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Speeding Up

Sunday, 19 August 2012

There are few people who are not my age or older for whom the name Charles Whitman brings immediate recognition.  And yet, in 1966, when I was 9 years old, there would have been few Americans above a certain age who did not know his name, in spite of more primitive media outlets of television, radio, and newspaper.

For one day in 1966, Charles Whitman, age 25, killed his wife and mother in Austin, Texas, and then entered the Tower at the University of Texas, where he attended, killed three people inside, and then from the observation deck of the tower, shot and killed 11 more people and wounded 32 others. 

It was the first mass shooting, outside the arena of World War II, that I ever knew anything about. 

When the next mass shooting occurred in the United States, I can't tell you.  But it feels to me now like it was decades later and I'm pretty sure it took place at a McDonald's, maybe in the 80's.  It is more important to me, for this post, that I go with what I remember rather than with any kind of official research.  For I am part of this great American society, and I want you to know what it feels like to me.
Since then, we have had, of course, countless shootings, in the North, in the South, in the West, in the Midwest.  In post offices, in government buildings, at political rallies, on army bases, in schools.  In movie theaters.  And in more schools.  Columbine, Virginia Tech, where else?  Where is next?

If you are a fan of the show, Criminal Minds, which I occasionally watch, then you know two things.  First, if you follow the show week to week, you know that there are an unlimited supply of serial killers in this country, those whom we've had run-ins with and those who operate more anonymously until they do something that calls them to the attention of the criminal specialists on the show.  And that is where the second thing you know comes in:  that a serial killer, over time, "speeds up."

Speeding up is the concept that over time a serial killer's kills come closer and closer together, that although he may have started out slowly, spreading out those first, tentative kills over a number of years (or decades), eventually as he reaches frution (and I'm using the male pronoun because serial killers tend to be male), he must kill more and more frequently in order to get the same feeling of power and control and superiority.  And that underlying desire to be caught.

Imagine now that the United States, and its mass of people in particular, are actually one giant organism, that individual people, like cells, may come and go, but the American body, the American being, goes lumbering forward into the present and future, containing all that was and all that will be.  And look at the pattern of our shooters who step into a public space and kill.  We, as a society, are speeding up, aren't we? 

Our mass shootings have reached the point to where, if the circumstances are not egregious, as in small children killed in a movie theater or students in a school, we give the whole mass shooting phenomenon a "ho-hum."  I mean, how many mass shootings that either occurred or were thwarted have taken place since The Dark Knight Rises holocaust in Colorado?  You don't even know, do you?  Neither, for the purposes of this piece, do I.  A rough estimate on my part would include a school shooting, a Sikh shooting, and a prevented shooting in another movie theater.  Everybody from the religiously-intolerant to the copycats are planning days or nights out with guns.

The causes for that are myriad, far too complicated for any study to encompass.  We are inclined to blame, over time, everything from Saturday morning cartoons to video games to the disintegration of the family unit to our increasing number of mental disorders to the media and entertainment industries to personal glitches to rage and frustration.

The beauty of Criminal Minds is that there is some reassurance in knowing that a special unit that is out there tracking this thing, highly-trained individuals with plenty of experience who can put the pieces together quickly enough to resolve everything in about 48 minutes.  But that is television, and even if it were real, such a unit is not zeroed in on a society.  It's hard enough for them to figure out the motivations of that one, anti-social individual.  And it wreaks havoc on them personally. 

Who is out there to say that our country, taken as a whole, is dispensing with groups of its citizens with an increasingly-frenetic regularity with means that are all too accessible for reasons that we cannot understand and with a pervasive randomness that, should it become any more pervasive, will cease to be random?  How many more times will we mourn the victims of some "senseless tragedy"?  Who can handle that assault on their psyches?  Not us.  We cope by pretending that it isn't happening.

The serial killer thrives on the game that incidents seem isolated unless there are enough clues to allow the slow-witted police to begin to connect the dots.  He teases and taunts.  Who will say publicly what we are becoming, maybe what we have become?  Who will acknowledge that those of us who live our normal lives nevertheless know enough to understand what is out there on the other side?  We see that dark side of ourselves, our society, don't we, in our interactions and in our stores, in our cars and during our drives?

I know we do, but what do we do?  When everything is speeding up, we miss everything that is speeding up.  It becomes the norm and we move on.  But the pace of our killing and our attempted killing, that can never be the norm, can it?  Or is it?  Can we protect ourselves from ourselves?

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