This week in April marks the fourteenth anniversary of the Waco massacre, the eighth anniversary of Columbine, and, in years to come, the anniversary of the largest mass shooting in American history — the massacre at Virginia Tech.
It is also the twelfth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which itself was carried out precisely two years after the Waco standoff ended in a deadly conflagration.
All civilized human beings see such horrific acts of mass killing as unspeakably tragic. In the midst of any such explosion of seemingly senseless violence, it is common to hear questions as to how and why such a thing happened, so we can formulate possible answers as to how such atrocities might not happen again, or at least happen much less frequently than they do.
Starting with the most recent of these horrors, and moving backwards in time, it is worth reflecting on the most commonly heard explanations for such violence.
Already, some conservatives are looking for some connection between the Korean student who committed mass murder on 4/16 and Islamist terrorists. Since 9/11, we have heard many acts of gang violence and individual criminality blamed on Islam itself. Ultimately, this is all to shore up more support for the state’s foreign and domestic war on terror.
The center-left media, however, are making the predictable inferences: The problem is easy access to weapons. It’s exceedingly easy to purchase handguns in the state of Virginia. What is ignored is that it’s illegal to bring such weapons on to the campus of Virginia Tech, and certainly illegal to use them for murder. Another law wouldn’t have disrupted the plans of a madman determined to kill.
As for madness, we are also hearing reports that Seung Cho had written disturbing stories and had a history of psychiatric treatment. Perhaps if the university community and local police had been more vigilant, his unsettling proclivity for violent fantasy would have been caught before it culminated in real-life slaughter.
Of course, thousands of American youth write graphically appalling stories and many more behave like loners and outcasts. The implication here is that a certain form of suspicious behavior needs to be caught early and somehow managed by schools and the government. People should take notice of who is in their communities, but when it’s politicized and taken to the extreme, this is the basis for criminalizing thought and censoring ideas, for the preemptive law enforcement we see in the dystopian film, Minority Report.
Just as thousands of students probably exhibit peculiar behavior, thousands probably wore trench coats in the late 1990s and millions saw The Matrix. But back in 1999, after the Columbine massacre transpired, the two killers had been in the "Trench Coat Mafia" and the conclusion was that somehow loners wearing such clothing and keeping to themselves, inspired by the violent action in the film The Matrix, should be watched closely. In that case, the perpetrators had broken plenty of gun laws, but weak gun laws were also blamed. Just as with Virginia Tech, odd behavior and inanimate objects were seen as the problem.
Rewind back to Oklahoma City in 1995 and it was rightwing, anti-government opinions that were blamed. It made little sense to attack the availability of such pedestrian items as rental trucks and fertilizer. So the focus was on ideas. Even rightwing talk radio had contributed to this terrorist attack, we were told. What was not so emphasized was the fact that McVeigh had been trained by the US military and had been a Gulf War veteran. He was said to have seen his victims as collateral damage in an act of war against the US government, largely for what it had done, exactly two years before, at Waco.
Going back to 1993, the Waco massacre would seem to have altogether different lessons. This couldn’t have been attributed to anti-social, anti-establishment, anti-government attitudes and conduct — could it? After all, it was the US government that was responsible for this tragedy. It had smashed the side of the Branch Davidian home, filled the inside with flammable and poisonous CS gas, and projected incendiary devices at the building. The fire that took the lives of about 80 civilians was the end of a 51-day standoff that the US government had initiated as a public relations booster for the ATF.
Yet, in response to Waco, the establishment line was simply that the Davidians, and especially their leader David Koresh, were crazed, dangerous and hostile. The rationales in this case were always dubious and shifting: determined to wage their staged raid, the feds had first claimed the Davidians had a methamphetamine lab, partly to bureaucratically justify assistance from the military, and then claimed they had illegal weapons. It was claimed that Koresh was totally irrational and beyond negotiation. He was at points compared to Adolf Hitler and other such dictatorial loons. The feds also claimed he was holding his followers hostage, yet when people tried to leave the building during the standoff, the FBI would throw flash-bang grenades toward the home, frightening them back into it.
