm Bay Florida, 6 killed, 13 wounded, April 23, 1987. Cruse was 60 years old. Then there was Joseph Wesbecker, who, in spite of his mental health issues, was able to purchase the AK 47 that he used to kill seven of his former co-workers at the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky, September 15, 1989. How about James Edward Pough? That was ten people, the GMAC office, Jacksonville Florida, 1990. How about John T. Miller? Five people, Social Services office, Watkin Glens, New York, October 15, 1992. How about George Hennard, the doctor’s son, in the Luby’s in Kileen Texas, 23 killed, October 16, 1991? The papers at the time said it was America’s greatest mass shooting. This may or may not be true.  Then, showing that an armed camp is not necessarily a safe camp, there was Dean A. Mellberg, who went onto the hospital at the Fairchild Airforce Base in Spokane Washington and killed 4, wounded 21, and was killed himself on June 20, 1994. Remember Dean? Mental problems. AK 47. AK 47s are one of the arms of choice. For instance, drifter Patrick Edward Purdy was able to acquire one, although he had difficulty acquiring employment, and used it to kill five and injure 30 at the Cleveland Elementary school in Stockton, California, January 17, 1989. His victims ranged in age from 6 to 10 years old. William D. Baker used an AK 47 to kill four at the International Truck and Engine Core plant in Melrose Park, Illinois, on February 5, 2001. Funny thing, but the 66 year old Baker was about to go to prison. Unfortunately, nobody had taken away his extensive arm collection before the date he was to turn himself in. Doug Williams, in Meridian Mississippi, killed his victims – four blacks, as he avowedly hated blacks, and one white, besides himself – with a semi-automatic rifle at the Lockheed Martin plant where he worked on June 8, 2003. Newspapers noted that the event was the worst  work-site mass killing in 2 and ½ years – a record of peace and calm! Perhaps the benchmark they were using was the slaying  of seven in Wakefield, Massachussetts, on December 26, 2000. Michael McDermott, who worked at Edgewater Technology, came to work toting a semi-automatic rifle, a semi-automatic pistol, and a twelve gauge shotgun. How about church mass murders? Do you remember Matthew Murray, who killed five and wounded five at two churches in Colorado, on December 10, 2007? Or the two monks killed in a monastery in Conception, Missouri, on June 10, 2002. The killer was a 71 year old farmer, Lloyd Robert Jeffress. Remember Lloyd? The seven killed by Larry Ashbrook at the youth service in Fort Worth Wedgewood Baptist, and wounded 7. This was on September 15, 1999.  And lest we seem to be highlighting Christians, there’s the 9 Buddhist monks slain at the Promkunaram Wat temple outside of Phoenix, on August 10, 1991. Eventually, the killers were found. They used rifles, Alessandro Garcia and Jonathan Doody. They were 16 and 17 years old. Of course, churches and schoolyards are not the only sites that gunmen descend on in America. Carl Drega, a former nuclear plant worker, 67, killed four and wounded four before killing himself in Columbia, New Hampshire, because of court disputes. One of the dead was, in fact, a judge. This was on August 19, 1997. He used a rifle. “Authorities found hundreds of pounds of explosives and an elaborate system of tunnels” on his property.  A lawyer, Richard S. Baumhammers, decided to express his ideas about the supremecy of the white Christian race by killing his Jewish neighbor, an Indian, two Chinese and a black man in Mckees Rocks, Pennsylvania, on April 28, 2000. Surely you remember Richard? That was after a black man in Pennsylvania, Ronald Taylor, in Wilkensburg, shot and killed three. The landlord never fixed the door in Taylor’s apartment. Taylor sought out whites. Then there are the family issues. We all have probably forgotten retired Air Force sergeant Gene Simmons. He killed 16 in Russellville, Arkansas, on Christmas Eve in 1987. Fourteen were family members who’d come to the Simmons house for a Christmas party. They ranged from the 20 month old to the 46 year old wife. Firepower included two 38 caliber pistols. These killings, it is said, inspired another family Christmas massacre, as Robert Dressman shot and killed six people eating at the table in Algona, Iowa, two days after Simmons capture. Dressman killed himself, too.  Do you remember David McGowan, 44, an investigator for the Riverside D.A.’s department? He used his duty pistol to slay his wife, his mother, and his three kids before shooting himself, on May 11, 2005.
