Public Comment

The War on Ourselves

Toni Mester
Friday November 13, 2015 - 03:17:00 PM

After a half century of searching, I finally found my soul mate. Unfortunately, he was assassinated on October 1, while he was teaching a community college English class, the same kind of work I did for over forty years. 

That’s not all that Lawrence Levine and I had in common. Like me, he was a lover of rivers, the back woods and books. A writer and a fan of Tom Waits, he was my date, in an imaginary parallel life, at the mesmerizing ACT production of The Black Rider. 

I have been reading all the reports about the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, searching for a reason for his murder, the first of nine victims in his creative writing class: the others were his students, including the shooter. 

This crime matters to me as a retired English teacher because it could have been me or another one of our nation’s vast legion of adjunct professors or any teacher for that matter. The killing of Larry Levine matters to me not only because he was a mensch but because the reactions to his death were a last straw, breaking my silence on a scary and difficult problem. 

School shootings not only threaten teachers, their students and educational institutions but learning itself, the crucial and creative process that incubates personal growth among the young, provides workers with the ability to adapt and compete during their productive years, maintains health and social engagement in the aging population, and ensures a future for the republic. 

The Umpqua shooting made the headlines for a day or two, but after President Obama complained at a press conference that mass shootings had become routine, he was greeted by angry gun rights activists when he visited Roseburg to offer condolences to the families of the victims. What were they thinking? 

Wanting to learn more about the gun control v. gun rights controversy, I found two recent scholarly books in the Berkeley Public Library on the second amendment and read them cover to cover. Just as I finished, the newest Mother Jones arrived with a cover story by Mark Follman on threat prevention, “Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter.” Follman writes regularly for the magazine on gun violence, and I credit him for helping me understand the complexity of the problem. 

A mass shooting is defined as one that involves multiple victims, and these targeted killings are on the rise while the murder rate in general has declined. Few people, even the experts, agree about the causes. 

Following the Roseburg shooting, for example, opinions ran the gamut. Obviously we don’t fully comprehend the problem, suffer from a collective head-in-the-sand syndrome, or have given up expecting the politicians to do something. We don’t want to know the details of these grisly events or we think it can’t happen here or we don’t want to think about it at all in the hope that it will just go away. 

Rounds of Blame 

A mass shooting is beginning to resemble a political Rorschach test in which each person projects their own interpretation on the event, depending on their profession, predilection, or prejudices. 

The Guardian on-line reported that twelve people interviewed in Roseburg advocated more guns for self-defense as the appropriate response to the shooting. This is the NRA answer made infamous by their CEO Wayne LaPierre after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 

The idea that more guns will make us safer has been widely disputed by experts, but for the average citizen, the problem boils down to a simple either/or conflict between gun control and gun rights. After the slaughter of the innocents at Sandy Hook, expectations rose that something could be done to limit access to high powered weapons, but as Frontline documented in “Gunned Down” the NRA emerged from the last Congressional vote even stronger as a lobby. 

In his post Sandy Hook remarks, LaPierre accused a violence ridden culture, and cited familiar statistics about the number of shootings seen on television and video games. “A child growing up in America today witnesses 16,000 murders, and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18.” According to the NRA, it’s not the easily acquired lethal machinery that’s to blame but media and images. 

There’s some truth to that perception. One of Follman’s informants in his latest Mother Jones article explains that social media has mythologized the Columbine High School shooters and inspired copycat crimes, some of which have been thwarted by professional interventionists. 

Media attention is an obvious motive in some recent shootings coupled with nihilism and personal despair, as many are followed by suicide. Fifteen minutes of infamy are traded for a productive life, and the publicity motive is cited by some law enforcement officials when they refuse to name the killers. 

