November 9-15, 2005

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Saratoga High School

Shock To Suburbia: The plot uncovered against Saratoga High in 2003 is one of the incidents Mark Ames' focuses on in 'Going Postal.' He says rage murders at schools and in the workplace are the modern-day equivalent of slave rebellions.

All the Rage

In 2003, police uncovered a plot by one student to blow up Saratoga High School, bringing the shadow of Columbine to the Silicon Valley psyche. But what makes a school shooter or a workplace killer go off? Are these acts of mass violence as random as they seem? Mark Ames' new book 'Going Postal' goes deeper to find method in the madness.

By Gary Singh

WHILE WATCHING the Columbine massacre live on national news as it happened, I thought to myself, "Well, someone finally went through with it." Being one of those same wiry outcasts picked on by the jocks all through junior high and high school, I had sympathy for the killers. I couldn't believe parents who pushed and pushed their kids to be intolerant athletic bullies from the get-go were somehow surprised when it all came back to shoot them in the face. Literally.

But it's much more complex than that, according to Mark Ames, who will soon attack America with a new book: Going Postal—Rage, Murder and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond.

Ames grew up in Los Gatos, went to Saratoga High, and now lives in Russia where he runs an English language alternative weekly. Like him, I followed the illiterate analysis by the mainstream press of the Columbine shootings and postulated that it was Middle American school culture itself that was to blame for all this. Whenever a rage massacre takes place, the media gives you nothing but watered-down grievance coverage: communities binding together with an outpouring of emotion and "moving on" with their lives ("moving on" being a substitute for denial, of course). According to Ames, you never see anyone discussing the dark underbelly of America that really causes all this violence. This is one of the true darker sides of American society that no one ever wants to talk about, he says.

Ames tries to debunk the analysis that says these are all random shootings. Instead, he argues that the massacres are just modern-day versions of slave rebellions and that folks like Harris and Klebold were not randomly lashing out against any particular students. They saw each student as just a piece of Columbine, of Littleton, Colo., and of Middle American society, which they saw as nothing but a homogeneous monoculture where anyone beyond the pale is bullied to the breaking point.

Part investigation and part polemic, Going Postal will spark some extremely heated discussion, as Ames blames the whole thing on what he says are class divisions exacerbated by Reaganomics in the '80s. Ames' hatred of Reagan is obviously the main ulterior motive here, and he says that rage massacres didn't flourish until after everyone had to deal the results of Reagan's economic policies. Were the shooters just wackos who finally snapped or were they pushed over the edge by conditions fundamentally wrong with the class-based society that produced them? It's the same old socialist-vs.-capitalist boxing match, but Going Postal is unique in the sense that it's the first book to explore the rage massacre as a wholly separate phenomenon.

The following excerpts from Going Postal were heisted from different parts of the book and then chained together in order to provide a small, nowhere-near-complete cross-section of Ames' endeavor. So pull out the Karl Marx and the Adam Smith and start bickering.

Mark Ames

Political Ames: Mark Ames has written for Metro as well as for many other local and national publications. He moved to Moscow in 1993 and became founding editor of the eXile, an English-language newspaper of political commentary with the prank and satire knobs cranked to 11. He is also co-author of 'the eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia.'

From 'Going Postal' by Mark Ames; Soft Skull Press; 284 pages; $15.95 paperback

There have been shootings and violence at America's schools for years now. But this book is focusing on what we all know to be a unique and deeply disturbing type of school violence—the rage attack, or "classroom avenger," as some mockingly call it. Throughout the '80s and into the early '90s, gang attacks in inner city schools caused a number of shooting deaths and woundings. Middle America was horrified by the shootings, and by the new reports of metal detectors becoming common in these inner-city (read: minority-dominated) schools—but they weren't necessarily shocked. The ethnic riots of the '60s and '70s already provided a context for these school crimes. And with the rise of Reagan, as the country became increasingly polarized among class and ethnic lines, it became acceptable for Middle America to react callously to the inner-city school violence, just as they turned their backs on the crushing of America's blue-collar unions and the cuts in government assistance to the poor. For the most part, violence at inner-city schools was considered "their" problem. Just as the poor were essentially blamed for being poor under Reagan, so the schoolyard gang violence was blamed on the African Americans and Latinos who lived where the violence was greatest.

Underlying all of this was the sense that inner-city school violence was something foreign, something to be contrasted against middle-class school culture. Inner-city riots and violence of the '60s and '70s never spread to Middle America—white middle-class youths didn't set fire to their subdivisions and their 7-Elevens; they didn't turn their parents' station wagons into barricades to keep the Man from controlling the inner-suburban section from Pleasant Street through Chestnut Way. Hippies abandoned suburbia, taking their anger out on major urban military and government installations, or they dropped out altogether, moving to rural communes. But they never turned suburbia into a war zone. No one even considered the possibility of rage murders in white Middle American schools. Such a thing was not imaginable until the late 1990s, long after the phenomenon had broken out. We all knew that the blacks and the poor were left behind, but that was part of the deal struck with Reagan. Violence in inner-city schools was regrettable, but hey, life's tough.

