SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

Las Vegas may now be home to America’s worst recent mass shooting – with 50 dead at the time of writing; but, to be brutally honest, having written about numerous massacres in the US since this blog began almost two years ago, it’s frankly quite difficult to come up with anything new to say on the subject. Such atrocities seem so endemic to the country that avoiding repeating past conclusions feels like an impossible task. Indeed, what else can really be said other than it’s bloody horrible? From everything I’ve so far heard, this one sounds less in tune with the current wave of Islamic terrorism and more reminiscent of the first such incident of this nature in modern times, that of Charles Whitman in 1966; the ex-Marine positioned himself in the clock tower on campus at Texas State University and opened seemingly indiscriminate fire on anyone in sight, eventually killing 15 people – including an unborn child – before being shot dead by police.

Anyone who has seen Peter Bogdanovich’s low-budget 1968 thriller, ‘Targets’, and is familiar with the Whitman case, will recognise the influence this true-life horror had on the movie. In the film, the unlikely assassin is a clean-cut all-American boy whose military experience in Vietnam has clearly left an unwelcome legacy; he shoots dead his wife and mother (as Whitman did) and then opens fire randomly on anyone who gets in his way before finally setting up base at a drive-in cinema. As the movie features one of the last on-screen appearances of Boris Karloff, the horror legend becomes the focus of the narrative, making an in-person appearance at the drive-in before one of his old pictures is screened. As soon as the projector begins to roll, the shooting spree kicks-off.

‘Targets’ may have been shot on a shoestring, but as with the bigger-budget portrayal of the Boston Strangler by Tony Curtis the same year, it marked a significant turning point in the horror genre; after decades of horror movies being dominated by supernatural or fantastical half-human creatures, the villain of the piece is suddenly the Ordinary Joe or the Boy-Next-Door, which is infinitely more unsettling on account of him being the kind of character we could easily meet on the street. ‘Targets’ is also an early cinematic document of the psychological damage done by warfare, specifically America’s sojourn in South East Asia; coinciding with Walter Cronkite’s game-changing opinion that the US could never win that particular war – crucial in turning popular opinion away from the more gung-ho view of American involvement in Vietnam – ‘Targets’ was, in retrospect, quite a pivotal movie in the way Hollywood chose to terrify its audiences.

Denied the funds to purchase literary rights, screenwriters and directors of low-budget movies have regularly scanned newspaper headlines for source material, but the Whitman case was such a major story that parallels between it and ‘Targets’ would have been obvious to anyone in the States at the time; indeed, more people knew of events at the University of Texas than saw the fictional adaptation of it. Although their President had been assassinated three years previously, the American people were not accustomed to random members of the public being gunned down as opposed to world leaders; after all, Kennedy was the fourth US President to have had his presidency curtailed by the bullet. But targeting people not holding high office and therefore not regarded as potential targets for a gunman – in 1966, this was something new.

Bizarrely, the last recorded fatality of Whitman’s spree came in 2001, when a survivor of the attack finally died of injuries sustained during the shooting. The victim in question, David Gunby, only had one functioning kidney when one of Whitman’s bullets hit the kidney still in full working order; in pain for the remaining 35 years of his life, when Gunby died the cause of death given was homicide. As is so often the case, Whitman didn’t answer for his crimes, but was himself shot dead by police on the day he opened fire. At the time of his death, Charles Whitman was just 25; he’d been a student at the University of Texas after joining the Marines straight from school, though the loss of his scholarship while he struggled with a gambling habit coupled with a tumour posthumously located on his brain is regarded by many as the cause of his sudden lurch into mass murder.

What’s most surprising about the man responsible for last night’s massacre in Las Vegas is that he was apparently as old as 64; one would have imagined any such instincts might have surfaced far earlier in life, as usually appears to be the case. The gunman this time round was local resident Stephen Paddock; where Whitman picked the observation deck of the prominent campus clock tower on the University of Texas, Paddock chose a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, giving him a panoramic view of the site where the C&W music festival he targeted was being held.

Holed-up a safe distance from the location, it seems Paddock casually picked-off his victims at his leisure; along with the 50 fatalities confirmed, a further 200 were injured, highlighting once again how large numbers gathering in one place are extremely vulnerable to the home-grown lone wolf as much as they are to the coordinated group shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’; and in a corner of America where the gun laws are lax, even by the insane standards of a country where the right to bear arms is sacrosanct, it’s a wonder Vegas hasn’t played host to this kind of carnage before. But even in the mass shooting game, it seems there’s a first time for everything.

