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Fall 2005

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Evil, Not Rage

an excerpt from the forthcoming, "Going Postal" on Soft Skull Press

Mark Ames

In the case of both postal massacres and workplace massacres, the first outbreaks appeared in rural America before spreading to the populated areas and the coast. With post offices, the first massacre took place in small-town South Carolina, spread to Alabama, then Atlanta, Edmond, and New Orleans before hitting coastal California with a vengeance and metastasizing everywhere and anywhere after that. In the case of office massacres, Wesbecker launched his rebellion in Kentucky and from there it spread quickly to the coasts of Southern California and Florida, and now appears literally anywhere in the country. Today these massacres can appear anywhere at any time, with all of the geographic randomness yet circumstantial similarity of a roving guerrilla war.

These patterns hold for the third type of rage murder that I will examine, schoolyard massacres. Like postal and office shootings, schoolyard shootings got their start in small-town America in 1996, exactly a decade after Patrick Sherrill "went postal" in Edmond. The white suburban middle-class massacres that Columbine popularized got their start in rural towns like Moses Lake, Washington, West Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas.

In fact schoolyard shootings weren't entirely new. In Kentucky alone, there were two that occurred other than the Paducah massacre, one in Carter County in 1993 and another in Union in 1994. A new phenomenon was that the rebellions had spread and found sympathy with a broader audience. Never before had people considered that a schoolyard massacre could happen at any white middle-class suburban high school in America. But through the the Moses Lake-Paducah-Jonesboro rage…they entered the collective adolescent conscious. They provided a new context for something already felt, already brewing, but not yet expressed.

In his book No Easy Answer, Brooks Brown, a former Columbine student and childhood friend of one of the Columbine killers, explained how the rage rebellion context reached his school:

"The end of my junior year [1998], school shootings were making their way into the news. The first one I heard about was in 1997, when Luke Woodham killed two students and wounded seven others in Pearl, Mississippi. Two months later, in West Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal killed three students at a high school prayer service.

". . .Violence had plagued inner-city schools for some time, but these shootings marked its first real appearance in primarily white, middle- to upper-middle-class suburbs.

". . . When we talked in class about the shootings, kids would make jokes about how 'it was going to happen at Columbine next.' They would say that Columbine was absolutely primed for it, because of the bullying and the hate that were so prevalent at our school."

There are good reasons why the rage craze started in small-town America and moved to the big cities. First of all, rural Americans are a little less conditioned and a little wilder than their highly-socialized counterparts on the coasts. I grew up in coastal California and lived for nearly a year in Kentucky, so I've seen this difference myself. When it comes to the intense social pressures to conform, the suburbs of San Jose are like Bismarck's Prussia compared to Kentucky. It's easier to imagine that you can literally shoot your grievances away in rural America or that you have the "right" to fight fire with fire, rather than fighting a downsizing-mad CEO with a groveling smile as most coastal yuppies would. In coastal or big-town white America, if you are a failure, you are more inclined to imagine that it is your fault, that it is some kind of cosmic judgment on your innate base nature. You might accept it more passively, suck it up more, or just quietly end it in your garage with a garden hose and the idle running. But well before you'd snap in suburban California, you'd be giving it your 110 percent over and over and over, constantly convincing yourself and those around you of your optimism and determination, always being positive and trying to make sure that everyone thinks you're just swell. There is no room for eccentric behavior in coastal suburban America—unless it's the kind of eccentric behavior that's already considered cool.

In rural white America, expectations are different. A neurotic, metrosexual office slave slathered in Kiehl's cucumber-based facial lotion, always beaming about his wonderful career and how everything's "great!" would strike most there as repulsive. Sacrificing all of one's waking hours, as well as family, friends, and children, just to please an abusive boss and a disloyal corporation has not yet been fully absorbed as "normal." However, the shootin' the bastards up who done you wrong solution has a long tradition, and doesn't seem as bizarre a response to injustice as middle America's cheerful slavishness.

What was significant about these rage murders wasn't that they started in rural America, but that they spread to mainstream America. Not that this has never happened, other cultural trends, such as in arts and in language, often percolate "upward" from the rural lower-middle-classes to the larger middle-classes.

