The documentary film “Going Postal,” based on the book by Mark Ames, is airing this Monday, May 25, at 10:00 pm on the BBC Two network, for all of you UK-based readers and anyone with access. (UK viewers can also buy the UK version of Going Postal, published by Snowbooks, and there’s a new Italian edition of Going Postal published by Isbn Edizioni.)
This documentary will scramble your mind and your world in ways you won’t forget. It’s a harrowing, painful 1-1/2 hour plunge into this uniquely modern and American type of murder: rampage massacres in offices and schoolyards, and includes some of the most disturbing and bizarre interviews you’ll ever watch, as well as exclusive gory police footage of the murder scenes.
Here is the BBC Two’s promo description of the documentary:
Monday, 22:00 on BBC Two
Documentary telling the story of the school and workplace shootings which have cast a shadow over American society since the 1980s. The programme includes interviews with survivors, the families of those who died, and the friends and families of the murderers.
How and why does this violence occur? The tenth anniversary of the Columbine massacre is in 2009, but the phenomenon is twice as old and hundreds have been killed. Michael Carneal, serving a life sentence for a notorious school shooting in Kentucky when he was 14, is interviewed. His raw and troubling story, and those of other shootings, are placed in context by interviews with people who have researched the subject in depth, from the first cluster of shootings in the 1980s in the US Postal Service – hence the phrase ‘going postal’ – to more recent occurrences.
Author Mark Ames argues that although mental instability plays a role, American rampage shooters are rarely insane and are impossible to profile: they could be the person sitting next to you in class or in the office.
Going Postal: making a film about mass murderers
A look at the rise and rise of America’s high school shootings – by a man who’s met one of the killers.
By Paul Tickell
Last Updated: 5:38PM BST 13 May 2009Photo: Reuters
In mid-January this year I was sitting across from Michael Carneal in Kentucky State Reformatory. He’s been behind bars since December 1, 1997 when at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, he shot dead three fellow pupils and wounded five.
This Saturday, BBC Two will air a documentary I’ve produced and directed about shootings at high schools, campuses and workplaces in America. Before meeting Carneal, I’d interviewed Missy Jenkins (Carneal’s bullet put her in a wheelchair) and Joe and Judith James, who lost their daughter Jessica.
Even with this memory of sorrowing parents and a victim paralysed from the waist down, it’s hard not to feel for Carneal. He’s been in prison since he was 14, and having been tried and sentenced as an adult he won’t be eligible for parole for at least another 25 years.
Carneal is now 26 but at some deeper level his development has been arrested, as if he’s pickled in time between childhood and adulthood with no adolescence in between. Freakishly it can feel like talking to some kind of baby-man. But he’s no monster because, although at times confused and twitchy because of heavy medication, he’s articulate.
However, Carneal has no clear explanation of his own actions, which he says were the result of hearing voices. Since imprisonment he’s been diagnosed as schizophrenic.
He’s more lucid about the actions of others such as the Columbine killers. Carneal says he feels guilty as if he helped to pave their way.
I made a film about Columbine (The Lost Boys on BBC Two in 1999) but a decade on I wanted to look at the bigger picture and why such shootings continue. Some are gruesomely spectacular like Virginia Tech in 2007 but others are barely reported, like the case of 14-year-old Asa Coon, a student at Success Tech Academy in Cleveland, Ohio, who, also in 2007, killed himself after wounding two students and two teachers. No official statistics are kept on these sorts of killings but there have been scores right across the US with hundreds dead – even more if you add workplace shootings to the school and university campus ones.
Journalists and researchers are now making connections between school and workplace gun rampages, so I wanted to build up a composite picture of the phenomenon by looking at five different shootings (two workplace, two schools and one campus) in different states over a period which spanned 1989 to 2008.
One book which helped formulate this approach was Mark Ames’s Going Postal (2005). To crudely paraphrase its thesis: the changes wrought by Reaganomics in the workplace (downsizing, union-bashing and cutting holiday pay, sickness benefits and pensions) produced a new sense of alienation by the late Eighties.
One of the first organisations to bear the brunt of the new economic measures was the US postal service. This is where the first shootings occurred and Ames sees them as a very distorted form of rebellion, a sort of nihilistic industrial sabotage. These gun rampages spread from the public sector to the private.
When in 1989 at the Standard Gravure printing works in Louisville, Kentucky, press operator Joe ‘Rocky’ Wesbecker killed eight and wounded 20 (a story we cover), it was as if he was adopting the ‘tactic’ of the post office shootings, hence the phrase for somebody snapping and running amok with a gun: ‘going postal’.
Schools had ‘gone postal’ by the mid-Nineties. You can compare the ethos of the Reaganomically brutalised workplace to the atmosphere of many US schools: regimented, authoritarian and inward-looking. Add the pecking order at certain schools, the bullying, not to mention the traumatic time adolescence can be, and you have the recipe for a disaffected youth coming to school with a gun. Many never shoot, only going as far as the bravado of brandishing it.
Armed boys (female shooters are rare) usually act alone. But they’ve often been part of a group of other outcasts and will have communicated their intentions to another ‘Goth’ or ‘punk’ who isn’t telling.
Video games as well as films such as The Basketball Diaries, which Michael Carneal watched with one of his friends, don’t make people pull the trigger. But they do provide a ‘script’ for their actions in that they function as a store of images, an iconography which shooters can draw on – by, for instance, dressing in a certain way for the dreadful occasion. This theatrical element (the trench-coats, the black) has been explored by Professor Katherine Newman in her book Rampage. The workplace or school becomes a dramatic space, a stage for the shooters. The school perpetrators in particular are also indulging in an act of violent narcissism. They are redefining how they wish to be perceived: in a gunshot they can go from geeky outsider to anti-hero. They play God – and the Devil.
The ready availability of guns in the US facilitates these murderous actions but doesn’t explain why they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. Nor does it explain why they tend to happen in suburbs and rural areas but never the urban. By the same token it’s impossible to profile the shooters. Some will be mentally unstable but others will be perfectly sane – like Andy Williams, who aged 15 in 2001 killed two and wounded 13 at Santana High School, Southern California. Some shooters are poor, others middle-class like Carneal.
After talking to him I come away with a better understanding of these crimes – but no ready answers.
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