You can’t make this stuff up. The LAX shootings, coming hard on the heels of the Nevada school shooting and the next day’s police shooting of a teenager carrying a toy gun, is sending a message none of us can afford to miss. Our symbols are out of control. People are no more or less crazy than they’ve ever been, weapons are no more or less easy to get if you really want one than when the first cave man picked up a big stick and challenged his romantic rival to slug it out. What’s changed is that our symbolic vocabulary has expanded and the sticks are a whole lot more efficient.
If you’ve been reading my previous two blogs on this subject, this line of thought will sound familiar to you. I’m not surprised this kind of thing is happening – I expect it to happen and keep happening – but I’m alarmed at the way the momentum is picking up. We used to have at least a few weeks off between incidents – sometimes a few months if we were lucky – but this franchise is cranking out sequels while the last one is still in the theaters, and the next theater it plays is likely to be the next bus you get into, your neighborhood church or your daughter’s school. This thing’s gone viral. Anybody who’s not scared isn’t paying attention.
The LAX shooter survived, despite himself. He didn’t mean to. He wasn’t wearing body armor, he had no exit plan. He simply combined two familiar symbolic scenarios – acting out against symbols of authority and police assisted suicide. It was his own pain he was trying to fix, not the system. He’s not going to have any new “answers” for us when he comes to. He doesn’t have to. He’s already given us all the answers we need.
The scene from the LAX drama that keeps getting replayed is the killer’s face-to-face encounter with a regular passenger. The killer looked down at the man cowering on the floor, asked him if he was “TSA”, took his word for it that he wasn’t, and walked away in search of other targets, designated targets. Designated is the operational word here. In the killer’s mind, TSA employees had become symbols of government oppression and the source of his sense of personal powerlessness. TSA employees, especially uniformed ones, were therefore not persons but symbols and therefore legitimate targets. The passenger on the floor, by identifying as “non-TSA”, retained his personhood and was therefore considered neutral or perhaps even identified as a fellow sufferer. The fact that individual TSA employees, the persons behind the symbols, had no more to do with the shooter’s problems than the man on the floor didn’t matter. Once a symbol, always a symbol. It’s about identity, not employment. You work for the Transportation Security Administration – you are “TSA”.
When the symbols get muddled, things get dangerous. I’m painfully reminded of the disconnect in the Vietnam War that occurred when children began being used as assassins and saboteurs by the already hard to identify enemy. The expansion of the symbolic title “enemy” to include not only children but the entire civilian population reached its horrific climax in the My Lai massacre. Blaming the massacre on a single out of control officer and thinking that was the end of it missed the point, and didn’t keep any of the thousands of subsequent symbol-driven killings or the events of the last two weeks from happening. We need to understand what we’re up against, and who. We don’t have to look far.
If ever the phase “We have met the enemy and he is us” could be applied to a situation, this is it. We are symbolic creatures. Our symbols and analogies are the operating systems that run our concepts, our emotions and our actions. The difference between what we see in front of our faces and what we see in pixels on a screen is becoming less by the millisecond. Art doesn’t imitate life. Art is life. And for humans, especially twenty first century humans who are able to see images of events happening anywhere in the world in real time or within days or minutes, life isn’t imitating art, life is art.
So what it really comes down to is the difference between good art and bad art. And after all the arguments about style, technique and competence get lost in the din, the line in the sand between the good and the bad, for art and just about everything else, is the truth. If a work of art honestly, or even accidentally, expresses some truth about human beings and the world we live in, it tends to provoke an honest response from those who experience it, and in some cases, to last long after the artist and his or her original audience is long gone.
A gunman mowing down random citizens like video game opponents is bad art. The random citizen who crawls across the fire zone to assist the wounded is good art. There’s a simple truth that separates these two works of art and these two artists – the simple, bedrock truth that we’re all fragile humans and we’re all in this together. If a fellow human being is a symbol of our shared mortality, then I won’t be eager to kill him or her, and I won’t feel so alone with my own vulnerability. If he or she has become a symbol of something other, something that threatens me, then anything goes, and anything’s possible.
I closed my blog on the California police shooting with a confession that in my own symbol system, the image of myself shooting the Newtown school killer dead five minutes before his attack on innocent children is one I can live with and would in fact welcome. I’m not happy about that but I can’t deny it. I’m as infected as the rest of us. Those who deny it are not to be trusted, and won’t be able to solve this thing. Here’s how we solve this thing.
The difference between me facing a real killer and that killer facing a classful of elementary school kids is that my symbolism is based on a true story. It’s the same story our caveman friend was reading when he picked a fight with his flesh and blood rival to win the girl of his dreams. It’s one on one and the winner actually does get the girl, or protects her children, or feeds his family, or whatever’s at stake in the real world. The Newtown killer, or the LAX killer, or that poor depressed boy in Nevada were dealing with symbols based on a false story – their targets weren’t a threat to anybody. That’s the difference – the only difference.
As long as our mass communication continues to feed us images of symbolic enemies, be they Taliban, bullies, Tea Party, Liberals, Republicans, Democrats, gays, bigots, drug dealers, the DEA, mass murderers or TSA Employees (pay your money and take your pick) the more our symbolic confusion will increase. Life and theater bleed into each other- they’re too alike not to. Twenty four hour theater is an exhausting prospect, but that’s the world we live in and there’s no going back. I’ve checked my e-mail twenty times since I started this piece and that trend isn’t going to change. Keeping our sense of our own (and each other’s) flesh and blood in the face of this onslaught will be the major task of the next century if we mean to survive it. We need to catch up with our technology. It’s already rewiring us, for better or worse.
As history demonstrates, we could use some rewiring. Mass murder isn’t new, but you used to have to be a king or a Fuhrer to pull it off. Now anybody can do it. We have access to the king’s imagery as well as the king’s weapons, and there’s no missing which of the two is the more dangerous.
I’d like to be able to hope that the next sequel in this bloody franchise isn’t already in production, but I know better. There will be more symbolic killing sprees and the media will cover them blow by blow, with interviews of surviving witnesses, expert testimony, official finger pointing to assign blame for the breakdown in security, and, of course, live video of the event from the cell phones of those who, in the moment of crisis, decided it was better to film than run. We’re all turning into war correspondents. And that, oddly enough, is the good news.
Since this battlefield is in our own backyards, and not in some far off mythological place, we have a reason to stop the war. Since this enemy looks too much like ourselves to turn into a generic symbol, we have no designated target to kill. We can’t win this war the old fashioned way. What we’re up against is us, the new us.
That’s as far as I can get with this particular series. I want to try to post this before the next shoe drops. There’s a lot going on in this can of dangerous worms and I’m going to have to step back from things a bit to try to sort it out. Any fresh ideas anyone can throw into the mix would be appreciated. I need all the help I can get – as do we all.