Yet another rampage has occurred at a school, this time leaving 33 people dead at Virginia Tech – the worst such incident ever at a US college campus.
The news media seem stunned and surprised, yet their coverage sounds so similar to the stories about Columbine eight years ago. They dwell on the personality of the young man the police say did the shooting, before killing himself. They talk about him being a ‘loner’, depressed, perhaps angry at women.
But aren’t there lonely and depressed people all over the world? Many countries have high suicide rates. Why is it that here some become mass murderers?
The US is the world leader in seemingly random acts of violence by individuals. Why?
President George W Bush rushed to Virginia to speak at a large convocation the day after the killings and tried to set the tone for what could be said about them. “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering,” he said.
Don’t ask why, don’t try to understand. It makes no sense. ‘Have faith’ instead, was Bush’s message.
But there are reasons these things happen here, and they are pretty clear to the rest of the world. It’s just in the United States that no one is supposed to talk about the reasons.
What distinguishes this country from the rest of the world? It is neither the most affluent nor the poorest. It is neither the most secular nor the most religious. It is not the most culturally homogeneous nor is it the most diverse.
But in one area, it stands virtually alone. It has the biggest arsenal of high-tech weaponry in the world, way surpassing every other country. It has military bases spread all over; most countries have no troops outside their borders.
It is conducting two hot wars at the moment, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has sent hundreds of thousands of troops abroad over the last few years. Every day, the public here is supposed to identify with soldiers who burst into homes in Baghdad, round up the people and take them away for ‘interrogation’ – which everyone knows now can mean torture and indefinite detainment.
It also sends heavily armed ‘special ops’ on secret missions to countless other countries, like the ones who just facilitated the invasion and bombing of Somalia, or the ones who have been trying to stir up opposition in Iran. This is documented in the news media.
The immense brutality of these colonial wars, as well as earlier ones, is praised from the White House on down as the best, the only way to achieve what the political leaders and their influential, rich backers decide is necessary to protect their world empire. Do lots of people get killed? “Stuff happens,” said former war secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “Collateral damage,” says the Pentagon.
At home, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over 2 million people are locked up in the prison system each year, most of them people of colour. When commercial armed security guards are also taken into consideration, the US has millions of employees who use guns and other coercive paraphernalia in their jobs.
In the final analysis, the military and the police exist to perpetuate and protect this present unjust system of capitalist inequality, where a few can claim personal ownership over a vast economy built by the sweat and blood of hundreds of millions of workers.
And the more divided, the more polarised the society becomes, the higher the level of coercion and violence. Assault weapons are now everywhere in this society, as are tasers, handcuffs, clubs and tear gas. They most often start out in the hands of the police, the military and other agents of the state, and can then turn up anywhere.
Violence is a big money maker in the mass culture. Television, films, pulp novels, Internet sites, video games – all dwell on ‘sociopaths’ while glorifying the state’s use of violence, often supplemented by a lone vigilante. By the time children reach their teens, they have already seen thousands of murders and killings on television. And these days even more suspense is added in countless programmes that involve stalking and terror against women – and increasingly children.
As the Duke rape case and so many ‘escort service’ ads show, women of colour are particularly subject to exploitation and have little recourse to any justice. And as the murders along the border show, immigrants of colour are fair game for racist killers.
The social soil of capitalism can alienate and enrage an unstable and miserable person who should be getting help but can’t find it. If, as reports are saying, the young man accused of these killings was on anti-depressant medication, it is all the more evidence that, at a time when hospitals are closing and health care is unavailable for tens of millions, treating mental health problems requires more from society than just prescribing dubious chemicals.
Many liberal commentators are taking this occasion to renew the demand for tougher gun laws. Yes, assault weapons are horrible, but so are bunker buster bombs, helicopters that fire thousands of rounds a minute, and the ultimate – nuclear weapons. Disarming the people is not the answer, especially when the government is armed to the teeth and uses brutality and coercion daily.
The best antidote to these tragedies is to build a movement for profound social change, a movement directed at solving the great problems depressing so much of humanity today, whether they be wars or global climate change or the loneliness of the dog-eat-dog society.
It remains only for us to point out the incredible disparity of coverage given to shootings such as these in the imperialist media.
According to Iraq Body Count , the number of people killed in Iraq on 16 April 2007 (the same day as the Virginia Tech shootings) was 39. But since the numbers listed on that website are only those deaths that get reported in the media, the real number must actually have been far higher. How much higher can be gauged by the fact that the website puts the total casualties reported since the 2003 invasion at a maximum of 70,471, a mere one fourteenth of the much more realistic 1 million figure arrived at by the latest research. (See Proletarian issue 17, April/May 2007)
So, in Iraq, anywhere between 39 and 550 people were killed as a direct result of the illegal imperialist occupation of their country on the same day as a lone shooter killed 33 American students in Virginia, yet this other bloodbath passed without comment in our much-lauded ‘free’ and ‘unbiased’ mass media. There was no ‘timeline of events’ produced, no map showing the locations of the killings, no list of names, no descriptions of the talented lives cut short or reportage of the grief and anger of the families torn apart, it was just one more daily massacre of innocents by imperialism that we are destined to hear nothing about.
The racist message is clear: Iraqi lives simply have no value when compared to American (or British) lives. We are being taught that the deaths of Iraqis can be written off as mere ‘collateral damage’ and (possibly) regrettable statistics to be passed over and quickly forgotten – if we should have the bad fortune to hear about them in the first place. On no account should British people learn to identify with those killed or start asking questions about why this slaughter is being carried out in their name.