Mass slaying is as American as apple pie. It goes back. In Norwalk, Iowa, for instance, the Forsyth family slaying, in which the estranged husband killed his wife, his two children, and two childen she was babysitting (June 14, 1993) succeeds, by some fifty four years,  the slaying of five of the seven McCanich children by the mother, who shot them and then shot herself (October 31, 1937). It is claimed, in an article in the October issue of The Smithsonian that Howard Unruh, who, after a bad day, took his German Lugar pistol and walked around Camden New Jersey killing people at random on Labor Day, 1949, performed the first modern mass murder in this country. But how about Gilbert Twigg, who opened fire on a concert crowd in Winfield Kansas and killed six on August 13, 1904? Patrick Sauer identifies Unruh as the first due to two things: the randomness of the killing and the rapid fire of the technology. Twigg used a double barreled 12 gauge shot gun. But he was able, with this weapon, to inflict enormous damage, wounding 25 men and one woman.
The question is why. Lately, every massacre becomes a political insult match. Ah, the right wing fascist! Oh, the liberal protected Muslim! But one can pretty much predict that persons, mostly male, from every walk of life in America will be the perpetrators of the next one and the next and the next. What, for instance, produces the school killer? This isn’t a recent phenom. Verlin Spencer was a South Pasadena principle who, on May 6, 1940, killed five colleagues in the classic manner – stalking through  an institutional space, the school district headquarters, and systematically killing. In perhaps the most horrific school murder in US history, Andrew Kehoe, who was a., disgruntled, b., male, and c., 55 – it is surprising how many mass murderers are older – blew up a school in Bath Michigan, killing 44 and wounding 90. This was in 1927. In Grant Duwe’s history of mass murder in the US, he claims that there was a mass murder wave between 1900 and 1939, a trough in the 1940 to 1965 period, and a second mass murder wave which extends to 1999. Duwe, though, is rather captious about his definitions. Spree murders are not mass murders by his definition. This strikes me as a not very well motivated division. His definition is of that a mass murder mmust occur within a 24 hour period and include at least four victims. In my opinion, the intent to kill might not result in murder in many cases, but is nonetheless the operant motive.
In any case, Duwe’s explanation is that the 1940 to 1965 period was conformist, religious, affluent, and did not witness a mass black market in drugs. Yet, there were still mass murders going on.
It isn’t as though mass murder were confined to the US. If we look at European history, and we distinguish the violence of war from that of individual violence (which I consider a dubious division, but so be it), we can find many mass murders, but no consistent, monthly tendency to mass murder as we find in the US. True, American civilians own an astonishing amount of firepower – 88 guns per 100 people. Compare that with Spain, where the number is 11 guns per 100 persons. In France, which is pretty much at the EU norm, it is 31. That is still a lot of guns. Many Americans mistakenly believe that Europeans do not own guns. What is true is that gun ownership is more regulated and overseen, generally. Not everywhere, however. In Italy, for instance, the figure is around 12 per 100, but this disguises the fact that the law allows the individual to own a number of weapons with loose regulatory supervision.
However, it seems to me that the regulation of guns is a surface phenomenon, a reflection of the degree to which a society on all its levels is willing symbolically to submit to the dictates of the state. I don’t think that American history is explained by rugged individualism – in fact, to a degree, Americans fear non-conformity and are generally willing to obey the rules, whether the one about stopping at stop lights or the one about lining up in a straight line, in striking contrast to other countries. At some level, however, Americans despair of what Isaiah Berlin calls positive liberty – or what I would call the provision of elementary subsistence by the state. Often, what is striking about mass murder is the fact that its motive seems so trivial – a property dispute, a bad date. It is as if the killer’s patience snaps, and the only choice is between the landlord agreeing to repair the door and killing a number of strangers. How that choice forms in the mind of a person points to something about the American condition that ought to be made much more a part of the argument about gun violence in this country.  We have to accommodate this discourse to the level of despair out there. How much evidence do we need?