Last month in Newtown, Connecticut, another disturbed and enraged young man joined the dark fraternity: the boys and men who have converted their personal rage and disappointment into unspeakable violence, each one seemingly trying to outdo his predecessors in achieving greater and greater depths of evil, and in spreading the greatest amount of pain across one community, across the nation—across the world.
This fraternity, with its sickeningly regular attack on all of our souls, seems particularly modern—and particularly American. Mass murders in other countries, such as the killing of 69 youth on the island of Utøya in Norway, do happen, but nowhere but here do they happen with such a sickening regularity, so that in this country we have come to expect them—have indeed come to expect worse and worse.
In writing and then speaking about Shooting Victoria during the last five years, I could not help but consider, with each massacre, how these dark killers compared with the men and boys in my book, who after all made their own notorious attempts to kill.
There are striking similarities. Edward Oxford, John Francis, John William Bean, Arthur O’Connor: all were loners, young men with troubled family lives; all were deeply discontented with the world they lived in and their place in that world. All of them aspired to be somebody, and all were thwarted in that desire. And all decided to translate their rage and frustration into a single evil act, which they believed and wished would gain them world attention: they all suffered, as the newspapers at the time put it, from a “diseased craving for notoriety.” And so they bought their guns, and shot at Queen Victoria.
Their impulse to shoot at the Queen, I believe, came from the same place of unfathomable anger and frustration that has motivated our own Klebolds and Harrises to lash out. The dark fraternity, in other words, has been with us—with us all—as long as boys and young men have been capable of feeling anxiety and rage, anomie and loneliness.
But if the impulse has been there always, the ways that the dark young men of our place and our time act upon those impulses has changed: our own mass-murderers inflict death and spread pain to a degree unthinkable a hundred years ago.
Our mass killers, for one thing, have at their disposal a mindboggling amount of firepower. Victoria’s assailants were satisfied with cheap and often barely-functional flintlock and percussion-cap pistols. The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary came equipped with an assault rifle and two semi-automatic pistols each capable of firing 5 rounds per second. He also carried more than enough ammunition to kill every child in the school, bullets in a number of high-capacity, quick-loading clips. His guns were all legally obtained—by his mother, whom he killed with her own weapons. He came to kill with an arsenal a thousand times more lethal than anyone would need to hunt, or for home protection.
That we allow one another—as a right—the ability to amass the power to kill to this degree is a national obscenity. And as long as we do, the horror of these shootings will continue—with a sickening regularity.
There’s another difference between the loners who haunted Queen Victoria and our darker loners today. Edward Oxford’s diseased craving was satisfied with confronting the Queen. He did not kill her; and, when he was freed after spending more than a quarter-century in Bethlem and Broadmoor asylums, he never lashed out again. And John Francis, and after him John William Bean, were perfectly content to emulate Oxford, perhaps hoping for his fate. Neither made any attempt to do Oxford one better, to intensify the horror, to spread the pain more ingeniously and more widely. But that is exactly what today’s members of the dark fraternity wish to do—each one set upon exceeding their predecessors in the quality and quantity of their dark acts. Simply to be noticed by the media, they must create horror at a level that will set them apart from their predecessors. And so these dark boys and men study their predecessors, adopting methods guaranteed to ensure greater horror and a greater body count, and contributing their own innovations. Thus the care with which the killer at Virginia Tech University took to chain all of the exits of the building in which he killed 32 people. Thus, the gas-mask and goggles, the smoke-bombs, the Kevlar vest which a murderer used to kill 12 and wound 58 in a theatee in Aurora, Colorado. And last Friday, the killer at Sandy Hook Elementary surely chose his victims in order to maximize horror and pain: 20 innocent six and seven-year olds, and 6 adults who cared for them. Our mass murderers are continually upping the ante; and until we can recognize and treat their madness before they strike, they will succeed in hurting us all, more and more.
Ghosts of Edward Oxford are without question among us now, studying Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and now Sandy Hook, and contemplating new depths of unspeakable horror. After Oxford and then Francis and then Bean shot at Victoria, her government acted: Prime Minster Robert Peel enacted a law intended to shame would-be Oxfords rather than glorify them, and the attacks on the Queen by disturbed young men stopped—for a time. We face a far greater threat, and we, too must act. We need more effective mental health screening and treatment so that we can prevent the violence rather than mourn it. And we need to act—immediately—to reform our horrible gun laws in order to keep near-unlimited power from those who will use it to create acts of ever-greater pain and horror.