Eighteen states in this country require some form of waiting period before a firearm purchase can be completed. This so-called “cooling off” period is designed to prevent crimes of passion when uncontrolled emotion, bitterness, and fury can have irreparable consequences. Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond by Mark Ames should require a similar cooling off period. If you speak too quickly after closing these pages, you’re likely to end up in a brawl or on some government list with black helicopters flying overhead while tearful victims accuse you of insensitivity.
This is an incendiary book. It is not an enjoyable book to read. It is a book that will pummel your boundaries of acceptability if you don’t keep an open mind. But it is an artifact that we, as a culture, should digest and ponder. If we have the stomach to do so.
The rant begins in 1989 when Joseph “Rocky” Wesbecker strolled through the Standard Gravure building in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Armed with an AK-47, a SIG-Sauer 9mm, two MAC-11 semiautomatic pistols, and a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, Wesbecker murdered six co-workers, wounded twenty, and committed suicide. His rampage was the “first modern private workplace massacre in American history ... and everyone was left asking why. The same question they still ask today after each workplace massacre.”
While Ames stops short of lionizing workplace shooters, he does argue that callous corporate culture pushes them to such extremes. And, he claims, they often earn sympathy and admiration even from the wounded. “Today, it’s hard to find anyone who is angry with Wesbecker, but easy to find people, even victims, who will tell you that Wesbecker was pushed to do what he did,” Ames writes.
Ames argues that America’s corporate culture underwent a seismic shift that began during the Ronald Reagan administration and continues to this day. Ames points out that:
Under Reagan, corporations transformed from providers of stability for employees and their families to fear-juiced stress engines ... While work became increasingly stressful and time consuming with fewer rewards for the majority, capital was sucked from the middle and lower classes of working America and deposited into the offshore accounts of the very highest layer of the executive and shareholder class.”
Ronald Reagan didn’t raise the minimum wage a single time during his tenure, despite the great wealth boom Gordon Gecko and other cultural icons led us to believe was good. White-collar males in 1997 earned just six cents more per hour in constant dollars than they earned in 1973. Short-term contract work exploded, health insurance dried up, layoffs became the norm, and workplace stress (a health issue not even contemplated by the country’s top scientists until 1989) skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, CEO salaries multiplied to astronomic proportions. Between 1990 and 2000, CEO pay grew by 571 percent while the average employee’s wages grew only 34 percent during the same period. Just one example of CEO largesse was Richard McGinn who received a $5.5 million severance package, handed off $4.3 million of personal loans, took health care for life, and pocketed a $1 million-a-year pension in return for destroying Lucent Technologies, crashing its stock by 95 per cent, and laying off 16,000 employees.
Median CEO pay increased by six per cent in 2002 but the leaders of 30 companies that had the biggest shortfalls in their employee pension funds that same year awarded themselves 59 per cent raises over the median. “In other words, the more callous/feudal you are, the more you get rewarded no matter what is going on in the economy at large,” Ames writes.
Ames’ examination of corporate greed and culture is well argued and well supported but it is oppressive in its sheer grimness. Manage to make it through that section of the book and you’ll be lurking by the #1 Reserved Parking Spot outside corporate headquarters at quitting time tomorrow. Out of those dire circumstances on the factory floor, along the postal route, and amongst the cubicle farms ferments rage, frustration, and hopelessness that leads to workplace violence. Everyone agrees that “inner-city poverty and pressures breed violent crime. Why is it so awful to suggest that offices, such as they are today, breed office massacres?”
Similar cultures of humiliation, sadism, and hierarchy exist within our school systems nationwide. Ames examines the hallways and locker rooms of American schools with the same clenched-teeth determination that he applied to corporate boardrooms. And his results are the same. In 2002, a division of the Secret Service “issued a report called the ‘Safe School Initiative,’ and in it they concluded that no profile of a school shooter was possible, except perhaps that the attacker would most likely be a male.” Similar attempts to profile potential workplace shooters have also failed. Ames argues that we should instead examine the toxic environments that drive these people over the edge. “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.”
Going Postal is exhaustive and exhausting. Mark Ames raises so many fascinating and controversial points that it’s impossible to discuss them all in the space of a book review. The loftiest goals this review can have is to convince you to take a deep breath, summon all your reserves of strength, crack the book’s spine with an open mind, and soak it all in.