The shootings in Pearl, Paducah, and Jonesboro might have seemed little more than isolated incidents if they didn't already have a context in the office massacres that had been leaving behind blood-spattered workplace corpses for over a decade. The three schoolyard shootings happened one after another, creating a snowball effect that helped propel the schoolyard massacre coastward and into cities, to Pennsylvania, Oregon, and later, of course, to Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. One way of wrongly interpreting this pattern was to attribute the crime's spread to "copycat" behavior, applying the ol' kindergarten theory of "would you jump off a bridge if Johnny did?" This fatuous explanation allows observers to write off a profound crime with a simple catchphrase. After reading a newspaper article about a schoolyard shooting in Mississippi, some upper-middle class suburban goth-brat decides, "Hey, I wanna be just like that hick! I'm going to murder and destroy my life so that maybe one day a hick I don't know will think I'm cool!" You have to willfully forget how you thought or felt as a kid - what your references consisted of, where you drew your borders- to accept something as lazy and convenient as the copycat explanation.

Moreover, many schoolyard shooters explicitly saw their massacres as rebellions in a broader, philosophical sense (just as many office and post office murderers did). Michael Carneal, who slaughtered three students in a high school prayer class in West Paducah, was found to have downloaded the Unabomber's manifesto as well as something called "The School Stopper's Textbook: A Guide to Disruptive Revolutionary Tactics; Revised Edition for Junior High/High School Dissidents," which calls on students to resist schools' attempts to mold students and enforce conformity. The preface starts off, "Liberate your life—smash your school! The public schools are slowly killing every kid in them, stifling their creativity and individuality making them into non-persons. If you are a victim of this one of the things you can do is fight back." Many of Carneal's school essays resembled the Unabomber Manifesto. He had been bullied and brutalized, called "gay" and a "faggot." He hated the cruelty and moral hypocrisy of so-called normal society and the popular crowd. Rather than just complain about it all the time like the Goths he befriended, he decided to act.

Luke Woodham, the high school killer in Pearl, Mississippi, whose murder spree preceded Carneal's by two months, was even more explicit in his rebellion. Minutes before starting his schoolyard rampage, Woodham handed his manifesto to a friend, along with a will. "I am not insane," he wrote. "I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society push us and we will push back…All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do? Yes, you will…It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can't pry your eyes open, if I can't do it through pacifism, if I can't show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet."

The Columbine killers openly declared that their planned massacre was intended to ignite a nation-wide uprising. "We're going to kick-start a revolution, a revolution of the dispossessed!" Eric Harris said in a video diary he made before the killings. "I want to leave a lasting impression on the world," he added in another entry.

And that they did. If the immediate goal of an armed uprising is to spark wider sympathy and push the momentum further, then many of these rage uprisings succeed. One of the most troubling and censored aspects of schoolyard massacres is how popular they are with a huge number of kids. I felt that forbidden sympathy for Klebold and Harris as soon as I heard about Columbine, as did many people I know who range from white collar professionals to artists. Many of us experienced the same agony in suburban high schools, an agony that is dismissed and ridiculed because it doesn't conform to the officially-recognized grievances that we allow. We are white and middle-class, therefore we are happy - and if we're not happy, we're whiners. We have freedom of speech; therefore, we have no censorship. The shootings are not really uprisings; the sympathy is not really widespread. Today's white middle-class must be the only socio-economic group in mankind's history that not only doesn't recognize its own miseries as valid, but reacts dismissively, sarcastically (dissidents are called "whiners"), even violently against anyone from their class who tries to validate their misery. But our ranking of what constitutes existential "pain" is purely irrational and arbitrary. In fact, if pain could be measured neurochemically, it is entirely possible that the pain felt by a white-collar office worker stressed from seventy-hour workweeks and Andy Grove-inspired office fear is equivalent to the agony felt by indentured servants. The point is that the middle-class persistently denies its own unique pathos, irrationally clinging to an irrational way of measuring it, perhaps because if they did validate their own pain and injustice, it would be too unsettling—it would throw the entire world order into doubt. It is more comforting to believe that they aren't really suffering, and it's more comforting to accuse those who disagree of being psychologically weak whiners. Despite its several hundred million strong demographic, the white bourgeoisie's pain doesn't officially count…it is too ashamed of itself to sympathize with its own suffering. And yet all the symptoms and causes remain and grow worse even as the denial becomes more fierce.

