DEKALB, Ill. – On the afternoon of Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, Steven Kazmierczak, age 27, emerged from behind the stage of a small lecture hall at Northern Illinois University and opened fire upon the students and their student-teacher.
Armed with a pump-action shotgun and three handguns Kazmierczak mercilessly sprayed the hall of this suburban Chicago school with bullets in a seemingly random manner robbing five students of their lives while injuring 15 others before turning the gun on himself and ending his own sad saga.
The tragedy, put in perspective, demonstrates how commonplace school shootings and mass violence have become across the United States. One remembers the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 which killed 12 students and wounded 23 others and the more recent rampage on the Virginia Tech campus last year where a student took the lives of 32 and wounding many more, before ending his own life.
Further, a rash of mass violence has stricken the Chicagoland area with recent shootings in commercial centers and the recent conviction of a young man for the slaughter of his entire family in an act police called ‘monstrous.’
Local and national news outlets have deemed the NIU tragedy along with many of the other mass killings ‘senseless.’
Meanwhile liberal pundits go a step further in making calling for increased gun control, criticizing the ready availability of firearms in the United States.
Such ready-made interpretations forget however that relatively peaceful countries, like Canada, enjoy comparable levels of gun ownership. At the same time right-wing organizations like the NRA and their ideologues threatened by gun control invariably will take a leap off the deep end in calling for the militarization of society — arming teachers, students, everybody in an attempt to put a check on those few bad-seeds.
The superficiality of such interpretations and panaceas attempting to make sense of the ‘senselessness’ leaves us thirsting for what we are not hearing. Emphasizing remedies to keep individual perpetrators from doing violence foolhardily or intentionally directing our attention away from a sober analysis of a society rapidly decaying.
The growth of acute social and economic tensions abound for millions pitting Americans and especially youth into a seemingly individualized, alienated struggle against ever more powerful social forces. Students, who suffer cuts in educational funding and a lack of living wage jobs, graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and the insecurity of trying to find a good job upon graduation. Just trying to get by, our time is increasingly colonized with work, leaving us with less study time and the ability to pass our ever-more competitive classes.
Meanwhile there is a lack of outlets to air our grievances. Our problems seem to be ours and ours alone. The labor union, the politician’s office, the social movements, even the bowling leagues are no longer there for the many, even if we had the time. The collective experience, where we battled and triumphed together has de-evolved into an individual one.
Meanwhile, the social fabric of American life is shredding, where violence permeates popular culture. It seems a primal defense, promoted by media magnates, to the offensive of the dumb beast that is the profit-before-people America Establishment, the explosion, the rain of bullets, the detonation of all that is that binds us. Through the propagation of such violence we become numb to the unacceptability of the taking of another’s life conveniently as our nation exports violence abroad in our names, most prominently in the killing over 1 million men, women and children in the Iraq war.
We must ask ourselves amidst the alienation and violence of American society where can we go for community, for beauty? As funding for war and calls for, in the words of Barack Obama, ‘putting more boots on the grounds,’ in addition to tax cuts for the opulent and construction of more prisons dominates our national agenda, it is the resources for parks and for the arts that are not prioritized.
Growing inequality, militarism and violence is especially jarring on the most alienated sections of society such as those with mental illness, economic misfortune and for minority youth in general.
Tragedies like the killings at NIU sadden us profoundly but at such times we can faintly make out how another, more civilized society might be. A series of vigils took place on campus after the killings with students and faculty embracing, sharing, and caring for each other in ways never before seen on this campus. There was a family there, a space for a true community that was contrary, even antagonistic to the ebb and flow of typical, everyday campus life.
There is a crisis in contemporary America whose social roots run deep and a debilitating frustration seems at times hard to avoid. But we do know that killing and inflicting pain, even discomfort, upon another human being does not come naturally to us, it is an act arrived at as the culmination of having crossed, or been pushed across a variety of unnatural thresholds in a society that sighs for what is not.
Cristobal Cavazos is a Northern Illinois University student.