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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Murderers and Angels: A Lament"

I have never before published an introduction to my annual cultural memoirs, My Year, before the book's publication. But after yesterday's tragic murders in Washington, D.C. I though it may be appropriate to share the "lament" I have been working on throughout the  year. I might hope that this introduction is now complete, but I fear that in the final four months I may have add further paragraphs. I pray not.

murderers and angels: a lament
by Douglas Messerli
As I’ve noted in previous volumes, I usually begin thinking of the title of the next of My Year annuals in July of the year previous, trying to feel out issues that seem to be boiling just beneath the cultural heartbeat of the US and abroad. In July of 2012 I was already beginning to feel that I would have to somehow discuss the growing violence of American culture and the continuing murders of innocents, particularly in response to James Eagan Holmes’ murder of 12 people, injuring another 58 individuals at the local Century movie theater on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. Other events which occurred earlier in the year, adding to at least a decade or more of violent shootings with heavy assault weapons in US schools, shopping centers, and other public spaces, without anything having been done to control these powerful weapons of murder, now appeared worthy of discussing at length.

       By late July, talking to my friend Joe Ross, who lives in Paris, I begin to conceive of a volume that might be titled, “The Murderer Next Door,” suggesting that one never might suspect these sudden killers of innocent adults and children, including Congresswoman’s Gabby Gifford’s 2001 shooting (in which six were killed and another 13 injured). But, as I explained to Joe, I did not like the melodramatic aspects of that title, which seemed to overstate the imminent dangers we might all fear from our ordinary neighbors.

       In August 5, 2012, almost as a reiteration of the violence that had already occurred, Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Page was armed, like several of the other murderers, with a semi-automatic weapon, a Springfield XD(M) 9-millimeter pistol. 

      Then, on December 14 of that year a young, heavily armed twenty-year-old, Adam Lanza, visited a local elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, after already having shot his mother to death in their home, and, using his mother’s Bushmaster XM14-E2S rifle, shot his way through the front door of the grade school and brutally murdered twenty children and six adult faculty members—the worst mass shooting in American history aside from the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University. Like many, I cried about that news for several days.

     As the year came to a close, Howard and I watched our usual series of Christmas movies, and, suddenly, one night, while viewing one of our favorites, The Bishop’s Wife, I was startled by a strange dialectic, expressed surprisingly by Cary Grant (the angel in this film) that one might encounter everyday on the street “the face of a murderer or the face of an angel.” So amazed was I by this strange comment, that I couldn’t dismiss the words from my mind, particularly since it almost seemed to be presciently referencing the Sandy Hook murders of first grade “angels.” By this time, however, I was almost frightened to move forward with a subject that had somehow become a terrifying prophesy since I had first conceived it.

      Now in late 2013 when I write this piece, which I describe as a kind of lament, I wish I’d never even imagined such a scenario as the murderers and angels who have dominated our headlines! Some days I wish I could back up in time and erase my mind from conjuring up such an encounter between the truly evil and the so beautifully innocent beings of our world.

      It is surely related, however, to my 2012 subtitle, “Centers Collapse,” as the US government, cultural authorities, and many others seemingly can no longer come together to help define values and laws for our country—let alone suggesting possibilities for others. Given the tortures the US conducted throughout the early 21st century in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere (such as Guantanamo Bay), along with our later “drone” attacks, perhaps it should come as no surprise that our culture has created numerous madmen (such as the evil figures of The Dark Knight Rises, at a showing of which Holmes mowed down innocent viewers) which might reproduce individuals who, infected by popular culture and horrific computer games, play out that violence. Violence in a culture is not just internal but reflects the country’s international outlook, which is true not just for historically violent cultures—those paranoid worlds which demand jihad, for example—but for even more outwardly pacific worlds which hide behind their seemingly more tolerant values.

      Yet who might have imagined that, in April of 2013, such a tragedy would strike again, this time in the form of bombings near the finish line of the famed Boston Marathon. Two brothers born in Chechen, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev planted the bombs for vague and nearly incomprehensible political reasons, killing 3 spectators (one of them, again, a child) and injuring 264 others, many of whom lost arms and legs in the explosion. A few days later, after the suspects’ photographs were released, the brothers shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Department officer in his car, and high-jacked another car while tossing bombs from its widow as the police followed in chase. In the final shootout the elder brother, Tamerlan, was killed; the younger brother, 20 year-old Dzhokhar, who apparently helped to kill his own brother by driving over him, was later taken into custody and hospitalized.*

       In June, a young California man, John Zawahri, killed his father and brother with a high-power weapon before hijacking a car to Santa Monica College, where he shot up a bus and several cars before entering the school’s library where he was himself finally shot dead. The total this time around was five dead.

