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A Brief History of Rage, Murder and Rebellion

An interview with Mark Ames, whose book about rage murders in American schools and workplaces claims these violent acts are, in effect, failed revolts.
 
 
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It's not easy to stare this country square in the face and bear witness to the pandemic of horror, misery and rape-the-fields viciousness that abounds. I can do it at the most for 10 minutes at a time... and then find myself drifting back to my Comfortable Place. It's far harder to sit down and write about what's really going on in America; there are entire publications -- like Newsweek or New York Magazine -- that give every sign of making it editorial policy to scour each article and delete any hint of reference to the scales on our dark underbelly.

So it's a fairly powerful event to find a decent-sized book that does nothing but articulate a series of truths about the American Life you've hardly read about or spoken about, but just simply felt.

Mark Ames' " Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion -- From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond" (Soft Skull, 2005) is such a book.

Ames takes a systematic look at the scores of rage killings in our public schools and workplaces that have taken place over the past 25 years. He claims that instead of being the work of psychopaths, they were carried out by ordinary people who had suffered repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions that find their origins in the "Reagan Revolution." Looking through a carefully researched historical lens, Ames recasts these rage killings as failed slave rebellions.

Mark Ames lives in a kind of self-imposed exile, editing an expat English alt-weekly in Moscow ( The eXile ) where he regularly writes about the culture, politics and society of a country he could not live in. It's his simultaneous distance from life in America and deep familiarity with it that makes his book such a chilling read.

AlterNet contacted Ames in Moscow to talk about his book and what he sees as the underlying cause of the "Going Postal" phenomenon.

What got you interested in American rage murders? Did you have an inkling about what their underlying cause might be before you started piecing together the articles and background stories about them?

Columbine. I had just flown home from Moscow to visit a friend who was dying of cancer when Columbine happened, and my first, unmediated reaction to the news was something between sympathy and awe. Officially everyone was horrified, but a lot of friends I talked to, ranging from artists to yuppies, told me they had the same reaction, that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were like heroes, and we were all surprised it didn't happen sooner. So I started to ask myself why I had this sympathy, why it was so widespread (and sympathy for the killers is incredibly common, just highly censored), and that led me to look at the larger phenomenon of rage murders.

On my next visit there was a massacre at Xerox in Honolulu. At the time I was trying to cover the start of the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination campaign, and I felt overwhelmed by the intolerable insanity of the culture, and that feeling of being crushed, and then I remembered, "This is why I left the US for Russia in the first place." That was when I finally linked the two, workplace and school rage murders. These weren't the works of psychopaths -- they were people fighting against something intolerable that many of us know is there, but hasn't been named yet. There isn't a Marx to give a name to post-Reagan middle-class pain. How do you fight against something horrible, oppressive, and debilitating before it even has a name? Especially when everyone, especially middle-class people, sneer at it and refuse to believe it's valid.

When you're too deep in the culture, you start to think that the most horrible/mundane aspects are normal and just the way things are. When you're outside of it for awhile, it's a little easier to see the insanity and brutality for what it is.

Your thesis that these rage murders are effectively failed slave rebellions takes you back in your book to consider in some depth the circumstances of slave rebellions in the antebellum South. At what point did the parallels start to dawn on you?

I really started with the idea that in every age, there is some awful oppression that is not yet recognized and therefore doesn't exist, but later seems horribly obvious. This became clear to me working in Moscow in the '90s. No one in the "liberal" Western press corps, academia, world financial aid organizations or Clinton Administration had a shred of sympathy for the millions of Russians suffering from so-called "privatization" programs that we rammed down their throats. Literally millions of Russians went to their graves early in the '90s, yet many respectable Westerners openly said that the old generation would "have to die off" before the proper mindset set in to allow full Westernization in Russia.

Those millions of deaths are still not seen as part of something larger and evil. Later I looked at the details of these American rage murders -- they were all similar, mostly normal Middle Americans attacking seemingly "at random." If they weren't psychopaths, which they aren't, then that meant their attacks were very deliberate, that they were attacking something as a response. That's when I decided that it was the culture which was viewing the murders "at random," the culture which refused to see the purpose.

I simply assumed, from experience in Russia, and from looking at modern rage rebellions, that early slave rebellions would be completely misunderstood in their day as random acts of crazed evil just as modern "rage rebellions" are, and from the evidence I uncovered, it seems they were.

How much blame do you place on Reaganomics for the changes in the workplace that you argue lead to rage attacks?

Put it this way: rage murders in the workplace never existed anywhere in history until Reagan came to power. Reagan made it respectable to be a mean, stupid bastard in this country. He is the patron saint of white suckers. He unleashed America's Heart of Vileness -- its penchant for hating people who didn't get rich, and worshipping people who despise them, and this is the essence of Reaganomics.

I hate to sound like a Clintonite here, but let's remember Hillary Clinton became the most hated human being alive because she tried to give most Americans the opportunity to lead longer, healthier lives, while these same Americans adored goons like Sam Walton, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump -- everyone who has dedicated their lives to transferring wealth, health and pleasure from the masses to a tiny elite. Liberals are hated in America precisely because they want to help people, which is seen as "patronizing."