The popularity of the Columbine massacre helped spawn several more schoolyard shootings and untold numbers of school-massacre plots, many of which were uncovered, and many of which were the inventions of paranoid adults. Just as post office rampagers cited Edmond, several schoolyard massacre plotters and gunmen referenced Columbine, often promising to top it, or to borrow from Royal Oak postal worker Thomas McIlvane, "Make [Columbine] look like [name of harmless, happy place for women/children]."

"They said specifically it would be bigger than Columbine," New Bedford Police Chief Arthur Kelly said.

"New Bedford police say they foiled Columbine-like plot," Associated Press, 11/24/01

Across America, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris became anti-heroes. In a Denver Rocky Mountain News article titled "Surfers Worship Heroes of Hate," dated February 6, 2000, the journalist details the mass popularity of the Columbine killers: "They made hate-filled videotapes about the day the deed they were planning would make them cult heroes. Now, they appear to have gotten what they wanted—at least online."

The article goes on to quote some of the message boards devoted to Klebold and Harris:

"In a Yahoo! club devoted to the killers, a 15-year-old Elizabeth, N.J., girl writes:

" 'They are really my heroes. They are in a way gods . . . since i dont believe in "GOD" or any of that other crap that goes along with it. They are the closest thing we can get to it and i think they are good at it. they stood up for what they believe in and they actually did something about it.' "

A fourteen-year-old Toronto girl is also cited as belonging to twenty (!) online fan-clubs devoted to Klebold and Harris. The point of the article is that the Internet shows just how sick our kids are. It does not consider the possibility that maybe the kids are right in making Klebold and Harris heroes. Perhaps they are considered heroes for valid reasons and the Net allows us easier access into the unofficial truth.

Another article in the Denver Post a few months earlier noted with horror, "They wanted cult-hero status. And they got it. At least by World Wide Web standards."

". . . 'Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris Rule,' reads the subject line from the bulletin board. 'Eric and Dylan should be praised for what they did, not be labeled as monsters…They did what so many of us young people wanna do.' "

The reason Klebold and Harris's hero status is expressed online is obvious: it's the one place where you can exchange ideas with a reasonable hope of maintaining anonymity. Admitting your sympathy with the Columbine killers can, in today's paranoid, zero-tolerance school atmosphere, get you thrown out of school, forced into counseling, or sent to a boot camp in Central America. Literally. As this New York Times article, "Desert Boot Camp Shut Down After Suspicious Death of Boy," dated July 4, 2001, shows:

The authorities here are investigating how a 14-year-old boy died this week while participating in a rigorous boot-camp program for troubled youth in the desert west of Phoenix…It is by no means the first camp of its kind where children have suffered serious injuries and even death…[ Capt. Tim Dorn] said that investigators could not determine whether camp personnel had adequate amounts of food and water available to the children. When investigators visited the camp on Monday, he said, the temperature was 120 degrees. The Arizona Republic reported today that the boy had vomited dirt before he died…Tony's mother, Melanie Hudson, who lives in Phoenix, said she enrolled her child in the camp to help him control his anger."

Even though rage rebellions hit schoolyards years after they started in the adult world, the juvenile perpetrators are generally more explicit about whom they are fighting and the significance of their operations. One reason they are often more direct about viewing their massacres as rebellions is that young people are more idealistic, even as schoolyard shooters. A man who has worked in the office world for twenty-five years no longer contemplates larger society or his ability to have any effect on anything outside of his rabbit warren of cubicles. Most adults stop talking about society and justice after a few years of getting squeezed in the work/debt vise. The best that most workplace killers hope for is to remove the immediate source of repression - the offending supervisor, and the company, if possible.

Like adult rampagers, schoolyard shooters are impossible to profile. Initially it was thought that Columbine's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were drug-addled dropouts, Nazi-enthused homosexuals, children of broken homes, Goth-geeks, Trench Coat Mafioisi, or Marilyn Manson goons. But the truth was far more commonplace and that's what was so disturbing about their massacre. Both came from two-parent homes, both loved their parents and both were highly intelligent but erratic students. They weren't Nazis or drug addicts. They weren't Goths, Trench Coat Mafiosi, or Marilyn Manson fiends; they weren't even gay, as some had theorized.

