Postman talked about the speed of “the news cycle” as “broken time and broken attention.” The mass shooting perpetrated by 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron two days ago at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, NY, will get co-billing with escalation rhetoric about Ukraine for a week or so, until its milked dry for views and clicks, then some other outrage or celebrity shenanigan or international crisis will draw the public’s digitized attention elsewhere.
Ten have died as this is written, and three were wounded, eleven of the thirteen being African Americans. There’s little doubt that the crime was racially motivated, given that the teen shooter went to great lengths to publicize his motives, including a 180-page screed about “white replacement” and Jewish conspiracies and immigration and such. He even livestreamed the attack on Twitch.
We’ll all project onto this crime, one way or another, make it part of something bigger, incorporate it into our preceding beliefs and social theories. I suppose I’m no different, so here are the things that stand out for me, apart from the obvious race-hatred and 4chan neofascism.
Gendron was born in 2004, the same year that Pat Tillman was killed in a fratricidal fuck-up in Afghanistan and the US armed forces were handed a tactical defeat in Fallujah, Iraq. Seems like yesterday to me, but then I was born the same year as the Third Battle of Seoul during the Korean War. Gendron grew up in a nation perpetually at war, where men with guns and uniforms became our public saints, our icons, our avatars.
Gendron lived in a small town in Southern New York, just across the state line from Pennsylvania. We don’t yet know much about his home life, but he drove 200 miles to Buffalo to commit the crime. His own hometown is around 95 percent white, and apparently he chose Buffalo because it is about 37 percent black. The grocery store he attacked was in a majority black neighborhood.
He showed up with three weapons, and the assault rifle he used was loaded with a thirty-round magazine — illegal in New York, though the model of the rifle is perfectly legal — a Bushmaster, or modification of the old standby AR-15. The 30-round magazines can be purchased easily through the mail or at most gun shows. He’d purchased the assault rifle over the counter from a gun store in nearby Endicott. Left in his car were a pump shotgun and a hunting rifle, also legally purchased.
He was dressed up in military-style woodland camouflage, even though he was in urban New York; and he wore body armor, which protected him from the “good guy with a gun” security guard, Aaron Salter, Jr., a former policeman who Gendron killed with return fire.
Last year, he threatened to shoot up the local high school during graduation, which triggered a visit from police and a mental evaluation — whatever that means. It didn’t interfere with him buying an assault rifle the following year.
As psychoanalysts would tell us, behind every desire are other desires. This murderous child wanted to kill some black people; but as in all acts of terror, the desire to kill was motivated by the deeper desire for publicity. The more horrifying the attack, the greater the publicity. In his case, he stated a political motive — white supremacy — and he demonstrated a personal motive — notoriety. He livestreamed it! He dressed up in a military costume! But if we keep following the thread of desire — all sins are motivated by some desire — what gives a specific form and force to these motivations? I mean, here’s an eighteen-year-old boy who willingly risked, at a minimum, a life behind bars and, at a maximum, his own death, to go kill a store full of absolute strangers.
There are hundreds of thousands of white Americans, I’d venture, who harbor a generalized malice toward black people. It’s an historical artifact — one that has waned substantially in my lifetime, but one that still retains political force, especially within the Republican Party. But the overwhelming majority of the most bigoted white Americans — I should also say men, because it is exceedingly rare for women to engage in terror attacks — would not risk life, limb, or liberty to establish some kind of “I’m committed” bona fides by committing a mass shooting.
This is an extreme act, one that requires remarkable willpower. I say this, because it’s too glib, too damned easy, to pathologize this away as “mental illness,” and likewise too glib and easy to sociologize it away as some endemic feature of a whole society. The personal and the political, the psychological and the sociological, are only separable in speech. There was some encompassing whole wrapped around this attack that includes the killing, the preparation, the crackpot manifesto, the cosplaying outfit, the social media platforms, the probative masculinity, the ethno-nationalist ideology, the militarism of America, this savage boy’s experience (about which we know little yet), and the cultural zeitgeist of 2022. He stated that he was motivated by perpetrators of similar terror attacks —by Dylann Roof, by Anders Breivik, by Brenton Tarrant.
What’s my takeaway, as ten families prepare to bury their dead?
It’s too late.
Those who do these things do them because they desire to — a lot— and because they can. We — whoever we mean by that pronoun — have no ability to prevent it any longer. That’s what the shooters are telling us. And it doesn’t matter what this “means,” because within two weeks, something new will preoccupy us in our hyper-reality. No one is at the wheel, and no one can be, because there is no wheel. We tore it off and threw it away.
This is the world we live in, where “respectable” pundits promote nuclear escalation and teenagers blast away.
God help us.