Monday, July 23, 2012

Good Morning, Shooters

In my whole life I have spent a total of seven days in the United States, in 2006, to attend – of all things – a criminology conference. I had to organise my own accommodation and so I spent some time on the internet checking out customer reviews of hotels in downtown Los Angeles. This was a mistake. As most people know but I didn’t back then, these reviews are seldom if ever written by people who have had an ordinary experience and/or are in full control of their nerves. Horror stories abound, if not about the establishments themselves, certainly about the neighbourhoods, which in big cities are nearly always depicted as being critically unsafe. I quickly formed a mental picture of a place in which I would be mugged or gunned down if I so much as dared to venture outside my hotel after dark.

As it happens, downtown Los Angeles at night appeared to be mostly occupied by homeless people and sure, this was unsettling – I had never seen so many in one place – but hardly dangerous. I was reminded of a long stopover at LAX on my way back home some years earlier during which a recorded voice repeated at five-minute intervals, in English and Spanish, that travellers were not required to give money to solicitors (a word that confused me a little back then) and that the airport didn’t endorse their activities. The obsessive repetition of the warning was of course far more bothersome, intrusive and violent than the soliciting itself.

My experience of Los Angeles was perfectly ordinary, except for the sight of two FBI cars riddled with large-calibre bullets in a parking lot a short distance from Gehry’s Concert Hall. This image was closer to the America I knew through films and cop shows, the America of gun violence and permanent war between the police and the many kinds of people who live or are placed outside of the law. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken a photograph of those two cars, but I have it now, it’s on my hard drive, and it proves to me that I really saw them, as opposed to conjuring them from the fictive America that we all inhabit. [Update: except, not really. See Witen in the comments.]

The mass shooting in Aurora last Friday is finely balanced on the boundary between the Real and the spectacle of the Real, its representation for the purposes of entertainment. That the event is already routinely referred to by news media, with ghastly laziness, as ‘Batman shooting’ shows that the choice to ride that boundary can’t be imputed to James Holmes alone. When we say ‘tragedy’ we mean the horrible thing that just happened, and tend to overlook the fact that the word originally belonged to the theatre, but now the tangle is well and truly inextricable. A man acquires a small arsenal and assaults a cinema full of strangers, styling himself as the villain of the film that is being projected onto the screen. As a response and a mark of respect, the producers of the film choose to temporarily withhold information about how much money the film has made during its opening weekend, thus of how successful the spectacle was. The next day the National Rifle Association – the body that lobbies on behalf of men who wish to acquire small arsenals, and that for many years used to be chaired by a film actor – greets its followers with the words “Good morning, shooters”. This is all theatre. Last Friday it just happens to have had real victims.

It is part of the theatre, too, to hear calls against people who politicise, or can be accused of politicising, the tragedy. These have the predictability of a recorded voice blaring out of a PA. The victims of the attack would have been okay if only they had been allowed to carry concealed weapons of their own, says Tammy Bruce in the Guardian online. The answer is more guns. Charlton Heston always went on the offensive too, as he did after Columbine. He knew that it’s what works. However that response begs the question of what it means to politicise an event like the attack on the theatre audience in Aurora. This, in the language of the NRA, simply means: liberals reflexively calling for stricter controls on gun ownership. It is in the interest of gun lobby to reduce the politics of gun violence to a question of market regulation, of supply and demand. Look at Utoya, says Bruce: didn’t Anders Breivik get hold of all the weapons he needed in spite of Norway’s strict gun laws? Couldn’t those kids have defended themselves against him, had they been armed? That a commentator can suggest, and in The Guardian of all places, that militarising children at a summer camp is the solution to mass gun violence while the President calls timidly, inanely for ‘common sense gun control’ shows to what extent the Right owns this debate.

The other cornerstone of the conservative argument is this: that madness and evil belong outside of society, therefore implicitly outside of politics. The depoliticisation of the Utoya massacre, the attempts to characterise Anders Breivik as a madman whose stated motivations couldn’t be taken seriously or at face value, much less be linked back to the people and the groups that he acknowledge to have been inspired by, might seem uniquely egregious, but how can gun violence on this scale be depoliticised at all? How is the society that isolates, the society that overlooks, the society that arms exonerate itself from all political responsibility, as it did after Columbine and is in the process of doing after Aurora? Acts of madness are like acts of God, outside of our control, claim these voices. Nor was there a chance, in the country that grants its authorities extraordinary powers of surveillance, to detect and raise alarm over the online purchase over two months of over 6,000 rounds of ammunition, in part perhaps because such purchases are not only legal but also not necessarily unusual. At any rate, says the FBI, the only defence against Lone Gunmen is other citizens reporting their suspicious behaviour. There is no technological solution, no mechanized system of control nor sweeping power of enforcement that could protect society against such a threat.

