Littleton, Taber, and the Cult of Ironic Detachment

by E.B. Klassen

It’s the dirty little secret that television news doesn’t want to talk
about. That the news certainly can affect people’s lives. Like the kids
in Littleton and Taber, the latest in a series of copycat murders that stretch back over the last two years. That murder is good for a quick buzz in a culture so media-saturated, according to Alanna Mitchell in the Globe and Mail, that Porta-potties were set up around the school in Littleton before the media hordes had even arrived. The secret that yes, the media (and in particular, the TV news) do bear a responsibility for the actions of loners and lunatics.
It’s the dirty little secret that video game manufacturers don’t want to talk about. That the intense violence of high-rez, first-person, splatterpunk games do serve to desensitize players to violence and death. That the Pavlovian linking of visual gore and adrenaline rush do in fact have a negative effect on society. The secret that yes, video games do bear a responsibility for the actions of loners and lunatics.
It’s a dirty little secret that parents really don’t want to talk about. That we have abandoned our kids to a world of brutality and horror without help, support, or guidance. That malls and the media are raising our kids more than we are. The secret that the bareness of the world we are forcing on our children is nothing more nor less than a reflection of the bareness within ourselves.
It’s no secret to the weapons manufacturers, however. They know damned well that the tools they make kill people. That murder is just one of the inadvertent spin-offs of acceptable market penetration. There’s no secret there at all—just denial.
But none of these are the causative agent behind the murders in Littleton and Taber. Training and conditioning are not sufficient in and of themselves; they lack the necessary element of desire, of need. Each of these symptoms reflect an underlying malaise, a illness in the culture that spawned them. An illness so well-rooted that its symptoms are no longer even noticed, but are rather accepted as part of the wallpaper of modern life.
People don’t kill other people because they are happy or well-adjusted. Killing, like rape, is about power. Or rather, a lack of power. A kid well-integrated with his community, comfortable with his peer group, doesn’t show up at the high school one day with a .22 and shoot a couple of students. The killer(s) is/are described as loners, those who don’t fit in, the ones being selected against in the nightmarish social Darwinism of high school.
The power these kids lack is the power to alter their environment, to change the situation they find themselves in. Trapped, under pressure, being forced to perform acts they neither care about nor relate to, in an environment they have neither chosen nor desired, under conditions that are health and sanity threatening, they are just trying to survive until they reach an arbitrarily defined end-point that, while holding out the promise of relief, looks likely to just continue the torture in another arena. And the only philosophical structure they are offered for solace is one that states simply that “life is suffering. Only death brings release.” That people find this unbearable is not astonishing. That more don’t is astonishing.
When Ice-T or Tupac talk about bitches and hoes and grabbing my nine to pop a couple of caps in that mofo’s ass, they claim that they are simply describing the reality around them. Certainly, one can’t argue with this self-justification. That is the essential drive of the artistic impulse: to make the audience experience the artist’s perceptions. But why then are so many fans white middle-class kids with no apparent life experiences in common with the artists?
Movies for adults have come close to disappearing off the theatre screens of North America, being replaced with tales of lone gunfighters with progressively more elaborate personal armories, or stories of two lunatics meeting up and ripping a bloody swath through the local environment. What is it that audiences are responding to in these films?
The common underlying theme of so much of the modern arts seems to be that of powerlessness, even in the fantasies of individuals reclaiming power in a fiery explosion of flame and flying body parts. An inability to alter the political, social, or cultural environment seems to be the sensation we all have in common—and, perversely, it separates us, rather than unifying us. Much like modern communications technology....
When it does unify us, it does so around single issues or concerns. In its most basic form, it is people reclaiming the right to change anything in their environment—thus the rise in the last decade of body modification such as branding, tattooing, and piercing. These tribal practices serve as a substitute reintegration of individual and society, as the society being integrated with is a smaller subset of the larger one.
The de-closeting of sado-masochistic sexual practices such as bondage and domination can be seen in the same light. S&M is about power and its control by the involved individuals. The one word that is most often used to describe the results of coming out of whatever sexual closet is “empowering,” which I find a fairly revealing choice.
We offer our kids choices; what kind of music to listen to, what type of clothes to wear, what political party to follow. We offer options in consumption—options that exist at the whim of the controlling class, options that can be revoked or changed at any time—and wonder why the kids seem dissatisfied. And put simply, it is because choices in consumption do not equate with involvement in the world. In the millions of years in our tribal past, we could affect our local environment. We were initiated into the mysteries of the universe, what we did mattered, who we were could change everything if we wanted it to. Now we have the cult of ironic detachment.
With the powerful commercial and political forces arrayed against our involvement in the life of our communities, cities, provinces, and countries, it is a miracle that the world isn’t tearing itself to bits around us. Kids in Littleton and Taber see other kids empowering themselves with guns and death, and they too decide that a little empowerment would be a good thing. But, as is usual among the poor and disenfranchised, the anger and destruction is directed against the community around them. This is where they feel most of the pain and oppression are centered, so this is where they choose to strike back. When Watts burned, it was its own citizens that burned it. Again, during the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, the fear that Hollywood Hills might burn drove the containment effort. No one cares if you burn your own neighborhood, its only the possibility that you might actually rise against the oppressor classes that inspires fear.
But the oppressor is distant and far away. The oppressor is faceless and unknown. So violence turns inward, toward the local, the visible, the touchable. So kids butcher kids in the inner city, the high schools, the malls. We re-tribalize, basing our new tribes on thin reasons like common interests, music, or race.
We’ve lost the ties of blood and we’ve lost the ability to focus on our similarities rather than our differences. Politics descends into us and them, and distractions like separatism (as if the right of the governed to choose by whom they will be governed had somehow disappeared over the years), rather than concerns like the public good. No one actually gives a damn whether kids kill kids except their parents and their local community. And the changes that could make a difference will remain undone.

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