Remembrance of Massacres Past
The city of Boulder is about a half-hour drive from where we sit. It’s a college town to Denver’s metropolis, population around 106,000.
We grew up in a town like that, in Oregon. It’s how we figured out Colorado when we moved here almost six years ago: College town, metropolis, vast hinterlands, snowy mountains. No ocean, of course, and plenty of other differences when you look closer, but good enough to be getting on with.
We were still living in college-town Eugene when one of the first school shootings took place, next door, in Springfield. Everyone remembers Columbine (twenty-minute drive to our south), but West Paducah, Kentucky (1997) and Thurston High School (1998) preceded it.
We used to wonder why Columbine got the attention and the earlier two didn’t. Part of it was surely the numbers — the thirteen deaths were greater than the others combined — but Columbine was Denver, while the others were podunk rural. That made it familiar. That made it real.
We did that with Boulder, that night: We transposed it to Eugene, thought about the supermarkets we once knew. Hearing that the King Soopers was in a strip mall, we settled on West 11th, a stretch we once filmed for a parody music video, which Spin magazine would describe as an “eerily familiar transurban nowhere”. Yeah, that nailed it.
And then we waited for what has become a depressingly familiar ritual since America’s mass-shooting era began a generation ago with Going Postal: Thoughts&Prayers, Whodunnit, and Collective Inaction.
Whodunnit has become a gruesome national political sport; much bluster rests on whether the murderer’s name is Robert Aaron Long or Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa. As it happens, from 1982 on, the ethnicity of mass killers matches America’s. Nothing to see there.
If you want the telling detail — we suspect you’re ahead of us on this one — most of them are male.
Most of our nation’s collective leadership is male, too. We might want to look into that.
Inaction has been the watchword of the past decade, especially after Sandy Hook (male, 2012, 26 dead). That was the one that broke everyone’s spirit: If we can’t do anything after twenty children — 6 and 7 years old — are slaughtered, what kind of nation are we?
(This kind: The interns during the Capitol Insurrection knew what to do. Unlike us, they had grown up with mass-shooter drills, which is what passes in these parts for an institutional response.)
We, like many, thought everything was clear at that point: In this country, guns are more important than people. At least when it comes to who runs the joint.
But after the past year, after 562,036 covid deaths in America to date, most of them preventable, as we mark the anniversary of Killing Grandma and having but one life to give for your economy, we’ve been thinking of William Westmoreland.
If you’re of a certain age — ours or older — the name will be instantly familiar: Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, 1964-1968. Famous for declaring a “light at the end of the tunnel” just before the Tet Offensive, a phrase that made a historically unaware comeback during Trump’s final months.
But that’s not what brought Westmoreland to mind. Instead it was something he told Peter Davis for “Hearts and Minds”, a 1974 documentary on Vietnam — which we’ve never seen, but somehow the quote reached us anyway, and it’s been in our head for many, many years:
“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.”
You could probably trace that back to World War II — hell, you can probably find variations applied to The Hun in the Great War. It’s a means of dehumanizing the enemy, making it okay to slaughter them because really, they don’t mind anyway. (If lines about 72 Virgins also come to mind, yeah, same ballpark.) We’re better than that. We value life.
Only clearly we don’t.
That’s not a new thought as such. It’s been a commonplace for years — probably after Sandy Hook as well — that the Right to Life crowd only cares about babies in the womb, not what happens after they drop. But when it’s no longer just a dozen killed here, a few dozen there, but hundreds of thousands of Americans dying because nobody gives a shit — it’s not that we don’t put a high price on life, we don’t put a price on it at all.
We’ve met the Inhuman, and they is us.
They won’t see that, of course. Aggressive obliviousness is how they get through the day. But we can see that. We can see them for who and what they are. And if we can’t do anything about it right now, well, we need to see that for what it is, too. It’s not that we’re lacking the popular will. It’s that we’re represented by a government that doesn’t represent America.
And quite deliberately so. Tyrannies are like that.