You can see how this kind of cultural insanity, unleashed by Reaganomics after decades of New Deal (relative) harmony, could make someone snap, when the cognitive dissonance suddenly strikes on a very personal level, and you realize that you've been screwed hard by your own dominant ideology.

The implication of your thesis, of course, is that millions of Americans are living lives in many respects no different from slaves -- in some respects eagerly, and willfully. I suspect that's a realization for many people out there that they just won't be able to face, and you will no doubt draw some attention for saying so. You also argue that part of human nature -- despite conventional precepts about a universal human desire for freedom -- is our capacity and desire to be ruled, to obey, and to accept hierarchy, as well as adapt to almost any circumstance at all and eventually regard it as normal ... until there's a breaking point.

Why do you think we have all of these "wage slave" and "temp slave" T-shirts and e-jokes around? Americans like to turn everything painfully true into a little quip, as if by quippifying the painful truth, as if by becoming self-aware of one's shameful and intolerable existence, one partially nullifies one's pain. This is what you'd call "slave humor." Slaves did the same thing, turning their pain into quips. And remember, there were almost no slave rebellions at all in America, less than a dozen.

As for the slave tendency in humanity, I think it's a lot stronger in America than in most other countries in part because no other country on earth has so successfully crushed every internal rebellion. Slaves in the Caribbean for example rebelled a lot more because their oppressors weren't as good at oppressing as Americans were. America has put down every rebellion, brutally, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Confederate Rebellion to the proletarian rebellions, Black Panthers, white militias... you name it. This creates a powerful slave mentality, a sense that it's pointless to rebel.

And this in turn creates pointless rebellions like modern workplace and school rebellions, just like our early slave rebellions were carried out in totally pointless, seemingly random ways. Or it creates a mass of quipping slave-comedians, like we have today.

You demonstrate that there is absolutely zero accuracy in the psychological profiles that "experts" have assembled to predict what kind of young student might start another Columbine, and you instead advocate profiling schools that could prompt a deadly massacre. What are some of the tell-tale signs to look for?

White kids. Just look for white kids, and you'll have a potential Columbine. When I said that the school should be profiled rather than the kid (since the Secret Service and FBI have both concluded no profile of a Columbiner is possible), I meant something larger than just the school campus -- I meant the entire culture. Our culture today is completely insane, the disconnect between how our propaganda says our lives are, and how our lives actually are. And let's face it, white middle-class kids are far more deeply invested in the dominant cultural lies, and therefore more easily destroyed by the rupture when those lies become untenable, than minority urban kids are.

Why do you think American communities and workplaces go to such depths to fashion cultural cover-ups about the origins of these massacres?

I don't think it's a conscious decision. It's in our DNA. These attempts to ascribe rage massacres to video games, lax gun control laws, Hollywood, war-mongering violence, etc., are analogous to the deluded way Americans viewed slave rebellions. For example a doctor who reported on a slave rebellion on the slave ship Hope in 1776 wrote, "The only reason we can give for their attempting anything of the kind, is, their being wearied at staying so long on board the ship."

Our culture reacted to slave rebellions and runaways with a mixture of genuine hurt that anyone could be so ungrateful, to savage anger and horror, and this allowed us to be incredibly brutal when we put the rebellions down and took preventative measures against possible future slave rebellions. I believe that colossal cultural delusion, combined with an unlimited capacity for brutality, have been features of American culture since the very first Thanksgiving dinner party.

You repeatedly cite how calm the attackers are while the killing is going on, how they consciously avoid the people who treated them nicely, and how many of the victims sympathize with the impulses of the rage killers. Were you surprised at how "rational" -- input leading to output -- these rage attacks look within their context?

No. In fact, I have to admit it pleased me to learn this, because it proved that these people are not sick freaks like Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. This is what makes rage massacres so threatening and unique. They appeared out of nowhere in the annals of crime, starting up in the mid-1980s, just as Reaganomics took hold. The rage murderers were often very well-liked at their offices or schools. They were often seen as harmless. They were middle-class, trying to get by.

The fact that they were rational in their massacres proved that they weren't out to kill for pleasure, but rather they were striking against something larger than just human blood. They wanted to kill the Beast, and many employees or students represented a part of that Beast, while others clearly did not. That is to say, their rational behavior during these massacres proved that they weren't sick -- quite the opposite, their problem is that they couldn't live by the Lie any longer.

If you would, briefly describe the circumstances of a rage murder in America that happened recently through the lens of your book's analysis.

Recently a sick man living in Georgia who couldn't afford the medicines he needed to stay alive and healthy, yet who at the same time was a classic "anti-big government" type and fan of Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, shot a postal worker seven times so that he would be thrown into a federal prison where the same "big government" would be obliged to give him the medicines he needed. There was a lot of sneering on the internet about this, but this case is way beyond irony, so far that it swings back into flat American reality.

The guy was a classic white American sucker who bought into the very Reaganomics ideology that ruined his life; he cracked; he went postal, though in a direction not yet tried before, and he did it explicitly to get thrown into jail so that he could survive. In other words, it's got to the point where society treats its explicit prisoners better than its implicit, unrecognized prisoners.

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.