And then there is what is normal.

This tweet posted the morning after the shooting by the account of the official journal of the National Rifle Association was met with understandable outrage, to which the organization responded first by deleting the tweet, secondly by deleting the account, and thirdly by claiming that the person who posted the tweet was unaware of the Aurora shooting at the time. I see no particular reason to disbelieve this claim. What I find chilling is that on any other Friday morning this would be the greeting directed to the account’s 16,000 followers, and nobody would think of taking exception.

What does it mean to call yourself a ‘shooter’, as opposed to a gun owner, or even a gun lover, if not that what you do, what defines you, is that you put your gun to use? There is a distinct shift in rhetoric here: it is no longer the gun as an instrument of defence, not only of oneself but also of the country and its way of life – which how the NRA has historical framed the issue and leveraged its interpretation of the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution – but the gun as instrument, as tool, and not just nor primarily for sport. Behind, a massive industry that needs to not only sell the weapons but ammo as well. In fact Wal-Mart will only sell you the latter (although it’s bringing back the guns now too). And so the customers of this industry become shooters, and the act of purchasing 6,000 rounds of live ammunition is redefined as model consumer behaviour and no longer constitutes its own kind of madness.

David Simonds

Finally there is Batman. The one between film violence and real-world violence is the most problematic of correlations, and what happens to a culture, to a society when the scene of the spectacle becomes literally the scene of the violence is equally hard to speculate upon. If it is in fact true, as the police has claimed, that the attack was the culmination of months of careful and deliberate planning, this would neatly match the meticulously orchestrated marketing campaign for The Dark Knight Rises, adding another set of elusive correspondences. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman and Sayres Rudy argue in their analysis of the trailers for the new Batman, in contemporary cinema this film-before-the-film has become just as rich a text as the feature itself, and equally important – if not more so – to its fortunes. Blockbusters are made or broken by how their fare during opening weekend, so the decision by Warner Bros. to postpone revealing the takings of The Dark Knight Rises even by one day had a rather greater import that some might have realised. So much so that in the end they just couldn’t go through with it, and studio officials leaked the numbers to Deadline and The New York Times, expressing wonderment at how the film managed to ‘maintain much of its momentum in the wake of the killings’. There goes another industry that won’t give an inch, and there goes another consumer behaviour redefined as virtue, as resilience. If mass shootings are senseless, if they are random, incomprehensible acts of madness, then what makes sense, what is sane is for the disruption to be minimised and for normality to resume as soon as possible, along with the forgetting.

In the best piece to have been written in the hours after the shooting, The Onion gave a timeline for this process, for the ritual shows of public mourning and for what little analysis and debate would follow. It was almost certainly accurate: ‘In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.’


Anonymous said...

Less about the events in Colorado, more about a particular review of the film spectacle, but I thought you might be interested in it nonetheless:

Andre said...

The Onion posted another great (and relevant) piece last year:,20525/

Unknown said...

Scene removed from film,

Megan Clayton said...

First-person shooter
is a shooting mode
where a story is shot by one character at a time,
shooting for and about


First-person shooter may be singular,
plural or multiple
as well as being an authoritative,
reliable or deceptive "shot"

and represents point of view in the shooting.

The shooters explicitly refer to themselves
using words and phrases involving "I"
(referred to as the first-shooter singular)
and/or "we"

(the first-shooter plural).

This allows the reader or audience
to see the point of view
(including opinions, thoughts, and feelings)
only of the shooter,

and no other characters.

In some shootings, first-person shooters
may refer to information they have heard
from the other characters,
in order to try to deliver

a larger point of view.

Other shootings may switch
from one shooter to another,
allowing the reader or audience to
experience the thoughts and feelings

of more than one character.

Megan Clayton said...

For the purposes of plagiarism, this week's poème has a debt to Wikipedia.

Witen said...

