A Nation of Resentful Victims


August 03, 1993|By MICHAEL RUSTIGAN

Murder is now the No. 2 cause of death in the workplace. The homicide rate has doubled in the last 30 years and the number of other violent crimes has tripled. The nation is now averaging three mass murders a month -- mass murder being the killing of at least five people in one episode. Why?

The quick answer is guns. Indeed, the easy access to high-power weapons, the means of mass destruction, is very significant. You can't kill a bunch of people in a few minutes with a knife or a six-shooter.

But the real answer, I think, is rooted in the spirit of the times.

We've all seen the bumper stickers: ''Don't Get Mad, Get Even.'' This country is full of people who have lost everything -- job, savings, family -- and are ''mad'' but never go beyond fantasizing the ''get even'' part. What separates them from a Gian Luigi Ferri, who ''got even'' last month by storming a San Francisco law office and killing nine people, including himself?

The victim complex: What characterizes mass murderers most profoundly is the conviction that they have been wronged by a hostile world -- bad bosses, bad women, bad parents, neighbors, society -- and sometimes the devil. What's missing is any sense of personal responsibility, any sense that they might be at fault.

But mass murderers are not unique in this regard. More and more Americans, particularly the young, believe that being a victim entitles them to be violent.

Rights! Rights! Rights! If you've been wronged, if something or somebody is holding you back -- parents, teachers, bosses, society, whatever -- blow 'em away!

A serial killer once told me, ''Yes, professor, I've killed a lot of people, but what do you expect, the way I was raised?'' I thought to myself, we really have taught them well, haven't we?

For years, the experts have been telling us that yesterday's victims will become tomorrow's victimizers -- that chemical imbalance, abuse, molestation, dysfunctional families, racism, poverty and so on ''cause'' violence. While these factors may be important, most people who have suffered these problems don't go out and kill people.

The gunfighter mentality: America has always been a violent nation, but the big surge has occurred in the last 30 years. The historical ''Don't tread on me'' mixed with the excesses of the ''me generation'' has become the more aggressive ''In your face'' meeting up with the menacing ''Don't crowd me.'' More than ever, this is a hardball society. There's a readiness to lash out and to strike back.

Ours is also, increasingly, an adversarial society. For every wrong, real or perceived, there is a lawsuit.

I think you have to put homicide and mass murder somewhere on the continuum of retaliation. The mentality behind the gunman is also behind the lawsuits: To win, you have to win absolutely.

''Dark justice'': ''When the system doesn't work, there's only one justice -- dark justice.'' This was the promo on the tube the other night, and the message is clear. Revenge is as hot as sex these days, and sleaze media, which both reflect and stimulate the society, are telling us that revenge -- violent revenge -- is justice. Being patient, seeking a middle ground, working together to right wrongs -- this is for wimps.

You see this attitude even in good people. After the recent post office shootings, some of the employees told me, ''There will be more murders unless management gets the point.''

There are crazed gunmen throughout our society, but what disturbs me the most is that there exists a community of support for these shootings. After Ferri's rampage at the law office, not a few calls came into local radio talk shows expressing the opinion that lawyers finally were getting what they deserved.

In 1966, when Charles Whitman took his hunting rifle up into the tower at the University of Texas and sniper-killed 16 people at random, the nation was mesmerized. Today, we have come to think that violence is normal. We are numb, desensitized, inured to the steady bombardment of cases and imagery. Office shoot-ups, carjackings, stalkers, drive-by shootings, children who kill, courtroom murders, child abductions, Jeffrey Dahmer, Joel Rifkin . . . ho-hum, that's life in the '90s.

I am not into America-bashing. I'd rather live here than anywhere else. But something is wrong. Very wrong.

Michael Rustigan is a criminologist and professor emeritus at San Jose State University.

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