K Paoletter 23: American Pestilence

There were twenty-four public massacres in the two years it took Seamus McGraw to write From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter. Not long after the book’s publication last month, a gunman opened fire on his former coworkers at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. That shooting came on the heels of four in March, at several spas in Atlanta, an office park in Orange County, a gas station in Missouri, and a grocery store in Boulder. Thirty people have been killed in this, the most recent spate of violence. That’s just a fraction of the overall toll since August 1, 1966, the day McGraw cites as the beginning of the “virulent epidemic of mass, irrational violence” because it was on that date that a shooter climbed to the top of the iconic Tower at the University of Texas and began raining gunfire on random people in Austin, killing seventeen.

The Tower shooter, McGraw writes, “committed murder on a grand scale, not to advance some perverse but comprehensible criminal enterprise or in service to some equally perverse imagined cause, but for no discernable reason.” The senselessness of the assault, along with its cinematic execution and grisly aftermath, was something that Americans had not previously been forced to reckon with. As McGraw demonstrates in his book, six subsequent decades of similar attacks have not provided any clarity, serving only to solidify the sense of grim, intractable mystery that surrounds them.

Over the course of From a Taller Tower, McGraw entertains and dispenses with the various explanations that have been offered for mass shootings, whether originating from psychologists, politicians, or the shooters themselves. While a majority of attackers may suffer from a mental health condition, so do one in five Americans. Shooters are typically male, but aside from that their demographics are virtually identical to the country at large. Even the specific targeting of a marginalized group — whether Sikhs, Asian Americans, Queer people, Jews, Blacks, or women — by an assailant is cast as hollow by McGraw. He rejects the “hard line between those we call terrorists, who act under cover of some grand political or cultural or religious cause, and those among us who kill for their own perverse personal reasons.” An attack justified by resentment at a minority community is no more logical or understandable than one supposedly prompted by a township’s efforts to stop a resident from collecting junk on his lawn, as was the case with a 2013 shooting outside Pittsburgh.

“At their core,” McGraw writes, mass shooters share “a sense of themselves as victims and a narcissistic image of themselves as armed avengers.” However twisted, this “thirst for glory and self-aggrandizement” has a uniquely American tinge, one that might begin to explain how much more frequently shootings happen here compared to in any other nation. “We have become inured to rage,” McGraw observes, “beguiled by narcissism and seduced by a sense of victimhood.”

McGraw’s argument is persuasive, however troubling. Casting the blame for mass shootings on the individuals who execute them is natural, but the length and breadth of the plague that has descended since the ‘60s does suggest a set of preexisting conditions rather than some exogenous toxin. The American fetishization of guns is of course an important feature of the cultural morass that has given rise to mass shootings, even if it not an exclusive cause — even the most rigorous gun-control regime would only lessen the toll of these attacks, not eliminate them.

From a Taller Tower serves as a harrowing exploration of the culture that created and now perpetuates the American mass shooter. But it is only a guide, not an answer key. McGraw stops short of addressing how to fix what’s broken in America, or if even such a thing were possible.

Who can blame him? Culture is an indefinite thing, better observed in retrospect than in practice. Yes, the past 60 years have also seen the rise of the grievance politics that now completely dominate right-wing thought, as well as the formation of the digital spaces which McGraw denounces as “electronic medieval cities that defy borders and span the globe” wherein aspiring mass shooters “who barely warrant a glance in the real world can fashion themselves as kings.” But now that this culture is in place, how to go about convincing white supremacists that the modest gains of minorities are not a threat to them? Or decontaminate 8chan without simply seeding its replacement? 

McGraw ends his book with the “taller tower” alluded to in his title, the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, from which a wealthy, retired man killed and injured upwards of a thousand people at a country music festival in 2017. That shooter, unlike most everyone who preceded him, offered no reason for his rampage and provided no clues to those around him of what he was planning. His attack was, in McGraw’s telling, something of an apogee of the age of mass American gun violence, an event precipitated by nothing beyond its perpetrator’s desire to outdo all who came before him. It’s nihilism gestures at the abyss from which all these attacks emanate, an abyss that was created organically and exists at the periphery of all of our lives. Shuttering that abyss through force of will seems impossible. What hope seems available is flaccid and cowardly — that these attacks will simply end, with as little warning as they began.

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since my last missive, so I hope you’ll forgive a somewhat more protracted update on my recent work than usual. Let’s start with my Baffler review of George Saunders’ guide to writing short stories (which was, let’s face it, mostly just an excuse for the dude to write about some Russian fiction he likes), before moving on to my essay for Real Life arguing weather apps reflect how challenging it is to experience climate change in the immediate way that the crisis demands. I also wrote a couple of sports stories earlier in the spring, one for Columbia Journalism Review on the NBA press corps going along with the league’s desire to return to normalcy despite play continuing through the worst months of the pandemic, the other for Boston about the questionable dedication of Red Sox ownership to winning. Over at The New Republic, I reported on the FinTech industry’s attempts to bring payday lending into the digital age. I also contributed to a sprawling feature from Components about the music platform Bandcamp, which includes some recommendations for how it can compete with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Despite its dorky title, I’ve really been enjoying Rob Harvilla’s new podcast, “60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s.” Each episode is split between Harvilla’s excellent spoken-word essays on the song in question and an interview with another critic, musician, or superfan about that song, like the L.A. Times’ Suzy Exposito on Selena and rapper Open Mike Eagle on The Breeders. Your mileage may vary episode-to-episode depending on how interested you are in revisiting “November Rain” or “Crash into Me,” but no matter how eye roll-inducing the source material, Harvilla brings a charming sense of enthusiasm to the proceedings. His essays are full of funny asides and bashful confessions about his youthful musical obsessions, none of which hinders his ability to drill into the core appeal of each song and figure out why it resonated so deeply with Americans during that last listless, frolicsome decade of the still-looming 20th Century.  

Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or stuffing a breakfast sandwich into my face at Logan Airport before getting on a plane for the first time in 15 months. We’re getting there, folks.

Your pal,

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