It's entirely possible that those cars *did* come from the fictive America. Downtown LA is a very common shooting location for movies and commercials - a combination of convenient location, photogenic road scenery (tunnels, bridges, freeways, office buildings spanning all the architectural styles of the past century), and easy to block off, being pretty much abandoned on weekends and evenings.

Meanwhile, searching the news I can't find any mention of FBI involvement in a local shootout, and while the branch office of the FBI is in the neighborhood, I'm not sure that the FBI even *has* liveried cars, let alone that livery. I certainly don't recall ever seeing any when I lived in the area. To the extent that there is a visible national-level police presence around, it's mostly the US Marshals, which perform various roles relating to the local federal courts; and the Federal Protective Service, which does security at federal buildings.

Giovanni Tiso said...

That is a great point. I simply hadn't considered that those might have been film props. The location was somewhat incongruous either way. The two cars - plus the one next to it, where the only one in that large parking lot. I speculated at the time that the two FBI cars would have been moved there from somewhere else.

I'm utterly puzzled now. Going to read some Jameson.

engrama said...

Brilliant post, that perfectly encapsulates America's love of guns. One thing that is also used by the Right, of course, is the defense of the Second Amendment (and hence, the integrity of the Constitution):

The argument "if only everyone had their own gun" implies that a violent act can occur anywhere, and at any time and that we have the power -- even the responsibility - to defend ourselves and others with weapons. Teaching people to "take the law into their own hands" is exactly what George Zimmerman did in Florida.

This is not what a democracy should be about. There is a reason the U.S. is at the top of the list in gun-related deaths / year.

Witen said...

Now that I look closer, I'm sure those *are* film props - see the numbers painted on the roof, so that cars can be distinguished from the air? But both cars have the same number - 279.

My guess is they're supposed to represent the same car in a chase scene. The top one for driving shots, and the bottom one - without the light bar, with the trunk and hood open, and back window damaged - for a shot where the car flips over and rolls.

Witen said...

Oh, found it. It's from Live Free or Die Hard ("Die Hard 4"), it's the car that gets launched into a helicopter. You can see the scene here, clear visual on the car and its markings at 0:39 -

Apparently the FBI Police are a real but small (240 people nationwide) entity - they're basically security guards for FBI properties.

Giovanni Tiso said...

This is truly outstanding work. You're my new hero.

Matt Fairhurst said...

Amazing. I'm just going to . . . go hide in my room and read Baudrillard and try not to be spooked by this.

Witen said...

Yeah, it's a bit startling how the resonances turned out to line up there.

Oh, and that's even before adding in something non-Americans might not know: the title is a play on "Live Free Or Die", the motto of the state of New Hampshire. New Hampshire is known as a contender for the most libertarian political culture in America - among other things, the state constitution specifically enumerates the right of the citizens to overthrow the government.

Witen said...

And as long as I'm explaining these things to the heathen foreigners, might as well take a go at the actual subject at hand, the role of guns, and gun control, in American self-understanding:

Start with the common tendency, across time and space, to restrict weaponry (and war, AND hunting) to the nobility, or the citizenry as distinguished from the plebs. Which, crossed with the revolutionary-for-its-time notion that ALL Americans are noble citizens (recursively establishing that the in-fact excluded like slaves, womenfolk, and the unpropertied were never really American material) means that all proper Americans are weapon-bearers, and hunters, and warriors. And that weapon-bearing is both symbolic of and essential to freedom, and thus respectable life. Thus the Second Amendment.

To some degree this is symbolic; so resistance to gun control is cognate to the efforts of samurai to hold on to their swords in the face of disarmament initiatives from the liberal democratic constitutional monarchy of the late-1800s Meiji period, even if they hadn't really served as warriors since the institution of the Tokugawa bakufu in the early 17th century. I wouldn't be surprised if there had been similar situations regarding the swords and duelling culture of Italian noblemen, but that's outside my area of knowledge.

To some degree it's - in theory at least - pragmatic; an armed citizenry has the power to confront a military and overthrow a government if it becomes oppressive. Consider the New Hampshire constitution mentioned above. Now of course that's questionable in an era of mechanized warfare.(Though maybe less so if you consider the possibility that we're actually in an era of "special forces" - see Hezbollah in Lebanon, American post-Vietnam doctrine as applied in South America and the Middle East, or even d'Annunzio in Fiume.)