© The Editor

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Gas MasksThe title of this post is lifted from the 1969 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman, a song that seems to encapsulate within its grooves a moment at the end of the 1960s when the tumultuous events of 1968 hadn’t entirely exterminated the optimistic spirit of ’67. Though very much a project sponsored by the same state that was simultaneously slaughtering peasants in Vietnam, the momentous achievement of putting a man on the moon suggested the general cultural zeitgeist remained forward-looking and convinced better days were just around the corner. John Lennon expressed as much when profiled in an ATV mini-series aired in December ’69 called ‘Man of the Decade’; the belief may have been misplaced or naive, but it was genuine and heartfelt. A generation born in a collective air-raid believed a different way of doing things was possible. Imagine no heaven, no countries, no possessions.

It certainly feels as though something is again in the air in 2016, though the odours of that something are not of incense, peppermints or even napalm; I can’t really put my finger on it, but there are a lot of people I know who seem to be wading through a dense, noxious fog as dense and noxious as that which permeated every nook and cranny and rookery of Dickens’ London in the memorable opening of ‘Bleak House’. Granted, many are experiencing personal crises that aren’t necessarily specific to 2016, ones that could have happened at any moment in history, in any turbulent chapter of this planet’s story as much as in any so-called Golden Age forever recalled with nostalgic reverence. They could have taken place in 1916 or 1966, and the world outside their window wouldn’t have played any discernible role. But all of the internal events that are affecting the lives of loved ones right now appear to be synchronised with external events to an unsettling degree. Perhaps that’s the impact of the age of 24/7 social media; perhaps not.

A close friend who is finding life exceedingly heavy going at the moment said to me last week that ‘everything seems to have gone wrong since Bowie died’. I thought of the vinyl label of Bowie’s 1973 LP ‘Aladdin Sane’; the song from which the album took its title is listed as ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’. The information contained within the brackets marks the two years prior to the twentieth century’s twin global conflicts and clearly taps into the paranoia of the time by suggesting a year in the 1970s will serve the same calm-before-the storm purpose. True, it could merely have been Bowie playing with that paranoia for artistic effect or simply reflecting his own nihilistic worldview that he took onto another apocalyptic level with 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’. But ‘Aladdin Sane’ was released just a few months before the bleak economic meltdown of the Three Day Week, an era marked by rumours of right-wing military coups instigated by MI5 and/or retired colonial colonels with private armies on one hand and left-wing communist coups instigated by Moscow on the other.

What appears to be in the air today is not so black and white, but a multi-layered mosaic of malodorous uncertainty. It is the murder of Jo Cox as well as the ongoing massacres in the US; it is the litany of unexpected celebrity deaths as well as the terrorist atrocities on the Continent; it is the failed Turkish coup d’état as well as Brexit; it is Donald Trump as well as austerity; it is Syria as well as curbs on free speech; it is incompetence and corruption in public services as well as refugees drowning at sea. Possibly because of the way in which we are able to instantly access news, to quickly switch from one horror story to another or to be bombarded by them on Facebook and Twitter even when we’re not seeking them out, they seem bigger and uglier than they ever would have seemed in the past, when limited television news bulletins and 24 hours-later newspapers exerted breathing space between each horrendous headline. It’s a theory, anyway.

Were that the root cause of events in which we have no direct involvement seeping into our individual neuroses and exacerbating them, fair enough; but I wonder why so many seem to be struggling in the first place? If we compare the comforts we can call upon to the real hardships endured by our grandparents or great-grandparents, we haven’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to complaints. The dazzling variety of choice, whether in relation to electronic goods, TV channels, food, clothing or virtually every luxury item that constitutes an acquisitive society should suffice, yet endless choice itself can actually be quite overwhelming and incapable of filling the inexplicable inner vacuum that our forefathers seemed capable of filling without any of our fripperies.

I suppose age could play a part as well; most of my friends are over 40; I myself am careering towards 50. But recent surveys suggest the kind of social isolation that appears quite commonplace within my own demographic is as high amongst teenagers. And it’s a vicious circle. Something awful in the news drags us down when we’re already feeling low because we’ve just received some stupid bill that we can’t afford to pay, making us vulnerable sitting targets for the next horrific news event as well as the next dispiriting demand on our limited finances; it can get to the point where the internal and external are practically interchangeable as sources of anxiety and helplessness. I think a sense of helplessness is crucial too: we don’t have the money required to pay the bill and we can’t do anything to alter whatever depressing news story has invaded our private space via the mass media. Both feel as though they are ultimately out of our control.

