Politicians are perennially fond of reminding all who will listen that America has achieved a leadership position across an impressive array of human endeavors—that as a nation, we can claim preeminence in many things. What these politicians say about our national achievements is often true. Indeed, this country has attained greatness in many arenas of thought and endeavor since its inception, and particularly since the end of World War II. However, we have also plumbed the depths of our own dark nature in many other activities, such as homicide, serial killing, and mass murder. In these things, America has also attained preeminence.
We are a country that is committed to absolute freedom; as a nation, we loathe compromise. We regale in a fiercely independent citizenry; however, we are also quick to share our resources when fellow Americans are in need. We are ready to defend our values at any cost when we believe that our national security, principles, or pride are at stake. These are qualities by which Americans judge themselves and of which they can be justifiably proud. They are fundamental to our culture and remain unquestioned from generation to generation. These cultural characteristics are assets that have become indigenous to our national soul and psyche. However, despite these straightforward and unambiguous qualities, we are not a simple people with an elementary culture. We are many, we are complex, and we are often aggressive, brutal, and covert. We are a nation of composites and complexities—generally good, but with much that is hidden away and unexplored.
We are also a nation that is steeped in violence. Our citizens murder each other in alarming numbers, and often in particularly heinous and vicious ways. Sadly, violence has been the American companion to progress throughout our history, and it remains so today as we approach the new millennium. We often look toward the future with confusion and a disturbing composite of fear and optimism that is uniquely American in nature. In great measure, this is because we have attained a national level of violence that is both unprecedented and unsettling—a situation that does not bode well for the future. When we murder our own, we do not exempt the young or the old, the infirm or the innocent, the unwary or the unknowing. When we murder our own, we do so in accordance with another fundamental American tradition—we see the deed through to the end, regardless of the consequences. In this, the most heinous of human endeavors, we are leaders.
As citizens who benefit from the most technologically advanced nation in the world, we are acutely aware of our actions, accomplishments, and crimes to an extent previous generations could not have imagined possible. We are intrigued by incessant reports of our own dark exploits. With an unsurpassed knowledge and awareness of our own crimes, we often prey upon each other in diverse and brutal ways. We have attained much more than a passing knowledge of fear, mayhem, and murder. We are regularly dragged into an unthinking and pervasive distrust of our fellow citizens by media accounts of homicidal maniacs and serial killers who roam this country, slaying the innocent and unsuspecting in the most gruesome manner. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the cult of those who are fascinated by a single criminal—the serial killer—has attained the status of a national movement. In great measure, we can thank the media and the entertainment industry for perpetuating this macabre fascination. Embodied within the anxiety that must naturally accompany our awareness of the exploits of such a murderer, we also find intrigue and an uneasy sense of relief when we read of the horrors that have befallen the unacknowledged, the unlucky, or the unwary. We are simultaneously alarmed and captivated by these accounts. In the end, with the daily news relegated to the nightly trash, we accept what has happened and move routinely about our lives, fairly certain that the unspeakable horror that we have experienced in the media will not fundamentally touch our lives. We have learned to enthrone violence without understanding it. Hidden within the horror of violent crime, we find a sense of excitement and acceptability that does not demand comprehension. We have accepted violence on a national scale, and we have developed the skills to market it in a uniquely American way.
Often, we find the anticipation of the next report of a murder to be irresistible in its appeal, despite its inevitable and egregious outcome. We speculate about the nature of the perpetrator, his whereabouts, his motivation, and his next victim. We follow the frustrations of law enforcement personnel as they try to piece together the details surrounding the most inscrutable crimes of homicide. We wonder and speculate as we read accounts of forensic scientists, behaviorists, or profilers as they struggle to play catch-up with their prey. We fear for ourselves, our families, and our children. We secretly anticipate where and when the murderer will strike next and who will be his next victim. Our anticipation keeps the story alive in the media and the crime real in our minds.
From time to time, and more often today than ever before, we read reports of an exceptionally unsettling category of crime in which America has also cornered the market—mass murder. However, unlike the exploits of the serial killer, with this crime we experience no anticipation of the future and find little reason to speculate. With this felony, we experience only a brief moment of shock and horror; that is, if we learn about it at all. The crime of mass murder is merely a flash point on the pages and screens of the media. For a passing moment, the recollection of this crime may claim a brief headline; however, for the press, the story typically dies as quickly as did the victims it describes because it lacks the crucial element of anticipation. Today, mass murder has become merely a transitory moment of drama that is horrible in its consequences but fleeting in its impact to all except the victims and their loved ones. We can sit back with assurance when we read about these horrendous crimes, knowing that the danger has already passed even as we read of the gruesome details; we can take comfort in the knowledge that the crime is complete and the perpetrator has been apprehended or is dead.
This is the public nature of the crime of mass murder and the usual destiny of its perpetrator. It seems a simple thing—a fleeting crime. As reported in the media, the story of mass murder is devoid of that critical element of anticipation that is necessary to maintain anything but a momentary recognition of its true impact. For most of us, it holds little of the interest of a notorious serial killer; however, when he attacks, the mass murderer is sometimes a far more lethal and pernicious criminal. For most Americans, the flash point of mass murder passes abruptly and with no farewell; its details soon fade from the headlines and from our minds. We quickly lose the proper perspective on this crime because the media has deemed it unworthy of our continuing concern and abiding attention. It seems a simple thing; however, it is not.
The nature of this crime and how it is viewed by the American press lends a profoundly disturbing aspect to the subject. In recent years, mass murder has become a crime that is often too common to attract and retain the highly valued column-inch space of the national media unless it is of such gruesome and heinous proportions that it simply cannot be ignored. The media plays a numbers game when it deals with this crime; it is only validated in importance if the number of victims is significantly unsettling or the manner in which they died sufficiently disturbing to be unavoidable. How superficially we deal with the dark nature of our souls! How simple it has become to turn away from mass murder—a crime that has been unwittingly redefined as mere background noise in our own complex and busy lives.
The reality and the truth of mass murder are not as easily discarded as yesterday’s newspaper; it is not as insignificant as a missed headline. This is a crime that plagues our nation from coast to coast and border to border. It grows increasingly virulent each year as its perpetrators feed ever more voraciously upon the innocent and the unsuspecting. Far too many of our fellow citizens die each year at the hands of the mass murderer. He strikes quickly and with explosive violence, yet like the serial killer, he, too, plans his crime and is often lethally methodical. This is a murderer who quietly moves for years along a path that must inevitably end in the death of the innocent. He moves easily among us and is seen by many; however, he is usually unrecognized until it is too late. He kills for revenge, because he hates, because he covets, or because he loves in a way that is unrecognizable and perverse. He may even kill for reasons that no one can understand or accept. He has a story to tell and a message that must be heard—a message that is always deadly and unforgiving. Unfortunately, the story of the mass murderer and his crimes is often ignored or given far too little attention by most Americans.
Crimes of mass murder are typically tales of unacceptable horror and mayhem that are repeated again and again in this country, the most successful experiment in democracy that the world has ever witnessed. However, for the majority of our citizens—those of us fortunate enough to be the mainstay of this experiment in freedom—the mass murderer is regularly dismissed as an anomaly; his crimes are usually considered freakish and exceptional. The explosive violence of the mass murderer is perceived as distant, impersonal, and unlikely to touch our lives in any meaningful way. Indeed, to many people, mass murder is a crime that is unworthy of abiding consideration or serious investigation. However, though the crime remains far from the national headlines, nothing could be further from the truth.