But there's a big thread of American self-mythology that it doesn't matter, the real American with a gun can overcome any enemy no matter how mighty with pure cleverness and gumption. Reference, say, any number of blockbusters, especially alien invasion-themed, or even the video clip above where bold everyman cop McClane takes out an airborne sniper through audacity, courage, and willingness to accept pain.

(It's worth noting that this was a major theme of Confederate sentiment during the American Civil War - the standard historiography has it that southern troops and leadership were in fact significantly more effective than Union forces on a per capita basis, but this was cancelled out by the overwhelming northern advantage in industrial production and railroad logistics.)

(("Everyman gumption triumphs over faceless behemoth" is also a big part of our understanding of WWII. That's 20th century geopolitics in a nutshell - the Americans think they beat the Germans and the Russians; really the Russians beat the Germans and the Russians. I guess we did beat the Japanese pretty soundly, but only by tearing apart the fabric of the universe and summoning a miniature sun. Twice.))

In fact, I'd say that among many gun control opponents, there's a widely held sentiment, conscious or unconscious and rarely explicitly laid out in public (by professional layers-out-in-public, at least) - that yeah, sure, stronger gun control is entirely feasible and would indeed save many lives. But it would do so at the unacceptable cost of reducing the populace to servitude - symbolic at best, literal at worst - so better to stoically accept the death toll as the price of freedom.

And anyone who would accept the tradeoff is a coward and definitionally so lacking in republican virtue as to be unworthy of citizenship, let alone political influence or leadership. That being the soft version of this line of thought, the harder one being that it represents a malicious, explicit assault on American liberty and thus the personhood of every true citizen.

(1 of 3)

Witen said...

(That other nations have readily accepted the bargain of disarmament, of course, is taken as testament to the supine, decadent, and unworthy character of their citizenry. Which feeds back into the necessity of American preeminence in world affairs, and the acceptance of American opinion alone as sufficient to judge when and where and who to kill.)

And lying under the recurrent "if only someone had been armed" lament - well, to some degree it's a real, pragmatic argument. But that it recurs even in a case like this against someone in full ballistic armor just shows that there's a sense that an armed response would have been preferable, more noble, more worthy, even if it didn't actually solve the problem. All men die of something; at least they could have died an honorable death, at least they could have died with their boots on.

TL;DR - there's a strong stand of American self-understanding by which

• gun ownership is a necessary condition of freedom and thus full humanity
• it's better to die fighting than die cowering
• it's better to die fighting than live cowering, even
• sustaining this freedom is worth any cost in blood or treasure
• any attempt to limit this freedom is by definition an attempt to reduce the populace to slavery and subhumanity
• which would constitute sufficient grounds for revolution
• in which case good thing we have guns, right?


Americans think they need guns as a bulwark against the government, which might otherwise oppress them by… taking their guns? Yeah, that's a little recursive. And really, 9 figures worth of Americans are fine or even enthusiastic about gun control, and the nation's lived under tighter regimes in the past.

Because for all the overdetermining references to history - revolutionary, civil war, and otherwise, a lot of this dates no later than the '70s. The NRA only really developed as an anti-control organization after a board coup in 1977.

The revolutions of 1968 are a lot like the revolutions of 1848 - they didn't overthrow regimes at the time, but they threw the ball of legitimacy into the air, and long-term shifts came out of the ensuing scrum to grab it.

Not all of the ruralist communitarianism of the era was universalist, or leftist. A lot of it was particularist, a lot of it was Christian, a lot of it was white nationalist, both with upper- and lower-case "w" and "n"s. A lot of it was, in short, traditionalist, in short, conservative.

And it was backfooted by the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Warren Court attempts to include more of the public more closely in the polity, at the same time the absolute dominance of the postwar "First World" fell apart. And as the ancients would understand, democracy is stable on the condition that there be elements that hold membership in the economy but not the polity.

Of course these things are more spaghetti-tangled than linear. One of the things that spurred the modern gun rights movement was the 1968 gun control bill, which was in response to… black nationalists with guns. The attempts to desegregate the southern schools led states to just shut them down and allow private, nominally religious schools to bloom, the attempts to move against these ended up riling up evangelicals, the abortion issue emerging later as an explicit attempt to meld traditionally hostile Protestant and Catholic blocs at the same time the "white ethnic" Catholics were becoming just "white".

(2 of 3)

Witen said...

