The Hemorrhaging of America:
From Charles Whitman in Austin to Adam Lanza in Newton

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog /

Shortly after last Thanksgiving, I was asked to write a piece about 2012, the year just ending. I got as far as the title and the first sentence, then gave up because I thought I was wandering too far into the fields of metaphor for my own good and for the good of the essay itself.

The title I gave the unborn essay was “The Hemorrhaging of America.” I thought of it when I read the news that Adam Lanza, a gunman in Connecticut, opened fire and killed 20 elementary school children, plus eight adults including his mother, Nancy Lanza, who taught at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza had killed his mother before he took her car and drove to the school, where according to reporters he choose his victims and killed them “with brutal efficiency.”

According to reports from rural Newton, Connecticut, Mrs. Lanza owned the weapons — semi-automatic pistols and semiautomatic rifles — that her son used to slaughter 28 people, most of them between the ages of five and ten. The school psychiatrist and the school principal, who buzzed Mr. Lanza into the building because she recognized him, were also killed. Many of the children were killed at point-blank range, “execution style.” The whole event reads like a symbolic tale for Christmas: a killer named Adam and a town named Newtown — how more American could any story be?

In the wake of the massacre it’s hard to know what to say that might be helpful, though I can think of a lot of things to say including, “I knew it was going to happen,” “I called it,” “A nation that lives by the gun dies by the gun,” and “America is as violent as cherry pie.”

It’s hard to avoid clichés such as that last one, attributed to H. Rap Brown, a black militant in the 1960s, now serving a life sentence for shooting two Fulton County, African-American sheriff’s deputies, one of whom died. For a time, Brown, who was born Hubert Gerold Brown and who wrote an autobiography entitled Die Nigger Die!, wanted a violent revolution in America.

Like many would-be violent revolutionaries, Brown found that the State was a lot more powerful than he realized.

The comments that I considered are, I know, clichés, but that doesn’t discount them. Clichés contain kernels of truth. I did sense intuitively than there would soon be another out-burst of violence. One doesn’t have to be a psychic or clairvoyant to know that a killer is capable of striking any day and anywhere. Guns do kill people, though loyal National Rifle Association (NRA) members insist, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

As long as Americans can buy guns legally and fairly easily over the counter, Americans will kill other Americans and kill themselves, too. Like many other assailants, Mr. Lanza turned a weapon on himself and pulled the trigger. News stories reported that he “committed suicide.” I would say that he added his own body to the pile of corpses. The same stories reported that the authorities had no idea what Mr. Lanza’s motives might have been.

Too bad the school psychiatrist isn’t alive and can’t help to identify the killer’s motives. I know that’s a cruel, sardonic comment but I couldn’t resist making it. In the wake of the tragedy, tears are appropriate, but so is the cold light of reason.

It seems to me that we don’t really need psychiatrists. We might need sociologists and historians who can illuminate the social and historical roots of the slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, not far from the site where English colonists slaughtered hundreds of Indian men, women, and children in a bloodbath in 1637, almost 400 years ago. The American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper wrote in his 1827 novel The Last of the Mohicans that the “soil” itself was “fattened with human blood.”

American soil has been fattened with human blood from the very beginning. American playgrounds, classrooms, and college campuses have been fattened with blood, too. The first slaughter on a college campus that I know of, took place in and around the Tower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman, an engineering student there and a former U.S. Marine, opened fire, killing 13 people, including an unborn child, and wounding 32 others.

I went to the tower not long ago and surveyed the scene. It had been closed for years and was reopened to visitors such as myself and the woman who accompanied me and who had been a student at UT, where Whitman’s name is still remembered. The UT Tower still haunts me.

Whitman’s name was not mentioned in the news stories that I read about Adam Lanza, though Whitman and Lanza belong together in the violent annals of American history. I’m afraid that we don’t want to remember Whitman and others like him — all men, apparently, though not all white men. I’m also afraid that if we kill our own memories of our violent past we will also terminate our future, much as Whitman ended the future of the unborn child he murdered when he shot the mother.

Ending the 400-plus years of violence on American soil will not be easily achieved and it will not happen overnight. Americans are too devoted to violence and to guns to break those addictions in one sudden change of heart At the least, however, what we might now do, immediately, is act to abolish all weapons in every school, college, and university in the U.S., and to make it impossible to bring weapons to any campus or school.

Can we at least make schools safe grounds for students, parents, and teachers? Can we please take guns away from sons such as Adam Lanza and from mothers such as Nancy Lanza, and can we begin to see that violence is a deep-seated American family value that very much needs to be cleansed nonviolently and as humane possible.

[Jonah Raskin, a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation, and the editor of The Radical Jack London. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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