I don’t know what the solution is. Watch less TV news and don’t regularly buy a paper? I started doing that about a decade ago, but I wasn’t online back then. It’s so much harder to avoid the big stories now. They eventually find your address. And, if you’re feeling lousy to begin with, these big bad wolves will huff and they’ll puff and they’ll blow your house down. But one little pig did survive, of course; so maybe we should simply build with bricks and we’ll get through it.

© The Editor

LIVE FROM DALLAS…IT’S THE MASSACRE OF THE WEEK!

VietnamThe 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and the way in which America appeared unable to compute the shock of it without rerunning and analysing the gruesome murder via the ghastly Zapruder footage almost rendered the gory reality of it something to which the nation eventually became immune. It was too unreal to be real. It may as well have been a gunfight between cowboys in the Wild West or a gunfight between gangsters in Chicago or even a ray-gunfight between Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless in outer space; that was the narrative that made sense to a country that had evolved its mythology through cinema and TV, with a far wider audience exposed to it than were exposed to the oral mythology characteristic of ancient civilisations.

The moment JFK’s head was blown to smithereens by Oswald’s bullets and Jack Ruby then fired into Oswald on live TV, the sensationally dramatic nature of reality and its fictionalised counterpart became almost interchangeable. US involvement in Vietnam was called ‘the first television war’ – bloody, uncensored and incessant, with a seamless segue between TV coverage and the Hollywood-made dramas screened after the news broadcasts. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, another tragedy presented as though it had been consciously scripted to appeal to the bloodthirsty appetite of the television audience, prompted Jim Morrison of The Doors to observe that America was so numbed and jaded by the endless parade of bloodlust beamed into its living rooms that an assassin appeared to have superseded the movie or rock star as the nation’s most iconic product.

British author JG Ballard echoed Morrison’s sentiments in his 1970 book ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ and regularly cited the JFK assassination as the moment he felt life as presented to the world via media outlets rendered it indistinguishable from fiction, and how repetition had slowly engineered a subconscious craving for horrific events. Woody Allen made a similar point by using satire in the opening sequence of his 1971 movie ‘Bananas’; a political assassination in a South American republic is portrayed as a sporting event, complete with commentary from noted US sports presenter Howard Cosell.

I find myself constantly referencing all of these artistic reactions to American gun culture every time the massacre of the week grabs the headlines. It is beginning to feel as though each horrible slaughter is the latest instalment in some grotesque movie franchise, where the same film keeps being made over and over again, with every successive remake provoking less of an emotional response than its predecessor, forcing the filmmakers to up the body count. The whole cinematic impact of 9/11 was so reminiscent of a big-budget blockbuster disaster movie that it seemed to enhance the disbelief of the viewing public that this was really happening. Similarly, the psychological horror flick ‘The Blair Witch Project’ cleverly replicated the lo-fi visuals of the amateur video camera to chilling effect and further erased the join dividing fact and fiction; just as real atrocities had echoed Hollywood via television, now cinema was imitating the small screen’s presentation of reality.

There appears to be a direct line from that to the brutal murder of a young man shot dead at close range in his car by a police officer this week; captured on camera by his girlfriend passenger and streamed live on the internet as it happened, the appalling incident and the manner it reached those not present in the car seemed to be the natural, awful culmination of everything Ballard had foreseen from 1963 onwards. Technology’s democratisation has been laying the ground for such a moment for years, something ISIS have already gleefully capitalised on with their online beheading rituals. A news reporter being shot dead live on US TV last year was so twentieth century, after all.

‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, Nigel Kneale’s remarkable 1968 BBC play, portrayed a future society so immune to any form of dramatic titillation that it can only be entertained by real events that have nevertheless been deliberately choreographed by TV executives. Real sexual intercourse is televised live – as with ITV’s demeaning keyhole-peeping gutter voyeurism of the moment, ‘Love Island’; but relentless exposure rapidly renders the audience bored, so two of the competitors are dumped on a desolate island, ignorant of the fact a psychopathic murderer is also present. Viewers eagerly await the inevitable, and the viewing figures shoot up as a consequence. As children in the backseat of a car on a tediously long journey are prone to utter – are we there yet?

