The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and other American papers with international readership frequently package stories about the horrors of America to feed the America-bashing appetites of their international audiences. They are generously abetted in this mission by academic criminologists who stand at the ready to paint a dystopic picture of an America peopled with violent, bloated drones dragging their automatic weapons behind them as they traverse the soul-less space between their pickup cabs and the big box store.
Such stories are morality tales — the moral being that virtually everybody — except real criminals — are the real crime problem in America. We are bad; gun-toting offenders are merely impulsive creatures channeling our rage.
Spree (or mass) killers are especially irresistible to journalists and criminologists who wish to project blame for criminal acts onto society at large. Such killers are, in their eyes, ordinary Joes whose violence indicts other ordinary Joes, helpless barometers of the rot that lies just beneath the surface in American suburbs. The guy next door — anyone — can wake up tomorrow and start mowing down strangers at the Dunkin’ Donuts, the story goes. That’s how very bad we are.
By the time journalists and criminologists get done with an instance of spree killing, the assailant has also usually been morphed into a victim of some social slight or societal problem — bullying, as in Columbine and other school killings, or the recession, a popular theme now.
Witness the reports about Jiverly Wong, who attacked a refugee center in Binghamton, New York. He was described, most prominently in the New York Times, as somebody who was laid off from I.B.M., a veritable American institution. He had trouble learning English, journalists are reporting, a detail that points to two other popular journalistic themes — the xenophobia of the American people, and bullying (soon we will see the anti-bullying industry gear up to profit from these 13 murders).
Was Wong a victim of the current economic crisis, of the heartlessness of American corporations, and of prejudiced taunts regarding his lack of English language skills? Is Binghamton adequately welcoming to its tiny immigrant population, or do the good citizens there not meet the standards of the Times? These are the questions being posed for consumption by an international audience, and they are doubtlessly the questions that will be posed when the Christian Science Monitor weighs in later, even though a lesser-known journalistic source named IT Report has trumped the New York Times’ flagship coverage by reporting that Jiverly Wong did not actually work at I.B.M. at all. The Times has not bothered to clarify their reporting.
Nevertheless, the picture now emerging of Wong is actually far less useful to those who wish to blame ordinary Americans or corporate giants for his violence. He may have had a serious drug problem. He abandoned a steady job, where he was a respected worker, in 2007. He threatened people, complained about his ex-wife and children, and talked about killing politicians. In reality, the city of Binghamton shows great kindness to immigrants, hosting a cultural center and supporting social services for them. Wong’s family is well-respected there. But this isn’t the stuff of headlines.
Substance abuse and mental instability factor into many, if not most spree killings. So does domestic violence: spree killers frequently begin their killing with relatives and end there, too. But these facts don’t do much to advance the preferred narrative, so journalists and academicians tend to ignore them. It simply isn’t sexy to say that the best (if still vastly imperfect) way to anticipate spree killing is to look for a chronic history of violence, or threats of violence, within a family. Better to blame cultural biases, or “bullying,” or I.B.M., or gun policy, or just “America.”
And you cannot blame substance abuse or mental illness, for doing so opens the door to questioning certain preconceptions relentlessly promoted by the two-pronged trocha of the Fourth Estate and the Ivy Tower — that drug addicts and the mentally ill are never a threat to society and should not be restrained by the law or subjected to enforced, institutional treatment.
How about domestic violence? Hating the wife, or mom and dad? The types of crimes deemed universal, not only in literature but also in the picture that emerges when you look at spree killings throughout the world, not just in America, because spree killings happen in places other than America, too?