An exhaustive attempt by the Secret Service to profile school rage murderers failed, as detailed in a government report released in May 2002. Some schoolyard shooters were honors students, some were bad students; some were geeks, some were fairly popular; and some were antisocial, others seemed to be easygoing and "not at all the type." Some have been girls, a fact strangely overlooked by most. Like their rage counterparts in the adult world, school shooters could be literally any kid except perhaps those who belonged to the popular crowd, the school's version of the executive/shareholding class. That is to say, about 90 percent of each suburban school's student body is a possible suspect. And once again, I believe this at the very least suggests that the source of these rampages must be the environment that creates them, not the killers themselves. And by environment I don't mean something as vague as society but rather the schools and the people they shoot and bomb.

It isn't the office or schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled - they can't be. It is the workplaces and schools that need to be profiled.

A list should be drawn up of the characteristics and warning signs of a school ripe for massacre:

  • complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure
  • antiseptic corridors and overhead fluorescent lights reminiscent of mid-sized city airport
  • rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order
  • maximally-stressed parents push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores

The profiling should be extended to the adult workplace as well. Then workers could know which companies to suspect and possibly shut down for posing a danger to society. Here is one possible profile:

  • employees expected to work in excess of a traditional forty-hour week without additional pay
  • atmosphere of fear and stress intentionally imposed from above
  • temp slaves hired alongside full-timers
  • downsizing has occurred or will occur
  • wages and benefits continually slashed
  • union weakened or nonexistent
  • promotions based on favoritism rather than merit
  • management ruthlessly penalizes employees if personal tragedies affect productivity
  • massive gap between upper echelon pay and other wages
  • imposes Casual Friday
  • presence of coworkers who love their job too much to leave for vacation

Unfortunately, this describes nearly every workplace. Which is why nearly any workplace can spawn a murder spree.
The collective resistance to considering the possibility that the workplace causes murders is effected by a kind of defiant amnesia. But schoolyard shootings are too shocking and subversive to forget. They remind us that we were just as miserable as kids as we are as adult workers. In fact, the similarities between the two, the continuity of misery and entrapment from school to office, become depressingly clear when you study the two settings in the context of these murders. Even physically, they look alike and act on the mind in a similar way: the overhead fluorescent lights, the economies-of-scale-purchased industrial carpeting and linoleum floors, the stench of cleaning chemicals in the restrooms, the same stalls with the same latches and the same metal toilet paper holders . . . Then, after work or school you go home to your suburb, where no one talks to each other, and no one looks at each other, and where everyone, even the whitest-bread cul-de-sac neighbor, is a suspected pedophile, making child-leashes a requirement and hi-tech security systems a given.

If you consider it this way, it means our entire lives, except perhaps college and that one summer backpacking around Europe, are unbearably awful. Suddenly, our lives are a miserable joke played for someone else's benefit (Jack Welch). This is too much to handle. So the inescapable suspicion that suburban schools cause murder rampages is rejected with unrestrained hysteria. Blame is hurriedly focused on the murderer, rather than on the environment. A typical example is an Op-Ed piece written by Joanne Jacobs for the San Jose Mercury News published exactly eight months after the Columbine massacre, in which she tried to reassure herself and her readers that, "Evil, not rage, drove these killers." I emphasize her quote because it's one of the most revealing yet widely-held explanations among contemporary Americans. When you use a word as inherently meaningless as "evil" to describe something as complex and resonant as Columbine, you are desperately trying to recover the amnesia that once protected you, and told you how blissful and innocent your own school years were. The fact is that the schoolyard shooters were clear about their intentions: they wanted to "pry your eyes open." But sometimes we don't like what our eyes see, in fact, we refuse to believe what they see. You'd need to use Clockwork Orange eye-tweezers on someone like Joanne Jacobs to make her face this unpleasant fact.

If you accept that schools and offices, as compressed microcosms of the larger culture, create massacres, just as poverty and racism create their own crimes or as slavery created occasional revolts, then you have to accept that on some level the school and office shootings are logical outcomes and perhaps even justified responses to an intolerable condition that we can't yet put our fingers on. Justified, that is, if you look at these crimes from a historian's point of view. Imagine a historian one hundred years from now, with no emotional investment in our culture, looking back on how we live today, and thinking to himself, "My god, how could those poor wretches cope with such Hell?" In fact, unofficially, even today a lot of people look at these murders as justified, as vindication. Sympathy is all over the Web. It's revealed in black-humor, in "Wage Slave" T-shirts, and in movies like Office Space and Fight Club. It's revealed anywhere it can safely be expressed.