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Fathoming the Unfathomable

BY RUSS WELLEN
09.20.2005 | BOOKS

Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion
by Mark Ames
Soft Skull Press, 2005
360 pages, $15.95

When they burst upon the scene, workplace shootings burst across the national psyche like a wildfire. But, overshadowed by 9/11, Iraq, and now Hurricane Katrina, the conflagration they created in our minds cooled. However, if we knew the numbers involved, those embers might burst into flames again.

In 1986 postal employee Patrick Sherrill couldn't have imagined the trend he sparked when he opened fire on the Edmond, Oklahoma post office. Going postal soon spread to the workplace at large and from 1998 to 2003 there were 164 shootings resulting in 290 dead and 161 wounded. In 2003 alone, 45 workplace massacres left 69 dead and 46 wounded. Bet you didn't know that gun violence had bled into the workplace to that extent, did you?

Workplace shootings may be buried in the back pages, but school shootings, much less numerous, still streak across our awareness like a meteor. Afterwards, while the bodies are autopsied, the culture audits itself. Perennial culprits like the broken family, gun availability, and bipolar disorder inevitably boil down to "the parents," as in "I blame the..." or "Where are the..."

Never mind, as Mark Ames writes in Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion, that love for their parents is expressed in the suicide notes of Klebold and Harris (saints Dylan and Eric of the Columbine order, canonized courtesy of the adolescent Internet).

Ames is a founder and the editor of the eXile, a Russian alternative weekly so wild and wooly it forces us to confront the painful truth that there may now be more freedom of the press in Russia than in the US. Ames, battle-tested by a decade in post-perestroika Moscow and pugnacious by nature, is uniquely suited to take the heat he's likely to generate. For a superficial reading of Going Postal is liable to expose him to the accusation that he's justifying the killings.

"Rather than looking outside of the office world for an explanation...," Ames writes of workplace shootings, "why not consider the changes within America's corporate culture itself?"

Because it results in the death of innocents, a massacre by a heretofore unknown identity obscures what causes it. The inability to identify exactly who was targeted masks the motive. Ames chronicles case after case of a worker who's singled out for scut work and judged by separate standards. Weakening under the pressure, he invites further abuse, before ultimately erupting in a "random" shooting.

Except, Ames maintains, there's nothing random about it. Besides hunting down a hated supervisor or executive, the killer also mows down co-workers because he also seeks to destroy the company as an entity. This is the stuff uprisings are made of.

In fact, Ames devotes part two of Going Postal to building the case that today's workplace shootings are akin to slave rebellions. At the time, outbreaks like Nat Turner's were viewed as inchoate and devoid of political context by a public blissfully unaware the victims of slavery might have a problem with the institution.

But institutions, like the state of which they're instruments, have a way of steamrolling the little guy. In fact, good old American bullying is at the heart of Going Postal. But, we remonstrate, hasn't bullying in the workplace and schools become a thing of the past since civil rights laws and an ambient political correctness?

On the contrary, according to Ames. Besides skirting justifying the killings by calling them uprisings, Ames has the audacity to invoke slavery to describe the working environment that's evolved since the Reagan years.

"Reagan's legacy to America and modern man is not the victory in the Cold War, where he simply got lucky." (Remember Ames has an inside view of Russia.) Instead it's "one of the most shocking wealth transfers in the history of the world..." "Historians," he conjectures, "may look back at this time and wonder why there weren't more murders and rebellions."

Moving on to school shootings, he reminds us of what many forget: When Reagan was running for president in 1980, he pledged to abolish the federal Department of Education. But by exactly what mechanism does school carnage become a toxic byproduct of the economy?

Ames explains. While, for example, the "Top 20" universities remain the same in number, the entrance bar is constantly raised because of an ever-expanding pool of applicants. Furthermore, "The kids are stressed out not only by their own pressure at school, but by the stress their parents endure in order to earn enough money to live in [a prestigious] school district... . Everyone is terrified of not 'making it' in a country where the safety net has been torn to shreds."

As if attributing an element of justification to school and workplace killings and comparing the millennial work environment to slavery weren't enough, Ames insists on giving the reader even more bang for their buck. He concludes Going Postal by going out on a limb and tracing the killings back to one infamous moment in American history.

The Reagan years and the rocketing stock market of the nineties convinced most Americans they were rich people waiting to happen. They became too proud, Ames says, to identify themselves as the working people they remained in the interim. But those who are old enough to remember Reagan's first term can't help but feel the sting of Ames's coup de grace at some level.

"When Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981," he asserts," he told America he was literally willing to kill us all [in plane crashes, presumably] if we didn't give in to his wealth-transfer plan... The air controller's union broke -- and so did a whole way of life."

Ames renders the shooting incidents with the skill of a crime novelist. But while many in the competitive world of crime writing escalate the violence from one death to serial murders, Ames, as dictated by his subject, has no choice but to top them with serial massacres. No reflection on the author, but the horror wears you down. After a while, it seems like there are as many bullets extent as there are cockroaches.

Ames can be overbearing, however. He works too hard to convince us of his thesis, when the facts speak for themselves. But it's only in the service of giving voice to a generation of workers left to twist in the wind without unions, their children buffeted by the harsh realities of the No Child Left Behind Act.

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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