The rhetoric around killing is always full of euphemisms. Soldiers, in the euphemistic parlance, “protect us”. Drone bombings “target terrorists”. If you crash two jets into the World Center, you’ve committed a massive act of “terrorism”, and if you carelessly evacuate Fallujah and go street by street wiping out armed insurgents, you have “pacified” it.
All involve dancing around putting holes in human beings, burning them alive, crushing their vertebrae, smashing their internal organs, chopping off their limbs, and otherwise butchering them with less surgical precision than is brought, normally, to the butchering of a calf for veal.
So the struggle to define what Stephan Paddock did goes on without questioning the dressing we put around butchery. Nobody wants to say that any nation that bombs another nation in a display of “Shock and Awe” is definitely and explicitly engaging in terrorism. Or that terrorism is the logical, pathological effect of any attempt to sheer off parts of a human being, perforate them, explode them, boil them, incinerate them, poison them, and otherwise operate on what we know about human pain centers.
This has long been noticed by the best observers. When the King of Italy was assassinated by anarchists in the 1890s, Tolstoy wrote a level headed little essay about the moral condemnation allotted to the assassin and withheld from the King, and all the rulers of Europe, and of the U.S., when they directed mass murder as public policy.
Here’s Tolstoy: “When Kings are executed after trial, as in the case of Charles L, Louis XVI., and Maximilian of Mexico; or when they are killed in Court conspiracies, like. Peter Ill., Paul, and various Sultans, Shahs, and Khans-little is said about it; but when they are killed without a trial and without a Court conspiracy- as in the case of Henry IV. of France, Alexander ll., the Empress of Austria, the late Shah of Persia, and, recently, Humbert- such murders excite the greatest surprise and indignation among Kings and Emperors and their adherents, just as if they themselves never took part in murders, nor profited by them, nor instigated them. But, in fact, the mildest of the murdered Kings (Alexander 11. or Humbert, for instance), not to speak of executions in their own countries, were instigators of, and accomplices and partakers in, the murder of tens of thousands of men who perished on the field of battle ; while more cruel Kings and Emperors have been guilty of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of murders.”
The cut rate go to guy for cutting through the bullshit in modern times has been Orwell – but Orwell’s truth speaking pulls up well short of Tolstoy’s. In fact, one of Orwell’s most interesting essays is about the problem of Tolstoy. But that would take us too far afield.
One thing that was different about Tolstoy’s time was that the technology of murder – beautiful beautiful weapons – and the aesthetics of representation had not merged quite so much. Theater in the nineteenth century was operating at the same time as the quantum leaps in weaponry, but theater did not fall in love with it. It did not feature the Gatling gun. It did not feature the bomb.
Cinema, though, from early on, embraced the weapon as its coeval. There was, perhaps, a recognition that montage and the firing of the machine gun shared a certain sequential form. The bullet was the movies in their most concentrated form. Or at least this is true of certain cinemas – mainly, the American one. From the Tommy guns of the gangster to the truckload of weaponry hoisted about in Arnold Schwarzenegger films, the art of killing has been filmed with undeniable love. Love’s a very powerful thing – according to Lucretius, it is love, not free will, that moves the nations and keeps the universe going. And that love has been absorbed by the populace it was aimed at – mainly masculine, mainly primed, by thousands of suggestions and hints, for violence. And yet, that love didn’t spill over, until the seventies, into weapon sales. In Hong Kong films, where the sequence of pistol, shot, and perforated human body is equally prominent, the “civilian” audience did not take the cue that this was a form of product placement. Not only does Hong Kong have an extraordinarily low homicide rate, which has kept falling even as the violence in HK films went ballistic, but it kept falling after the abolition of capital punishment. Criminologists (who do not recognize, normally, capital punishment as murder – Tolstoy would disagree) often compare Singapore, which has the highest capital punishment rate in the world, with Hong Kong, due to the similarity of their city-nation statuses. Both experienced huge drops in the murder rate in the 90s.
So, too, did the U.S. The difference is, of course, that the U.S. has always had a much higher murder rate than any of its peers. And it still does.
So: why is it that the beauty of weaponry has such a hold on the American heart that we try the weapons out on each other? I don’t have a clue about that. Like the motives for Stephen Paddock’s mass murder, the threads lead, I guess, to everything we hold to be normal – the work defined life, the grim trudging after money purely for the sake of money, the emptiness. Some answer floats there, I think. But this might be a jaundiced view.