Movie notes: The Killing of America
We’re having this discussion because rampage shootings have occurred with enough frequency in recent years to bring to mind those calamities visited upon ‘stiff-necked’ nations in the Old Testament. And indeed, many are trying to read the prophecy in these recent massacres. The sense I take from those foolish Biblical nations is that human nature is stiff-necked- we identify too closely with the norms of our tribe and see them as unchangeable and correct.
In the American tribe, the habitual “conversation” about guns is shaped by the same media framework that kills conversations before they can begin in pimping them- “positions” are offered in 10 second sound bites and the home audience is asked to position themselves and see themselves as part of that national framework, without obvious connection to their own interpersonal or community frameworks. You may know what you think, but what’s more important is what people in your demographic think, which will often clarify what you think.
So, position A is a call to restrict ownership of the lethal weapons that are implicated in these massacres. The suggestion is that guns derange certain owners, like the ring of Sauron, and restricting their ownership will save those people from the siren’s call of violence. Or, perhaps, violence is eternal in the hearts of Americans, but laws can limit its practice.
Position B, against such restrictions, is generally expressed either as a fear of the government monopoly on lethal force that could empower a tyrant, or a belief that the violence in the American character would be checked by a sort of free market in violence, in which bad actors would be removed from the market by being outgunned by good actors. Order would arise spontaneously. The fittest shooters are those with the best intentions.
It’s strange how both positions imagine an unnatural taste for violence among Americans, who either need to have their guns restricted to protect them from each other, or be armed to subdue their slaughterous neighbors. Either way, violence is seen as a constant feature of the American character, going back to frontier massacres of natives and running like a red thread through the generations.
Interestingly though, while violence might well be innate to the male character, like all cultural interactions, its expression is subject to fashion. How many young well-born men die in duels today? How many poor young men die by lynching? When we talk about school shootings as “meaningless and random acts of violence”, we forget that they are not particularly random- their young male perpetuators basically follow a Columbine script and arouse the same glow of fascination in the national media framework. They’re re-runs.
These thoughts led me to watch a 1982 film, The Killing of America– never actually released in America, although it could not have been made without the country’s participation. It’s a stunning film in the same way that being hit in the head with a hammer repeatedly is stunning. A documentary in the mondo mode, it shows graphic news footage of American gun rampages, while trying to figure out why they started rising after the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and hit a gory peak by the late 70s.
The film was produced and written by Leonard Schrader, who film buffs will know for his script work with his brother Paul, who wrote one of the truly great films about American men and violence, Taxi Driver. The brothers were raised in a strict Calvinist family and were not allowed to see movies until they left for college. Paul Schrader actually wrote four scripts about reactionary social outsiders with guns besieging the worst men of a decadent society: Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, The Yakuza, and Hardcore.
The Killing of America is a strange movie. It is hideously graphic, often factually incorrect, deeply disturbing, and sometimes seems pointless. I don’t know that it’s exactly a good movie. But it is a sincere expression of shock. It is also far more effective than Bowling for Columbine because it doesn’t pound out an answer on the table about why Americans shoot each other more than people in most countries not at war. It suggests the criminal justice system of the late 70s was broken and that guns might be too accessible, never really answers why in this culture at this time? The NRA slogan about guns not doing the killing is true enough, but then if people kill people, why do they do it so often in the United States? If culture is that which makes certain behaviors possible and others impossible, how can a culture survive with a free market in violence? How close did America come to killing itself?
The film is most useful for providing historical context, something usually anathema to the media. It argues that lone wacko rampage shootings were not common before Kennedy but rose sharply in the subsequent decades. The film ends when Reagan and John Lennon were shot and gun violence was at a record high. Violent crime has decreased fairly steadily since, although maybe not rampages. The shooter profile has changed though, broadening from the alienated middle aged loner to the teenage boy shooting up a school or mall. Watching the film, one also wonders if these killings have moved from the cities to the suburbs. The rage and isolation is consistent, but it seems to set in earlier and deeper in those vast suburban expanses. I am reminded of J.G. Ballard’s terror that the future will be vast boredom, punctuated by shocking acts of violence.
Life outside the media framework can dissatisfy by its loneliness and steady boredom. One of the more chilling stories in the film is that of Robert Benjamin Smith, who killed four women in a beauty college in Arizona nearly three years to the day after Kennedy was killed. Smith was obsessed with the assassination and said he killed the women in order, “to get known- to get myself a name.” When reality is content without context, this is how one does it. Imagine this: the next time someone massacres strangers, what if the media refused to name the killer?