Boy, do I hate to be right.
When I ended my blog about the symbolic underpinnings of last week’s heartbreaking Nevada school shooting with the words “more to come”, I had no idea how soon “more” would turn out to be. As it turned out, the day after the Nevada shootings, a California policeman shot a teenager to death because the boy was carrying a toy gun.
While this second tragedy doesn’t seem to meet the usual standards for a “copycat” killing, the link between the two events is hard to miss. Let me spell it out. Repeated media coverage of teenagers shooting up their own schools has altered the “symbolic arsenal” of police officers. Whereas in an earlier time a child with a gun would have been treated with more restraint than a similarly armed adult, this is no longer true. The benefit of the doubt when it’s “only a kid” is gone. Just the opposite – the California police may well have reacted with deadly force out of fear that the young man in front of them was on his way to carry out his own “copycat” of the Nevada shooting.
There’s a lot going on here, but it’s not complicated. Like I said before, it’s all about bad symbolism. The depressed boy sees killing his schoolmates as a way to deal with his depression, the terrorist sees blowing up buildings full of people he doesn’t know as a way of solving his own sense of purposelessness and the policeman sees shooting a child in the street as a way of saving other children, not to mention himself – the Nevada child fatally shot a teacher who tried to talk him down and now that’s part of the California cop’s symbolic arsenal too. All territory is becoming enemy territory – and he who hesitates dies. That’s a hard symbol to shake.
But there’s another layer of bad symbolism going on here as well. The on-line coverage included a picture of the gun the boy was holding. It wasn’t a water pistol. It was an assault rifle. It looked like an assault rifle – adult size, polished wood, dark metal, sites in place –primed and ready to go– just aim, squeeze and spray. Not a gun anybody would mess with. Tax-paying companies that employ church-going people are making these toys and parents are buying them for their children. Those children are playing video games where the objective is to kill enemies in the high three figures (or four plus on the advanced levels). The symbols are driving the market and the fear is driving the symbols. And when the movie stops a couple of sick to their stomachs cops are standing over a kid’s body on the sidewalk a couple of blocks from his house, where his video game player is probably still plugged in.
The oldest rule of war is that it’s easier to kill a hundred people than it is to kill one. The more the enemy becomes a symbol the less he is someone with a mother like yours and the easier he is to send home to his mother in a bag. The problem is, on a flat screen TV everybody’s a symbol.
The genie’s out of the bottle – time can’t go backwards. We can’t not hear about these things. If it’s not on the news it will be on Facebook. We’re not going back to flintlock rifles and there’s no market for cap guns – though there probably will be for bullet proof vests in children’s sizes very soon, if there isn’t already. So what can we do?
First, we can stop wasting our time asking “why?”. We know why. Our primal urges (fear, self-protection, rage –that sort of thing) have been given a lot of new ways to express themselves by our technology and things have gotten out of hand. It’s not the technology’s fault. It got us out of the caves. We just didn’t come all the way with it. We need to stop forgetting that. Whether it’s weapons technology or communications technology doesn’t make much difference – they’re both tools in human hands. And from the beginning of the human experience, our tools have been more than just tools – they’ve been the symbols we use to deal with our reality, our emotional protection from a world we didn’t make. My club is not just a stick, it’s my sense of power. An assault rifle is only a better club. My enemy, real or imagined, is a symbol of everything I’m afraid of. Whether I get my information about who my enemy is from my tribal chief, CNN or my PlayStation, I’ll react the same way when I see him coming, even if he’s a thirteen year old boy.
When war becomes game, human beings win, and live to play again. When game becomes war, human beings lose, and die before their time. Telling the difference is getting harder.
None of us are immune. Ask any cop in the country, what he would give to have encountered the Newtown shooter walking down the street with a visible firearm in his hands five minutes before the killer entered the Sandy Hook school. And if you follow that up with the question, “And what would you have done if you had?” you will only get one answer – “Shoot the bastard dead” – from every cop you ask. I know that’s the answer they’d give because it’s the same answer I’d give.
We have a lot of work to do.