I’m not sure I can even write about this subject without seeming glib, and I in no way want to make light of the tragedy of random people being murdered as they go about their ordinary lives. But when I was watching the coverage of the Omaha mall shooting yesterday (I was waiting to catch a plane and CNN was inescapable—why must they do this to public spaces, try to sedate people waiting with TV? Have people become this impatient? On a related note, I flew cross-country on Northwest, and it wasn’t until after the flight was over that I realized why it was such a refreshing experience—no force-fed in-flight entertainment) I kept wondering if the shooting could in anyway be interpreted as an act of protest against malls, and what they might represent to people. This subject never came up in Anderson Cooper’s inane questioning of the various psychologists and local witnesses on the program; instead the focus was on the killer and what sort of mental illness he must have had to prompt such a deranged act, and then he was dutifully compared to other sensationalized killers, glorifying him in precisely the way the psychologists had said he had yearned for—his desperate need for recognition and notoriety.
But I was wondering, why the mall? Was this just a natural choice, the place to go to see strangers, the quintessence of public space in America? When planning this horrible crime, did the killer ever once think, this will make people think twice about the emptiness of shopping? This might discourage aimless or rote consumerism? Probably not, but such an angle was not even hinted at in the exhaustive coverage I was subjected to, even when they went through a rundown of other recent mall massacres. The mall was just a null variable; no one mentioned any characteristic about malls that might relate them to the spate of shootings occurring there. Perhaps in all these cases, the mall was an incidental choice. But something about shopping seems to make people especially vulnerable—people enter malls in order to let their guard down, to open themselves to the pleasing enticements of goods, the fantasies they promise but rarely deliver on. As the staging ground for fantasies of the transformational powers of property, the mall be the place where consumerism is most satisfying, where it works best and makes the most sense, where the dreams have full play and the action we are being continually prompted for by our dominant public discourse, advertising, can actually be consummated. When you get the goods home, they often aren’t half as exciting. Is their something about the heightened sense of reality at malls in consumer society that attracts the deranged lunatics desperate to leave their mark on that society?
Maybe this refusal to rationalize crime as having a poltical reason emphaszies the horror of the crime for those consuming it as news—if they provide no political motivation for it—if it is presented to be as random as possible—it perhaps provides the greatest vicarious thrill, the greatest amount of the knotted-stomach feeling from witnessing something awful. To offer potential political rationales for murder, no matter how disapproving, would still be in effect justifying the idea that violence can serve political ends, a belief that the state must monopolize. Individuals can’t be permitted to conceive of action that way—politicized violence committed by anyone other than a state agent is uniformly labeled terrorism.
So instead of trying to rationalize this kind of awful crime with any kind of purpose, society seems to prefer the idea that killing is random, senseless, and motivated wholly by psychological defects in the murderer.
// Notes from the Road
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