      Then in July 2013 much of the country was caught up in the trial of the February 2012 murder of the 17-year old Black teenager, Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman—certainly an encounter, no matter how one interprets what I believe are the absurd “stand your ground” laws of Florida and other states, that certainly reiterates vast gaps in American culture. If nothing else it certainly once more brings up the image of a murderer and an angel,” despite the defense’s attempts to depict the victim as a juvenile delinquent. Although Zimmerman was found innocent, the very idea that a man, armed with a gun, clearly pre-judiced against the young man he spotted, describing him to police as a “punk,” one of those who always “get away,” should leave his car—despite the police instruction to remain inside—and follow the young man seems to suggest ill intent on his part. Even if, as the defense argued, he was attacked by the obviously terrified child, and was fearful for his life, the facts are that he somehow was able to withdraw his gun from a back hip holster, and shoot him dead while being held down by the assailant, brings up serious issues of credibility. I think even more telling is the fact that, even when others appeared from the neighborhood, Zimmerman made no attempt to resuscitate the victim, and seemed calm and stoic after what he had just done. Later, in a television interview, when asked if he would have done anything differently on that fateful night, he declared he would not change a thing. Clearly, this self-admitted killer felt absolutely no “guilt.” That he must now, as his brother declared, spend the rest of his life “looking over his shoulder,” merely reiterates the terrible effects of a violent country, which, when it comes to guns, makes life in our culture a daily dangerous experience. One person wrote to Zimmerman that now he (Zimmerman) would have to experience his life the way Blacks daily encountered it, a dangerous passage from doorway to the world outside and back. 

     I wanted to write a piece on the Zimmerman trial, but felt that everything I might report had already been said, and what I had to offer was simply a second-hand or even third-hand account. I’ll simply add that if Zimmerman was not himself a racist, he was also not a man of empathy or feeling for his fellow-beings. “Regret” and “culpability” are not something my brother feels, said Robert Zimmerman, Jr. in a CNN interview the day after his brother’s acquittal.

     George Zimmerman may have wished to be a “hero,” a policeman protecting his community, but he was, as is proven, clearly incompetent in that role. If nothing else—and this is the most important aspect of this series of events—it opened a scar across the American landscape, resulting in national protests, reiterating the fact that race still plays a large part in our society and that gun-laws are radically unfair in many states. Even Blacks felt the need to reeducate their own children about the racism they had hoped and felt they had left behind. Concerned whites were forced to again look inward to perceive how their own thinking might contribute to the violence, including the black-upon-black murders committed every week in cities like Chicago and Detroit. Young men, angels if they only had a chance, were being killed throughout the country by both Caucasians and Blacks, in a time when inter-marriage and social changes were appearing to make those issues obsolete. Although nearly everyone seemed to deny race as an issue during the trial, the prosecutions’ argument that this was not a case of race—asserting that if it were the other way around, a Black man following a young white boy and killing him, it would certainly be a very different situation—sounded like a racial argument to me. A juror later expressed her pity for the young witness, Rachel Jeantel, talking to Trayvon Martin at the time of the incident—who “obviously did not want to be there,” and hadn’t the education to properly express herself—sounded like another deeply embedded, even if unintended, racist comment. “I don’t think it’s racial, she commented, it’s just the life, the environment in which they live.” So different from her world, obviously.

      In an interview on CNN after the trial, Rachel Jeantel came off, at least to me, as a quite witty and intelligent woman, responding to a question about the defense lawyer Don West’s brutal grilling of her on the stand, “Umm, umm, umm. Lucky for him I’m a Christian.” Certainly she recognized the racial elements of the trial: “They’re white, well, one Hispanic, but they don’t understand.” “Let’s be honest, if he (Trayvon) was a white with a hoodie on, would the same thing have happened?”

      Zimmerman, as it turned out, later had a violent encounter with his wife and her father. What happened in that encounter is still unclear, but it appeared frightening enough that she called the police.

     So disturbing to me were the events that I describe above, that I determined that for the rest of the year I would keep a record of every multiple murder of which I read. If the next few paragraphs, accordingly, sound more like a police blotter than an introductory essay, I feel, nonetheless, that it truly reveals just how violent in my year of “angels and murderers” we had become, and just how many angels are being gunned down every week. And this listing does not even include the dozens of inner city neighborhoods of Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, and other large and even smaller cities, where young children are daily being killed on the streets.

