Shortly after my house-hunting trip to San Diego in 1984, James Huberty slaughtered 21 men, women, and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro. Though I had often read about such incidents, this one brought with it a new stomach-churning sensation—as pit stops at the golden arches had been frequent for a penny-pinching family with two young daughters. “It could have happened where we were” was the thought that accompanied the nauseating gastric whirl.
Today the McDonald’s in San Ysidro has been razed and a memorial with 21 pillars commemorates the victims, but the mass violence that started in 1966 with James Whitman’s deadly sniping from the University of Texas tower, continues.
Last Friday was the eighth anniversary of the Columbine murders—an event cited with admiration by Cho Seung-Hui, the killer who now holds not only America’s single-day mass-murder record but also (thanks to NBC and follow-the-leader news outlets) the record for post-mortem media exposure.
In the wake of Monday’s massacre, many copycat threats were issued—and numerous hyper-precautionary measures taken. Locally, an Internet message promising a disaster greater than Virginia Tech frayed nerves at SDSU until authorities tracked down the demented sender.
SDSU, of course, is no stranger to violence. Witness the 1996 murder of three professors by a graduate student. And at area high schools, the much-publicized Santee killings in March of 2001 were followed less than three weeks later by the non-lethal Granite Hills shooting spree. Obviously, what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia, has also happened here—most destructively in San Ysidro.
Significantly, both Huberty and the Virginia Tech killer expressed anger toward society in general at the time of their acts. Cho’s rambling diatribes were mostly directed at amorphous targets—rich hedonists who drink vodka and cognac—not at anyone in particular. “They” were the ones who, in Cho’s paranoid mind, made him do it. Similarly, before his deadly rampage in San Ysidro, Huberty announced that, “society had its chance.” Unfortunately, Huberty and Cho had only glancing or irregular (and obviously inadequate) contact with mental health professionals.
One could speculate that the free-floating rage expressed by deranged minds will exist regardless of societal models. But I think it’s safe to assume that the venom and violence regularly marketed in our culture at least reinforce the imaginary grievances of mentally disturbed individuals.
By contrast, imagine a culture in which civility is prized—where slasher films and the f-word are denounced like the n-word, where victimhood is eyed with suspicion, where political opponents are discussed with linguistic restraint, not vilified as sub-human monsters.
Most importantly, imagine a culture where gratitude is expressed as frequently as, in today’s society, rights are invoked. Such an environment would provide those on the edge a portrait of benevolence that doesn’t foster delusions.
Unfortunately it’s hard in our media-shaped world (where gratitude is as unpopular as temperance) to distinguish homicidal maniacs from your typical bloviating narcissist.