Some writers condemn poor parenting, especially lack of a moral and engaged father. But Ian Mercer, the divorced father of the Roseburg shooter, in his turn faulted the availability of guns, not his son. Some mental health professionals and armchair psychologists have tried to identify a diagnosis to explain motives for mass murder from narcissism to an extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome, which has angered many including parents of slain children

To elude the ire of the NRA, experienced politicians and neophyte candidates like Donald Trump blame mental illness and gun-free zones. The State of Oregon allows concealed guns on school grounds but institutions can make their own rules. Campus carry-laws vary by the state; last month Governor Brown signed new restrictions to strengthen gun free schools in California. 

Trump thinks teachers should carry guns and presumably be ready to shoot their own students if necessary. Teachers know that is unrealistic nonsense, as we have articulated in positions on gun violence by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. 

According to Trump and the NRA, It’s not the means, but the mentality of the perps; presumably an armed citizenry, including classroom teachers, should walk around, lethal as the Terminator, but we would keep our cool because the shooters are crazy while we normal healthy folks are sane 24/7. They seem to forget that teachers have their backs to the classroom a goodly portion of each lesson, writing on the blackboard. 

For Trump & Co. mass murder is a sign of mental illness, but the NRA and the craven politicians are unwilling to name the disease or say what causes these outbreaks while anyone familiar with the basics of criminal law knows that most mentally ill people are not violent, and not all killers are mentally ill. 

We live on a merry-go-round of blame, each actor pointing the finger at another cause. To test your own knowledge of this issue, here’s a multiple choice quiz. Which is the correct answer to the problem of school shootings: 

A. More effective gun regulation 

B. Better protection at schools 

C. More services for at risk youth 

D. Better threat assessment and intervention 

E. Less exposure to media violence 

F. All of the above 

That’s probably not even a complete list. The problem is complex, especially if you assign weight or priority to the options. If you answered yes to A, there’s a follow-up essay question: Please write a minimum of 500 words on the state of gun regulation in America today; explain which regulations would be most effective and why.  

If you have trouble completing the exam, you are not alone. People in general don’t like to think or talk about guns, and when the voters avoid debate, the politicians duck for cover. 

Gun regulation has already begun to differentiate the Democrat and the Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential race with Hilary walking point for reform and Bernie treading carefully behind, advocating what his campaign calls “a middle ground solution.” Both seem far more informed than the Republicans, even the so-called moderates, as exemplified by the spineless statement of Jeb Bush, “stuff happens.” 

Indeed, the Umpqua College classroom massacre has already retreated to the back pages; Larry Levine and his students have become statistics in a bloody accretion of self-inflicted wounds, as one after another campus gets hit: U. Missouri, Clayton State GA, Spartanburg Methodist SC., Tennessee State, Syracuse U.NY, and Norfolk State U. VA, and these are just the campus shootings since October 1. Stuff is happening.  

Why wasn’t God watching? 

According to one survivor of the Oregon massacre, the shooter Chris Harper-Mercer, who was enrolled in the class, said “I’ve been meaning to do this for years” before shooting his professor in the head, point blank. So it wasn’t a personal grudge against Larry Levine, who could have been any teacher or authority figure who demanded coherence, competence, and accountability. The shooter’s mania for destruction had been brewing for a long time. 

Then Harper-Mercer got dramatic, asking his fellow students about their religion before shooting them, asking if they were Christian and telling them they were going to see God. He had been working set construction on the college production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which might have incited a script in his head. Maybe he needed to be on stage, to be in the limelight. I asked a priest if the slain students were Christian martyrs, and he said that if they were killed for their religion, the answer was yes. 

I believe that all victims of campus shootings are martyrs to education. Everyone involved in the learning process is aware of the current situation, from administrators to parents who see their children off to school in the morning. But mostly students bear the psychological burden. Going to school should not have to be a daily act of heroism. When they face a threat, any threat, the community should respect their feelings and be supportive. They just want to be able to grow up and live in a peaceful and compassionate society. 

There’s a sound track to the killing of Larry Levine and his students: a ballad by Tom Waits, Georgia Lee, which dignifies the unsolved murder of an African- American girl in Marin County with the refrain, “Why wasn’t God watching? Why wasn’t God listening?” According to press reports, Larry Levine had written several novels. His friends should publish them; we can’t let killers have the last word. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.