      On July 27, 2013, a previously quiet apartment dweller (although some reported him to be argumentative), Pedro Vargas, living with his mother in Hialeah, Florida, set his unit on fire before picking up a 9-millimeter pistol and, “roaming the complex,” shot and killed five of his neighbors, as well as killing another man, returning home with his children, who lived across the street. Among the dead were a 17-year old girl and others from the ages of 33 to 79. When the police realized what Vargas was doing and that he now held a Pakistani couple hostage, they moved in, killing the gunman. Total dead: 7. Are we losing our interest in and outrage over such murders? The New York Times buried the article on page 16, in The LA Times it was reported on page 11. Clearly, such events are no longer important “news.”

      On the evening of August 3rd, a driver of a Dodge car, a 38 year-old transient, Nathan Campbell used another kind of weapon, his car, to purposely mow down pedestrians on the popular Venice, California boardwalk. Campbell hit 12 individuals, killing one, an Italian female tourist who was visiting with her husband on their honeymoon. The husband was also injured with minor injuries. As in so most of the others of these murderous situations, no one could explain the attackers’ motives.

      A 16-year old girl, Hannah Anderson, was abducted by a close family friend, James DiMaggio, who had previously tortured and killed the girl’s mother and young brother, along with their pet dog on August 4th of this year. The girl was rescued on August 10th in the Idaho wilds, where the FBI shot and killed DiMaggio.  

      After a couple of more “group” shootings, including the murder of three Poconos,  Pennsylvania town council members occurred on August 5, 2013, a 20 year old man, Michael Brandon Hill, entered an elementary school in Decatur, Georgia with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition, prepared, once more, “to kill anybody that he could.” Miraculously, a school clerk, Antoinette Tuff was able to talk the young man into stopping his violent actions and to surrender his weapons and ammunition. No one was hurt, but certainly it must have terrified the 800-some children forced to run out the back doors of the school.

      On August 8th a Texas man in the Dallas area, went to a house in Dallas looking for his girlfriend, shooting four individuals, killing two of them and wounding the others before moving on to the South of the city, in DeSoto, where he used explosives and guns to kill two more adult males and wounding two young boys, ages 11 and 13.

      On August 21, an Australian tourist, 22 year-old Christopher Lane, visiting Oklahoma, was shot down and killed as he jogged in the town of Duncan by three teenagers who declared “they were bored and didn’t have anything to do.” (having previously stated on Facebook that they were ready to “take down some white man.”) This time the reaction was understandably international, as the former deputy prime minister of Australia called for a boycott of tours to the United States where violence was so prevalent. On August 22 the Australian ambassador to the US described the killing as “an unmitigated horror.” American congressman harrumphed their disdain for what they complained as “overstatements.” In Australia there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996, when the Australians seriously changed gun laws.

     On Saturday, August 24 a Lake Butler, Florida man shot his former employer and several co-workers in the area before returning home and shooting himself to death. Two men died, and two were seriously wounded.

     On the morning of September 16th, accompanying a New York Times article titled “The Gun Debate, Divide Grows As Both Sides Dig In for the Battle,” the newspaper featured a picture of stolid gun supporters standing, hands proudly on their hearts, behind a sign that ridiculously proclaimed: “Guns Save Lives.”

     Early that morning the ABC news reported that there evidently had been a shooting at the Washington, D.C. U.S. Navy Yard facility. Presuming it was just a single shot, I went to work as usual; but, soon after, returning home, I discovered that there were multiple shooters and multiple victims, presumably from automatic-machine gun fire (an AR-15, a rifle and a Glock semi-automatic, weapons use in the Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook, Connecticut murders as well). By noon, the report came back that there were at least 12 people (including the shooter) killed, and, possibly another shooter still on the loose, although that second shooter was later denied. A few hours later another victim had died in a local hospital. Two others underwent emergency operations, one whose leg was almost severed, while another, shot in the head, had miraculously survived. There were dozens of others hurt. The murderer, Aaron Alexis, a 34 year-old Fort Worth, Texas contractor for the Navy, was possibly frustrated with Navy payments. Many of the local schools were locked down, and even the Congress ended their daily session.