Even Waco was blamed not on overbearing government, but on antisocial, extremist, anti-government thinking and behavior. The Davidians had been living at peace with their neighbors, but they were different enough, weird enough, to warrant state aggression.
And here we see the true commonality in all these massacres: They were all acts of mass aggression and inhumanity and they all existed in the context of a highly politicized world where state aggression is wrongly defended but private aggression is rightfully condemned.
The deaths at Waco were a direct result of federal violence against the Branch Davidians. Oklahoma City was Waco’s terroristic antithesis, conducted by men trained in the techniques and moral principles of government warfare. Columbine and Virginia Tech both happened at government facilities, where the soft, hidden coercion of gun control and government protection failed to protect anyone and only left victims defenseless. Both Columbine and Virginia Tech also each occurred against a backdrop of a foreign war of aggression — Clinton’s war with Serbia, in the case of Columbine, and Bush’s war in Iraq, in the case of Virginia Tech. Both Clinton’s and Bush’s wars consumed about as many lives per day as each of these school massacres did in a single instance, yet we are automatically supposed to regard one type of violence as completely different from the other type.
But what underlies all these acts of mass violence is murderous aggression against the individual, the initiation of force against the peaceful. All such violence should be condemned and none of it excused. But the reason we instead hear complaints of out-of-season coats on teenagers or violent video games, easy access to handguns or gruesome stories, bizarre religions or conservative radio is because all such idiosyncratic scapegoats detract from the evil of aggression itself and thus serve the purposes of more government control.
The state is the embodiment of organized aggression. It is, after all, the legal institution that monopolizes the right to commit theft (taxation), kidnapping (mandatory attendance laws), slavery (conscription), and mass murder (war). It imprisons millions, loots trillions and slaughters civilians as a matter of course. Its powers cannot be expanded and directed to foster peace, since, to the extent it is empowered, it is at war with the principles of civilization and the rule of law — the principles that the rest of us must abide for us to be considered acting legally and peacefully among other humans.
Ultimately, the state attributes massacres to drugged or insufficiently drugged quirky extremists, gun accessibility and anti-American, anti-mainstream thinking because understanding the true universal evils — aggression, and the ideologies that allow for aggression, of which statism is the most common variety — would reveal that the state itself is the very fulfillment of atrocity. Indeed, statism is ubiquitous in our culture, and it is very mainstream. It is why governments get away with dropping bombs on children.
By deemphasizing the nature and evil of aggression itself and instead focusing on the quirks and antisocial habits of terrorists and criminals, the establishment line on all these tragedies and mass crimes effectively covers up that the greatest problem in all human affairs is interpersonal aggression, whatever the source. This serves the violent democratic state, which can always claim to stand for moderation, mainstream ideology and social normality.
But it is the democratic state in America that slaughtered American Indians at Wounded Knee and religious outsiders at Waco. It is that state that nuked Nagasaki and set Cambodia ablaze. It is that organization of moderation and the American way of life that was starving Iraqi children with a hunger blockade as the Oklahoma City bombing unfolded, dropping cluster bombs on Yugoslavia during the Columbine tragedy, and maintaining violent occupations abroad as Virginia Tech fell victim to the largest school shooting in America.
Is it wrong to point this out? Why should it be? The US government and its kept media spin every human tragedy as a reason to give more power to the state — even though, in nearly every such tragedy, the government either totally failed to make matters better or succeeded catastrophically in making matters much worse. Why shouldn’t we show, at every opportunity, that giving more power to the state only makes such tragedies more likely?
The state is not the direction to look for solutions to instances of mass aggression, for the state itself is aggression. Its aggressive nature only encourages more aggression throughout society, as it warps the public morality and gives example after example demonstrating that might makes right, at least from the mainstream political perspective. Its intimidation and extortion are clear every April when Americans have to turn in their tax forms, knowing they can be jailed if they made an honest mistake or even if the IRS simply bungles something. And the naked aggression of the state and its institutional disadvantage at protecting people should also be clear every April, as we reflect on the massacres the government has conducted, the ones it enabled, and the ones it failed to prevent.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.