My reaction and, I suspect, the reaction of many receiving the news of the most recent mass murders on the streets of a major American city this week, is dangerously bordering on massacre fatigue. The first-ever post written for this blog beyond the introductory one dealt with the killing of 14 people in California, carried out by one of their work colleagues in the name of Allah; that was on December 7 last year. I’ve no idea how many hundreds have been gunned down in America since then, but statistics released in the wake of this week’s events show that 507 of them were shot by police officers alone. Almost 300 innocent people lost their lives in a Baghdad bomb blast this week, but Iraq is a nation barely a decade into its democratic experiment. America is 240 years into its own, which doesn’t bode well for Iraq if America is held up as an example of success.

And it seems somehow sadly apt that the climax of this week’s catalogue of barbarity was a sniper gunning down five policemen just a few blocks from the scene of the crime that set the ball rolling 53 years ago – a ball that seems set to keep rolling, rolling, rolling. Rawhide.

© The Editor

DEJA VOODOO

Stars and StripesEver get the feeling life is on a loop? Two grim stories dominated the weekend news, and both are so horribly familiar that one’s immediate response could almost border on the jaded. Firstly, across the Channel, English football’s flabbiest fans drank too much again, wrecked a corner of a foreign field again, and the team they purport to support are threatened with disqualification from a major tournament again. Secondly, across the pond, a crazed gunman slaughtered dozens of innocent people again; he seemingly carried out this atrocity because he disagrees with the sexual choices of those he targeted, though his apparent hardline Islamic beliefs mean that this massacre can be added to the ‘Muslim problem’ again, despite the fact that the Orlando incident was the 173rd mass shooting in America this year, most of which were bereft of an Islam element. So, yes, we have been here before.

A website called MassShootingTracker.org. states that the killing of four or more people by a gun in the US (including the assassin himself – and they are almost uniformly male) counts as a mass shooting; the fact that this qualification has been achieved 173 times already in a year that is only at its halfway point suggests America has something of a gun crime problem, though this has been evident for several decades. The Islamic angle attached to Saturday’s slaughter may have presented Donald Trump with gift-wrapped verbal ammunition, yet his call for President Obama to resign over his failure to tackle ‘the Muslim problem’ has an inherent irony he is clearly too dumb to appreciate.

For all his faults, Obama has at least tried to do something about America’s gun laws, yet every attempt has been blocked by the NRA lobbyists in the Republican-dominated Congress. For many Americans – including the majority of Trump supporters – the right to bear arms is as obsessive an issue as membership of the European Union is to some Brits. It is therefore convenient for them that the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 apparently took 50 innocent lives in the name of Allah. Clearly, he did it because he was a Muslim, not because he resides in a country where private gun ownership actually outnumbers the adult population, a country where it’s harder to buy a decent cup of tea than a firearm.

‘I’ve got people who we know have been on Isil websites living here in the United States,’ said Obama last week (before the Orlando incident), ‘but because of the National Rifle Association, I cannot prohibit these people from buying a gun.’ Yet, every time the President attempts to curb the easy availability of weapons in the US, Republican NRA cheerleaders start carping on about the sanctity of the Second Amendment. There are, of course, many other countries where firearms can also be purchased with relative ease, yet none in the developed world can boast the body-count of the US. It would seem the right to bear arms simply facilitates a deeper craving in the American psyche. After all, for a country that was lauded as a break with Old World bloodshed and praised as a fresh start for civilisation when it finally achieved recognition as an independent nation in the 1780s, America has enjoyed a mere 21 years of peace since the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Founding Fathers.

There is undoubtedly a pattern where the perpetrators of mass shootings in the US are concerned. Most tend to be outsiders of some sort, rejected by their peers and harbouring a grudge over their inability to interact with or assimilate into a peer group. At one time, they would have retreated into a parallel universe manufactured by literature or cinema and would have honed in on one particular individual as symbolic of all they held responsible for their social isolation, whether John Lennon or Ronald Reagan; today, the internet is the comfort zone and the single assassination appears to have fallen out of favour.

In fact, Reagan was the last US President to be targeted by a gunman; these days, it is the mass rather than the individual that provides the bloody culmination of gradual withdrawal from society. One could argue this possibly reflects the democratisation of fame, that the rise of reality television, social media and citizen journalism have all served to elevate the ordinary Joe above the genuine achiever and therefore render him a more relevant target. Add the inbred American eye-for-an-eye mentality and it’s a combustible mix.