     For much of the afternoon I was speechless, hardly able to accept the fact that such a mass murder had again occurred. I had been hoping that I might close my computer on this introduction, moving ahead to some other topic. In the quiet afternoon, with Howard visiting an artist in North Hollywood, I again broke down into tears. I seem to do that easily these days. The older I get, alas, the sadder—and, perhaps, more sentimental—I become. How many people have to die before we realize, as a people, what we are doing to our own society? All our blather about civil war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria apparently does deal with our own monthly civil disruptions.

After a short and blessed period of quietude—during which the closed government seemed to the focus of our attention—a Nevada middle school student, on the morning of October 21, pulled out a semiautomatic handgun in Sparks, a suburb of Reno, wounding two 12-year-old fellow students and murdering a math teacher before turning the gun upon and killing himself. The teacher, Michael Landsberry, is credited with saving several other students through his movement toward to gunman. Fellow students claim that the shooter had, himself, been bullied by others, another issue that haunted the American culture throughout the year.

     Although it did represent a mass murder, the two-day-later assault and killing of a popular mathematics school teacher, Colleen Ritzer, in Danvers, Massachusetts by a 14-year old student, Philip Chism, attending her class, resulted, understandably, in further media and police dismay: what is happening to young people? As if, apparently, they couldn’t connect the US culture of guns and violence with events that were being played out by our youth nationally.  

     The nonsense that it is not “guns that kill people but people who kill people” is obviously part of the absurd logic of gun supporters: it is people with guns, quite obviously, who kill people, despite the NRA determination to separate the monster from the beast, or the tool from the people who use that tool to accomplish their deeds. It is understandable, I hope, that early in this year I wrote an outcry—not as passionate as I wish it might have been—against guns; I think I simply had grown weary of any logic of arguing with the brute forces of US gun owners, and I have decided to not publish it in this volume. But I certainly know who the murderers are and who are the angels. Anyone who owns a gun is a potential murderer, I would argue, even if he or she is not surrounded by innocent angels whom they might destroy.

     Not everything in 2013 was quite so distressing. Yet it is not accidental, I would argue, that many of the films on which I chose to write—all viewed, read, and experienced quite accidently during the year—were works of film noir (not all of which I have included in this volume) or about violent intrusions into society. Several of the children, the supposed “angels,” whom I featured, also demonstrated rebellious and simply “bad” behavior in works such as the musical Matilda, Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, and Louis Malle’s Zazie in the Metro. Several of the plays and works of literature I reviewed dealt with tense family situations (as in the films Tokyo Story, Family Ties, and Silver Linings Playbook, and in the plays by Strindberg and Hawkes), violent racial confrontations (Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Scottsboro Boys), or complete breakdowns of societal values. Even an order of quiet nuns, in the Metropolitan Opera’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, and a noble queen, in their production of Maria Stuarda, were not safe from murder.  Prometheus was imprisoned and tortured by Zeus.

       These events, moreover, occurred in the US, while thousands were being killed in the Syrian civil war, perhaps more than 1000 from chemical warfare just today (August 21, 2013)! Civil war has, predictably, again broken out in parts of Iraq since American troops have been cut in that country. In Egypt, where it appeared that democracy had falteringly begun, the military staged a coup (which the US government refused to describe as such) which has, so far, ended in the deaths of more than a thousand Muslin Brotherhood supporters.  

       In many countries, moreover, women were increasingly in danger for simply walking down the streets. Europe found itself in deepening financial straits. Riots broke out in several countries such as Turkey, including the seemingly financially powerful Brazil. The American President Obama saw his popularity fall as his government faced revelations of Internal Revenue Service interference in establishing right-wing non-profit organizations, as vast NSA and CIA eavesdropping on American and foreign telephone conversations and computer activities was leaked by a figure, whom some identified as a traitor and others as an angel—or at least a somewhat saintly “whistleblower”—Edward J. Snowden (I respond to this terrifying issue in my essay “The Barbarians: I’ll be Watching You” later in this volume), as well as the government’s previous failure to protect the American Ambassador in Libya from attack and death. Just like the central figure of two books I encountered during the year, Athanasius Kircher, the President himself seemed to many critics and even admirers, like myself, to be often “a man of misconceptions”—or even worse, in his continued attacks of first amendment rights. Accordingly, although I keep seeking in these annual memoirs, for the sun to come out, for a moment of “turn-of-the-century” mimicry, at least, of the belle-époque, alas I have still not discerned it. How I wish I might be able to subtitle one of my volumes, “Into the Light,” as I tried to a few years back, but changed it, at the last moment, to read “Shadows.”

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