All of which funded by business interests who longed to forge a majority against the New Deal. I'm a member of the NRA, actually (I can go on about the "armed citizen = free citizen" thing at such length because even understanding it as a historically contingent and less than transcendant position, I do feel the appeal), and it is the most rewarding organization I've ever been party of. Your choice of one of 3 magazines (one aimed at people in it for the hunting, one at people in it for the politics, my preference being the one promoting an appreciation of the gun as gadget - like a swiss watch that absorbs a point-blank gunshot every time it ticks). The NRA-ILA (the lobbying arm, technically a separate entity for tax reasons) builds its lists by running quarterly raffles in which they give away hundreds of guns (donated by friendly manufacturers, with various motives - I could go on about the politics of which guns get featured in NRA publications, but I'm two "another story"s away from the point already.) Discounts on hotels and car rental that've made membership a hundred-dollar profit for me.

And in exchange, when I was in LA, they robocalled me 3 times about the City Attorney election, cashing in on that goodwill. There'd been an effort to get a bunch of big cities together in a lawsuit over gun violence, which would at least be a drain on the operating expenses of manufacturers (which aren't actually all that big or profitable, as corporations go). And the incumbent attorney had signaled his support. And while I'd actually been following that off-year, city only election, not many were. The guy, a "from nowhere" upstart, won by 27,000 votes, in an election with a quarter-million turnout, in a city of 3.8 million.

TL;DR - Yes, and all that sensibility is largely the product of a deliberate and relatively recent attempt to forge a white, Christian, conservative coalition, funded by big businesses that wanted to undo the New Deal. Surprise.

And maybe that won't hold forever. But who the hell knows where the spaghetti twists next?

The youth don't care about Christianity so much, but I'm also picking up currents of increasingly explicit white identity among what you'd identify as the traditionally "liberal" children of the bourgeois. Who don't really care about homosexuality anymore but are, of all things, starting to schism over transsexuality. Which traces itself back to the internet, which once upon a time came with a liberatory, "hey without the mediating institutions, everybody really can get along in logical rationality and total freedom" narrative. Back when it was all well-off, well-educated young white men from families that valued technological currency. And then started to recoil when "everybody" actually did show up. But aw, jeez, that's enough words for now. Sure brewed the coffee strong today.

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Witen said...

Oh wait, but here's something I forgot to fit in somewhere:

There's another ominous American saying popular in gun culture, about the "four boxes of liberty" - soap, ballot, jury, and ammo. The idea being that that's the proper order in which to respond to a government at odds with the citizenry: first, you speak out against it; failing that you vote in a change of government; failing that you engage in jury nullifcation; failing that you take up arms.

The first interesting thing here is that the boxes continue beyond the second, reflecting the notion that is possible for a government to be elected "wrong", lacking citizen-derived legitimacy even if they win a majority. I think factually questionable charges of "voter fraud" prove somewhat popular in modern America precisely because they can serve to resolve this apparent dilemma, without the necessity of declaring sections of the electorate to be wrongly enfranchised.

The second thing here is that this sentiment does a lot to account for the arc of the "Tea Party" movement in recent history. Why show up to political rallies carrying guns? To demonstrate a willingness and capability to go all the way to the fourth box. And why the die-down in radicalism after the Congressional midterm turnover? Because the second box proved sufficient.

Of course, since Obama, central villain in their mythology, wasn't on the ballot that year, they have to wait for November to try the second box on him.

(4 of 3/addendum)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Don't really know how to respond to this counter-essay other than by saying thank you.

Unknown said...

Awe. And perhaps there is a modern memory among the Irish, they who were banned from having guns by the ruling British.
The death or dishonour theme may well also hold for German immigrants (insert Bluecher pre-charge Waterloo quote here, and yes Wagner). So many possible references in US cinema.
The themes repeat. I also noted in the shot up police cars, most bullets entered from above, were remarkably accurate and one volley would have decapitated the driver. Attack from above indeed. It is also said that Die Hard movies progress in the blood on the face of Bruce Willis...I have also just read that the franchise are a homage to A Clockwork Orange.
This is a theme rich in it's allusions.

Witen said...

On the bullet holes - when .50 cal semiauto sniper rifles (or their futuristic equivalent) show up in movies and video games, it's usually for the BFG factor, just to signify "overwhelming firepower". That scene was one of the few appearances I've seen that actually shows them being used as intended - to disable vehicles by shooting out the engine block.