The alienation of the outsider does not necessarily equate with a desire to wipe out innocent lives by pulling a trigger, of course; many simply accept they will never belong and don’t automatically attribute responsibility for this to their peers or a particular social, sexual, racial or religious demographic. But when those that do have access to guns, it’s a disaster waiting to happen – though one doesn’t have to wait long in America. 173 and counting.

© The Editor

ALLAH MADE ME DO IT

KhyberIN the past few days, two horrible incidents have occurred on either side of the Atlantic that initially appeared to be random acts of violence – a mass shooting in the US in which several lives were lost (hardly uncommon) and a man with a knife stabbing commuters on the London Underground.

The first of these, which took place last Wednesday, resulted in the deaths of 14 people at the Inland Regional Centre in San Bernardino, California. The atrocity was carried out by a married couple, one of whom – Syed Rizwan Farook – was a public health inspector, attending a function alongside many of his work colleagues at the venue before abruptly departing and returning with his wife and some firearms that the pair of them proceeded to unleash upon the crowd of 75-80. Despite being clad in a ski-mask, Farook was recognised by several survivors, and within four hours of the massacre, both perpetrators were dead, killed by police following a pursuit and a shoot-out.

So routine are these kind of gruesome incidents in the US that talk of motive in the immediate aftermath seems almost irrelevant; the damage has been done and getting to the source of whatever provoked the assault won’t bring back the dead. I suppose the thinking is to gift a semblance of meaning to what seems an utterly senseless act, as though to know why it was done will somehow join the dots and make it appear less inexplicable.

What happened in San Bernardino brought the numbers of mass shootings in America for just 2015 alone to a staggering 355, not far from one shooting for every day of the year. But this latest in what often feels like an endless succession of civilian slayings has been upgraded to a terrorist incident, lifted out of the standard ‘loner with movie star/rock star/white supremacist fixation’ model and placed on another level altogether.

Three days later, an individual armed with a large knife stabbed a trio of commuters exiting Leytonstone Tube Station; thankfully, nobody was killed and the perpetrator was brought down by Taser-waving police before anyone else came within range of his weapon. Although on a far smaller scale than the kind of bloodbath Americans have been forced to become accustomed to, this unpleasant episode is rare albeit not unusual in British cities, where many mentally-disturbed, self-medicating wanderers adrift in the urban jungle occasionally act out their fantasies in public. Yet, this assault has also been classified as a terrorist incident, elevated above yer average knife crime on account of one statement issued by the knifeman before launching his attack – ‘This is for Syria’.

Was it really for Syria anymore than the San Bernardino shootings were for Syria? Terrorist motivations have been attributed to the latter due to the fact that Tashfeen Malik, Syed Rizwan Farook’s wife and fellow assassin, apparently pledged allegiance to ISIS on Facebook – possibly alongside a photo of her evening meal the same day. The FBI says there was evidence of ‘extreme planning’ of the massacre by the couple, but most of the high-school shootings in the US have been planned beforehand and on the odd occasion, rather extremely.

When it comes to the Leytonstone stabber, the terrorist tag stemmed solely from the attacker’s Syria announcement. Had he shouted ‘Ap the Ammers!’, would he have been regarded as a football hooligan? Had he quoted a line from a song, would the singer of it now be blamed for inciting violence as Marilyn Manson once was?

In theory, every gun-toting American nobody or every knife-wielding London loser could proclaim their belief in the ISIS cause prior to kicking off their spree; but does that place them in the same terrorist annals as the 9/11 hijackers or the 7/7 bombers? Surely the Real McCoy would have selected locations a tad more significant than what was essentially a Californian DWP outpost on one hand and an Underground station that is hardly the highest new entry in the Tube top forty on the other? After all, those who carried out the recent Paris attacks at least picked places in the city centre that were listed in tourist guidebooks.

I’m not quite sure if labelling both incidents terrorist ones is a concerted effort by the authorities in both Britain and America to maintain the level of fear established in the wake of Paris (thus justifying fresh legislation to keep closer tabs on everyone), or if doing so will enable these two cases to achieve a higher priority than they would otherwise warrant and the crime will therefore be solved quickly due to popular demand. So far, there doesn’t seem to be much conclusive evidence that points to actual terrorism, whereas there does seem to be at least a modicum of evidence that places both incidents in the context of unbalanced individuals possessing a distinct lack of empathy with their fellow-man and able to kill – or attempt to – bereft of any conscience. That could be a definition of terrorism, but it would make every murderer in history a terrorist if it was.

© The Editor