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An American tragedy: No sense made of mass killings

PITTSBURGH — Does the name Byran Uyesugi ring a bell? Odds are not. What about Robert Hawkins? Or Mark Barton? Terry Ratzmann? Robert Stewart?

Each entered the national consciousness when he picked up a gun and ended multiple lives.

Uyesugi, 1999, Hawaii office building, seven dead.

Hawkins, 2007, Nebraska shopping mall, nine dead.

Barton, Ratzmann and Stewart — 24 dead among them in 1999 (Atlanta brokerage offices), 2005 (Wisconsin church service) and last week (North Carolina rehab center).

And each has been largely forgotten as the parade of multiple killings in America melts into an indistinguishable blur. We bemoan, we mourn, we move on.

What's even more disturbing is that the list above was cherry-picked from a far lengthier tally of recent mass shootings in the United States. And now, this weekend, on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, the lives of three police officers ended in gunfire after a domestic dispute turned lethal.

The mass shootings that left 14 people dead in Binghamton, N.Y., on Friday were horrifying, depressing, nationally wrenching. They were also, to some extent, unsurprising in a society where the term "mass shooting" has lost its status as unthinkable aberration and become mere fodder for a fresh news cycle.

Even in a media-saturated nation that encourages short memories, these numbers are conversation-stopping: Forty-seven people dead in the past month in U.S. mass shootings and their aftermaths. On Saturday, the mayor of Binghamton found himself offering Pittsburgh its sympathies. And by Saturday night, six deaths had been reported in another corner of the country, near Tacoma, Wash.

Putting aside for a moment the debate over guns, what is happening in the American psyche that prevents people from defusing their own anguish and rage before they end the lives of others?

This is not an era of good feeling in the United States. After eight years of terrorism angst, six years of Iraq war weariness and, now, months of stress over the economy, people are tense.

Meanwhile, anchors and analysts and witnesses and bloggers cast about in an information-age fog trying to make sense of something that is, in the worst way, nonsensical. They rush to offer solutions, but the thing they typically dodge is that we seem to be powerless to stop it all — that our community, our neighbors, may be next.

The Binghamton newspaper, the Press & Sun Bulletin, seemed to acknowledge the resignation in a glum editorial Saturday that wondered if it was, sadly and inevitably, Binghamton's turn.

"It is our turn to grieve and to rally in support of those whose lives have been shattered," the newspaper said. "And it's our turn to hug those in our own families and wonder how a quiet, rainy Friday in a peaceful place became the setting for such a nightmare."

The man believed to be the shooter, Jiverly Wong, had lost his job at an assembly plant, was barely getting by on unemployment and was frustrated that the American dream, so highly billed, wasn't coming through for him. Early reports suggest the suspect in the Pittsburgh officers' killings, too, was angered at being laid off from a glass factory.

"Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type," Charles Whitman wrote one day in 1966. Then he ascended a tower at the University of Texas, looked out over the campus, pulled out a shotgun, three rifles and three pistols and killed 16 people.

Forty-three years and countless reams of research and lost loved ones later, we have not figured it out. And the American tragedies that haven't happened yet are the most terrifying ones of all.

An American tragedy: No sense made of mass killings 04/04/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 5, 2009 12:09am]
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