Commentary - A shooting at LAX: Welcome to Zanzibar | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary - A shooting at LAX: Welcome to Zanzibar

Nov 5, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - On Friday, Nov. 1, one Paul Ciancia walked into Terminal 3 of Los Angeles International Airport. According to the Associated Press, the 23-year-old unemployed motorcycle mechanic carried a duffel bag containing a fully loaded AR-15 rifle, five additional 30-round magazines and hundreds of rounds of spare ammo in 20-round boxes. How he planned to find time to reload his magazines with the extra ammunition is anybody’s guess.

Ciancia reportedly had some kind of grievance against the Transportation Security Administration. A note found in his possession indicated he wanted to kill “at least one TSA officer and didn’t care which one.” He succeeded.

By the time the gunfire ended in our most recent mass shooting incident, unarmed TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez lay dead and “five other people were wounded, including two more TSA workers and the gunman himself.” Authorities shot the killer in the mouth and legs during the course of his capture.

Hernandez’s shaken widow later offered a brief valediction on her husband’s behalf in front of the couple’s home. “He was a joyful person, always smiling,” she read in a halting voice. “He took pride in his duty for the American public and for the TSA mission.” Gerardo was 39 years old and the father of two at the time of his murder.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this episode is that I almost didn’t write about it — not because of the horrific nature of the tragedy but rather for fear of redundancy. How many columns can a man write about mass slaughter without repeating himself? They’re shooting faster than I can type…

Violence in general — and gun violence in particular — is hardly a recent development in the American saga. A child born in early 1865 would live through three presidential assassinations by the time he was old enough to run for the office himself. The Wild West was celebrated for its gun play, while urban gangsters and rural spree killers are familiar characters in the collective memory. Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charles Starkweather are but a few of the many who have murdered their way onto the pages of our history.

But the phenomenon of senseless, mass killing is somewhat new. It began, I suppose, on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman ascended the tower at the University of Texas and started to shoot random strangers. What was then a shocking aberration has now become a staple of the evening news.

I’d like to offer some profound insight that would make sense of the madness but I’m afraid I don’t have one. It seems rather obvious that the combination of untreated mental illness and the ready availability of lethal weaponry can lead to bad ends. Some of the incidents are no doubt “copy-cat crimes” — perhaps suicidal assault on innocent strangers has become some sort of nihilistic fad among the unbalanced.

As an undergraduate, I read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. First published in 1968, the novel envisions the hellish future of an over-populated world in the impossibly remote year of 2010.

The book’s title is derived from the early 20th century observation that all of mankind, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in rank and file, would fit within the 147 square miles of the Isle of Wight. By 1968, the population had increased to more than 3 billion and would thus require the 221 square miles of the Isle of Man to accommodate it. Brunner correctly predicted that 7 billion people would inhabit the planet by 2010. It would now take the 600 square miles of Zanzibar to crowd everybody on board.

Along with the population, the author also anticipated the rising dominance of trans-national corporations and predicted the future purpose of the State Department would be domestic and foreign surveillance. Does any of this sound familiar?

One of the novel’s central themes was the depersonalization of self in mass society. In his Malthusian dystopia, Brunner foresaw the advent of “muckers.” Not to be confused with muggers, these were individuals driven to madness by their own insignificance. Without apparent provocation, they’d suddenly snap and savagely attack those unfortunate enough to be nearby. They were called muckers because of their propensity to run amok.

CNN recently aired the excellent documentary, Blackfish  It relates the plight of killer whales — or, orcas — in amusement parks such as Sea World. These are highly social creatures that form deep, interpersonal bonds with the other members of the pod they’re born into.

When captured, they are alienated from their kin and thrown into a tank with other refugee whales. Though they’re all the same species, the animals are strangers to each other who cannot replicate the severed family ties.

Under these conditions, the whales can turn unpredictably violent, suddenly attacking and sometimes killing their trainers. In their natural habitat, orcas have never been known to exhibit hostility to people.

Modern humans evolved from the tribes and clans of their more primitive ancestors. These were intimate groupings whose members were thoroughly acquainted with each other. Because the familiar represented safety, outsiders tended to be viewed with fear and distrust.

Today, we live in complex societies largely populated by strangers. The diversified sources of information and technology allow for material progress that continually refines and enhances the collective standard of living. Like Sea World, our fabricated paradise is a superficially friendly place. But the ancient instincts still endure. Sometimes, the whales attack. Welcome to Zanzibar…