Cowboy Nation

A few nights ago, my husband and I saw the new sci-fi film, The Martian. We arrived early, grabbed our pairs of 3D glasses and set off to find seats, towards the back and on the aisle. I’d felt somewhat nervous as we sat there, paranoid with thoughts about Thursday’s mass shooting in Oregon and because back in August, employees at the theater I was sitting in had called the police to report a suspicious person who was later found to be carrying a loaded .45. It turned out to be “nothing” but I still felt weird and watched as people came in and sat down. I thought my nervousness was a PTSD thing until I mentioned it to my husband when we were munching on wings in a restaurant after the movie. No, he felt strange too and like me, noticed that none of the patrons had sat in the first eight rows of seats nearest the exits. We were all seated in the rows above and behind the first level, and sitting close together at that. There were a few people that sat in the lower rows but they moved before the previews started.

I never used to think about guns when I went to the movies.

I did think about guns and mass shootings when I was adjuncting at Butte Community College. After a difficult semester, (you can read all about it here) I had a student show up trying to add the class he’d failed the previous semester. He was not the student who’d harassed me but I remembered him, he came to class daily but turned in few assignments and didn’t take exams, the assignment I remembered was the poster project. I’m not easily spooked but in the email I wrote to the college’s V.P. I said:

“I was very uncomfortable because he failed my class last spring and I felt there was something else, something odd taking place. I gave him my business number (good customer service might save my life someday) but I felt a great sense of threat from this student; he spoke often of violence in spring 2010 and did a poster assignment on methods of torture in other countries…”

I couldn’t stop the student from showing up because he was third on the waitlist; he was demanding of my attention before class and asked me to write him a letter of recommendation (I said ‘no’). The previous semester he’d glowered at me from the front row, followed behind me when I walked to my car to leave for the day, and made a point to tell me that he’d noted the make and model of my car and license plate. Now, he was back and this was the response from the V.P.:

“The concerns that you have from your past experience should have been documented and acted on at that time, which may have resulted in him not being able to take your class.  I would suggest that if this student does get into your class you send him to me for a discussion about his behavior and consequences’ for his possible future bad behavior!”

Yes, I’d screwed up during the difficult semester and did not tell admin about this student, I was dealing with too much and didn’t have enough support. I also second guessed myself. Now, there was little I could do and campus police made me feel like an idiot after they’d spoken with him; he seemed to “respect” and “like” me, he was seen as overly attached not as a creepy, giant man who followed me around on campus. I felt stupid for feeling scared but I still felt scared and intimidated. Fortunately, he dropped the course because of a schedule conflict but he continued to follow me on campus until I started carpooling to save money, he drifted away after that.

I think about that student when there’s a school shooting, one that is usually perpetrated by a young man who’d never made much trouble in the past. Often, a young man with a passion for weapons and violence in conjunction with a sense of being wronged or ‘dissed; a young man who feels he is a beta among alpha males, a man who can’t connect with women and is thus, lacking status.

After a school shooting, we argue about gun control on facebook and blame the incident on mental illness and bad parenting. We social justice activists argue with conservatives on twitter that are quick to blame the shooting on “Muslims” and certain that all we need are more guns and protection, including arming teachers. There’s an unsettling feeling as new information comes forward, the young man had a manifesto, his mother was a “gun nut” who stockpiled weapons out of fear of gun control, his father had “no idea,” and survivors describe him as appearing “happy” while he murdered classmates. He was a virgin who didn’t have a girlfriend.

This happens frequently enough that we know the pattern as it unfolds. I’m sure I’m not alone in predicting these factors following Thursday’s murders. Mass shootings are old hat for us here in the United States (“stuff happens”). As of October 1, there were 294 mass shootings in 2015, “more than one a day” according to BBC News. Given this, why can’t we stop them from occurring? Will it be gun control? Will “Good guys with guns” protect us? Australia initiated strict gun control after the worst mass shooting in the country’s history. Perhaps the Australian’s did something we in the United States are unwilling to do:

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Pascoe blasted American society as immature and unable to take basic actions to save lives: In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be. We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst. The US is too immature a society to be allowed to play with guns. It has never shed its Wild West mythology. Americans still use their courts to kill people, which sends a message in its own way… It’s a country that values property more than life.”

The U.S. is a revenge-loving, Cowboy culture, if someone offends or hurts us we want them to pay. Been disrespected or humiliated? Get a gun and feel confident! Feel powerless and afraid? Get a gun and feel confident! Our society scarcely addresses the issues behind the issue of mass shootings. Complicated things like drug and alcohol treatment, curbing the school to prison pipeline, and ongoing gender inequality/“macho” culture, problems not easily resolved.

This mindset, “‘Dis me and you’ll pay” is at the heart of much of our mass violence. It’s in our movies and TV, books, graphic novels, and video games. Our entertainment reflects who we are, not vice versa. I think that’s what I was thinking sitting in the theater on Saturday night, worried that someone was going to use us patrons as a proxy for their rage. It was similar to the fear I felt with the student who did his lone assignment on torture, feeling paranoid and trying to talk myself out of it. I don’t like fear or fear-mongering but let me say this, three days after the shooting in Oregon, four California students were apprehended by police for plotting a school shooting, they’d clearly outlined the targets for their revenge. The following Monday, October 5, the FBI issued a warning for Philadelphia-area colleges that there was a potential for a campus shooting.

The Umpqua Community College gunman’s mother is being called “paranoid” in the media but if you read her online comments, you’ll see the over-confident cowboy in there. It was true for her son too; witnesses describe him as confident and seeming to enjoy the momentary sense of power while killing.

Cowboy nation.

It’s what psychiatrist James Gilligan wrote about in his book Violence, where he says, “All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self esteem.”