Sunday, June 12, 2022

Uvalde, Buffalo, Babi Yar, a Fictional Future Red Bank, NJ — And Mass Murder

            As I write, the last two large-scale multiple murders in the United States were at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, following "roughly a week after a racist mass shooter killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y." People ask how such horrors can happen, and some parts of the answer are straight-forward and often repeated: to start with, too many angry, sometimes suicidal Americans with too easy access to rapid-fire firearms with large-capacity magazines.


            Another part can be summed up with the names of some locations: Wounded Knee, Katyn Forest, Babi Yar, My Lai, and many, far too many, locations of truly massive mass shootings and mass burials in pits, with some 22,000 Polish officers and other POWs killed by the Soviet NKVD (mostly) at Katyn in spring of 1940 and "some 33,771 Jews " murdered at the Babi Yar Ravine in Kyiv, 29–30 September 1941.


            Significant here, the murders at Babi Yar were carried out not only by specialists of Einsatzgruppe C but by more ordinary men of the German "Order Police," Wehrmacht, and the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. And the victims, as at My Lai (March 1968), included — in the words of a once-famous interview of US Army Pfc Paul Meadlo by Mike Wallace  — "Men, women, children, babies."

            Basic principle: Under some circumstances human beings are capable of committing large-scale atrocities, and have done so.


            But these historical shooters were men in social circumstances that might explain their behavior: being in a group and all men for one thing, in wartime (or close to it at Wounded Knee), usually under military discipline and ordered to kill, and, in the case of the NKVD and Nazis feeling — if thoroughly indoctrinated — that the murders were necessary in a life-and-death struggle for class or race survival, doing the patriotic dirty work for a better world ("You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" / "Look at the baby, not at the blood"). The shooters in 20th- and 21st-century America have been in different circumstances; and so we need more general analysis.


            Here's an indirect suggestion from a book you should know for other reasons: one of the great mid-20th-century dystopias, Frederik Pohl C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952/53). The setting is mostly America on a near-future Earth: overpopulated, polluted, and run by Advertising Agencies whose leaders and workers worship (figuratively) "the god of Sales."



Mitch Courtney of Fowler Schocken Associates is being held prisoner by the rival Taunton agency (the rivalry including competing for the Venus project: bringing Ad-Agency rule to our so-far unexploited sister planet). Regaining consciousness Mitch complains to his most immediate guards,


            I struggled again. "They'll brainburn you, I said. Are you people crazy? Who wants to be brainburned?"

            The face said nonchalantly: "You'd be surprised." […]

            B. J. Taunton lurched in, drunk.


Taunton expresses his anger at Mitch for avoiding getting killed in their earlier attempts, and then disappearing (which wasn't Mitch's doing: this is the second time he's been kidnapped).


            His glassy eyes glared at me: "You bastard!" he said. "Of all the low-down, lousy, unethical, cheap-jack stunts ever pulled on me, yours was the rottenest. I —" he thumped his chest […]. "I figured out a way to commit a safe commercial murder, and you played possum like a scared yellow rat. You ran like a rabbit, you dog."


            He sat down unconcernedly. [….] With an expansive gesture B. J. Taunton said to me: "Courtenay, I am essentially an artist."


            "Essentially," he brooded, "essentially an artist. […]" "I wanted Venus […], and I shall have it. Schocken stole it from me, and I am going to repossess it. Fowler Schocken's management of the Venus project will stink to high heaven. No rocket under Schocken's management is ever going to get off the ground, if I have to corrupt every one of his underlings and kill every one of his section heads. For I am essentially an artist."

            "Mr. Taunton," I said steadily, "you can't kill section heads as casually as all that. You'll be brainburned. They'll give you cerberin. You can't find anybody who'll take the risk for you. Nobody wants twenty years in hell."

            He said dreamily: "I got a mechanic to drop that 'copter pod on you, didn't I? I got an unemployable bum to plug at you through your apartment window, didn't I? Unfortunately both missed. And then you crossed us up with that cowardly run-out on the glacier."

            I didn't say anything. The run-out on the glacier had been no idea of min. God only knew whose idea it had been to have [a rival, Matt] Runstead club me, shanghai me, and leave a substitute corpse in my place.

            "Almost you escaped," Taunton mused. "If it hadn't been for a few humble loyal servants […]. But I have my tools, Courtenay." [* * *] You say to me: 'Nobody wants to be brainburned.' That is because you are mediocre. I say: 'Find someone who wants to be brainburned and use him.' That is because I am great."

            "Wants to be brainburned," I repeated stupidly. "Wants to be brainburned."

            "Explain," said Taunton to one aide." […]

            One of his men told me dryly: "It's a matter of population, Courtenay. Have you ever heard of Albert Fish?"


            "He was a phenomenon of the dawn; the earliest days of the Age of Reason — 1920 or thereabouts. Albert Fish stuck needles into himself, burned himself with alcohol-saturated wads of cotton, flogged himself — he liked it. He would have liked brainburning, I'll wager. It would have been twenty delightful subjective years of being flayed, suffocated, choked, and nauseated. It would have been Albert Fish's dream come true.

            "There was only one Albert Fish in his day. Pressures and strains of a very high order are required to produce an Albert Fish. It would be unreasonable to expect more than one to be produced out of the small and scattered population of the period — less than three billion. With our vastly larger current population there are many Albert Fishes wandering around. You have only to find them." […]

            It had a bloodcurdling truthful ring to it. Our generation must be inured to wonder. The chronicles of fantastic heroism and abysmal wickedness that crowd our newscasts — I knew from research that they didn't have such courage or such depravity in the old days. The fact had puzzled me. We have such people as Malone, who quietly dug his tunnels for six years and then one Sunday morning blew up Red Bank, New Jersey. A Brink's traffic cop had got him sore. Conversely we have James Revere, hero of the White Cloud disaster. A shy, frail, tourist-class steward, he had rescued on his own shoulders seventy-six passengers, returning again and again into the flames […]. It was true. When there are enough people you will always find somebody who can and will be any given thing." (pp. 94-96; ch. 11)


Very basic principle: With enough pressure on enough people with few social supports, "you will always find somebody who […] will be any given thing" and a small percentage, but enough, people who will do "any given thing," including great good and great evil. Including shooting their own grandmother, and then children.

(And on US regulation of firearms, Babi Yar and the history of the Stalinists and Nazis cuts at least two ways. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising could have used more guns; more guns in the hands of the general European population could have been just more guns killing Jews and others over the burial pits.)

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