Horrible and shocking as the shootings on the first day were, there was still the possibility that they would be containable. It was difficult to imagine the actual killings, of course, or to claim to know what might be going on. But at least, initially, the scenario was recognisable. It wasn't as if this particular assailant had invented multiple killing. Shortly before he opened up, five people in a small-town Nebraska bank had been killed by robbers. Earlier in the summer, Fort Bragg - home of the Green Berets, the 82nd Airborne Division and Delta Force - had seen a rash of wife murders (a number of the perpetrators, some of whom also committed suicide, had recently returned from Special Ops in Afghanistan). In the 1980s there were so many murders committed by disaffected post-office employees that succumbing to homicidal rage became known as 'going postal'. Specific shoot-ups come all too readily to mind. An outbreak of sudden death by gunfire in suburban Maryland was bad news, but it was nothing new. As long as it could be thought of as a spree, it had a genre, and that not only made it part of the known world but lent it distance as well. A probably swift and certainly predictable ending was not far off, we thought - not out of complacency, but out of a need not to be held too closely or too long in the grip of enormity. The breakdown was serious, but temporary: we would move on out as efficient Americans from under the shadow of death.
LRB 28 November 2002 | PDF Download