Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Reasons to kill: I'm pissed, Don't Like Mondays or texting in cinemas

Brenda Ann Spencer. "I don't like Mondays."

Usually, the first question we ask on hearing about a murder is, why? What was the motive? An answer to this doesn’t bring the dead back, but it can help a community understand and achieve some level of closure on an otherwise meaningless act of violence. The recent media and government attention on ‘one-punch’ kills in Sydney implies that intoxication is the cause or enabler of latent violent instincts among a small minority of men wandering between bars. But is it the only reason? As professional boxer Danny Green noted when launching his new ad aimed at knocking out ‘coward punches’, plenty of guys built like Thor get drunk and don’t feel the need to harm others.

January 29 marks 35 years since America’s first horrific experience of a mass school shooting. The perpetrator was 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who lived across from the Grover Cleveland Elementary School and opened fire one morning in 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer. Spencer, who remains in prison after being refused parole several times, showed no remorse.

Her explanation for her actions was, "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." The sheer senselessness of what happened and Spencer’s apparent ambivalence towards it defied belief and inspired Bob Geldof to pen the Boomtown Rats’ hit, I don’t like Mondays. My Grade 6 teacher introduced our class the song, which had been released a few years earlier. It wasn’t a song that your average 10-year-old would find appealing musically back then, but it did receive a huge amount of airplay on the stations our parents listened to, and he explained the story that had inspired the lyrics. It was as startling to me then as the current spate of (mainly US) inexplicable outbursts of wanton violence.

Tell me why
I don’t like Mondays
Tell me why
I don’t like Mondays
I wanna shoot the whole day down

And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
'Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?

These days, the authorities might linger longer on questions such as why the hell “daddy” bought her the gun and 50 rounds of ammunition in the first place (Spencer had stated it was because she thought he wanted her to kill herself).  Or why he’d refused her access to mental health treatment when it was strongly recommended based on her behavior prior to the killings.

America is now so accustomed to outbursts of boredom or rage or whatever it is that drives someone to kill children that there’s a whole market opening up in bulletproof bookcases and other furniture innovations that can be used as barricades. But violence is also erupting elsewhere, and although guns are predominantly the weapon of choice, they’re not the only one.

The last month is littered with examples. Last week, in an affluent part of Illinois, a 14 year-old girl stabbed her 11-year-old sister 40 times, because she didn’t feel the young sibling was showing enough appreciation for what she was doing to keep the house running.  Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor from the University of South Florida, tried to help a nation fathom what would prompt such an act. “Multiple stab wounds can indicate rage as well as dissociation,” she said. Buried within the story was a line that authorities are investigating the girls’ single mother for neglect of her children.

A couple of weeks ago in Florida, a 71-year-old retired police captain fatally shot a theatre-goer who irritated him by sending text messages on his phone during the previews, and ignored his escalating requests to desist. What provoked him is clear. Less so, how it is that an apparently civilized, intelligent man formerly responsible for upholding law and order as a cop was unable to control and appropriately channel his anger.

In Australia, most of us are dumbfounded that President Obama’s attempts at very liberal gun control measures repeatedly fail in the wake of such incidents. John Howard’s decisive action following the Port Arthur massacre and the statistics since prove a direct relationship between the accessibility of firearms and acts of violence. In an absurdly funny segment, The Daily Show’s John Oliver investigated this in the context of why the US wouldn’t follow an example of country that took action on gun control and reaped the benefits.

But even if America ever manages to overcome the widespread fears of tyranny and police states and sentiments like the NRA’s “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun”, understanding and tackling the deep-seated issues that provoke people to be violent is a problem shared by all countries, including Australia, where fists and knives are equally lethal.

Last weekend, a gunman shot dead two people before turning the gun on himself in a busy shopping mall in Maryland in the United States. At this stage, his motive – the key question everybody needs an answer to – remains unknown.

A mall employee, present during the shootings spoke a candid, horrifying truth. "This country needs a lot of help,” she told reporters tearily. “When somebody is that angry to go to a mall on a Saturday morning and shoot people, we're in a lot of trouble. To push people to those limits where things like that happen makes no sense."

Controlling weapons is a good start to reducing deaths. But as a society, we also need to examine– beyond blaming alcohol and drugs and accessibly to weapons – what is driving people to hurt others in such senseless acts of violence.