What Middle America didn't expect was that eventually the Reagan Car Cultureolution would turn against them, too. And yet it had always turned against them: downsizing started with blue-collar workers and eventually devoured the white-collars; outsourcing devastated first the manufacturing sector and now it's plundering the white-collar service sector; and violence only thought to wreak havoc on inner-city schools now infiltrates middle-class public schools. Of course, Middle America's parents were idiots for not seeing this: In 1980, Ronald Reagan pledged, as candidate for president, to abolish the Federal Department of Education. You don't hear too much about that now that Reagan has been officially canonized, but he was the first president in my lifetime, and perhaps in American history, who went out of his way to attack and demean education. It was the same inverted work-is-freedom rationale that he used to destroy unions (they hurt America's workers), the environment ("trees cause pollution"), the poor ("welfare queens"), and human rights ("the Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers"). Reagan said that by abolishing the Department of Education it would somehow improve education. He didn't abolish the Department of Education, but he did make it respectable to heap contempt on public schools and to blame schools for their own problems, thereby making it easier to cut funding and deprioritize the nation's historical dedication to educating its citizens equally and for free. Reagan's contempt for public school was most clearly manifested when he slashed federal funding for school lunch programs—and when he tried to have ketchup declared a "vegetable" on federally subsidized school lunches in order to offset tax cuts for the wealthy.

I have already defined what constitutes a post-Reagan rage murder in the workplace [earlier in the book]. Here is a working definition of today's schoolyard rage attacks:

  • attacker(s) attacks his own school with guns and/or explosives in order to fight something that takes place within that school (such as bullying, difficult-to-define evil, pressure);
  • attacks are aimed at destroying the school as a symbol, with victims either chosen because they signified whatever enraged the attacker about the school or chosen "at random." Just as victims of terrorists tend not to have been specifically targeted but rather happen to be in the symbol that terrorists attack, many victims of schoolyard rage attacks are not specifically chosen but are part of the institution that is attacked, and therefore they are misidentified as having been shot "at random"; and
  • attack takes place in Middle American school—that is, the school community should be predominantly middle-class and/or predominantly white.
  • There have been murders in schools for some time, but until lately, none fit this modern definition.

    Target America

    More rage. More rage. Keep building it on. —Eric Harris

    What makes today's school rampage murders so different from other school violence is that they are perpetrated by white middle-class kids—the same demographic that also sympathizes with the shooters. It's not supposed to be that way in America. The middle class is supposed to be essentially content, the bedrock of stability, especially the kids.

    Today's schoolyard shootings are disturbing because they are attacks on the very core of our culture. Many rage massacres are directed not only at specific bullies, but at the entire school, "to make a point" or to "kick-start a revolution" in the words of Eric Harris. This is why, again, like company massacres, there are no "random shootings." As Katherine Newman notes, "[J]ust about everyone at school—often a shooter's entire social world—is fair game." In this way, too, they resemble so many workplace massacres.

    While several Columbine-style plots have been uncovered, even those which were clearly real threats didn't come close to matching the incredible arsenal that Klebold and Harris put together. Along with their guns—a TEC-9, a Hi-Point 9-millimeter carbine, and two shotguns—they rigged up 95 explosive devices, enough firepower to wipe out their school and slaughter hundreds of students, had they gone off. Among the bombs were 48 carbon dioxide bombs, or "crickets," 27 pipe bombs, 11 1-1/2-gallon propane containers, seven incendiary devices with 40-plus gallons of flammable liquid, and two duffel bag bombs with 20-pound liquefied-petroleum gas tanks. One of the propane tanks was rigged to explode inside the cafeteria, which, if it had exploded, could have raised the death toll several times over. The timing fuse didn't work as planned, and the boys' attempt to shoot the tank to spark an explosion failed.

    As Eric Harris explained in a diary entry dated April 26, 1998, "We use bombs, fire bombs and anything we fucking can to kill and damage as much as we fucking can."

    The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way; the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings. —C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins

    Clearly, they weren't just targeting some of the students—they were trying to wipe the school off the face of the earth. And not just Columbine, but Littleton, Colorado, along with it. As they perceived it, the school and the suburb were one symbiotic evil. "I live in Denver, and dammit, I would love to kill almost all of its residents," Eric Harris wrote in his diary. An article in the Rocky Mountain News about the video diaries of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold revealed their widened net of rage: "They explain over and over again why they want to kill as many people as they can. Kids taunted them in elementary school, in middle school, in high school. Adults wouldn't let them strike back and fight their tormentors, the way such disputes were once settled in schoolyards. So they gritted their teeth. And their rage grew." For Eric and Dylan, Columbine was Littleton was America—their rage was so great that according to CNN, had they survived the massacre, the two planned to hijack a plane and crash it into New York City. In his diaries, Eric Harris wrote, "If by some weird ass shit luck me and V[Klebold] survive and escape we will move to some island somewhere or maybe Mexico, New Zealand or some exotic place where Americans can't get us. If there isn't such a place, then we will hijack a hell of a lot of bombs and crash a plane into NYC with us inside firing away as we go down."

    No one can say that they hated America because we are free—they hated America because America loved Columbine High, and because they saw the same cultural evils at work nationally as they did locally.

    In the aftermath of the Subway sandwich shop murders of two Columbine High students in early 2000, the media descended upon Littleton once again, warming the horrified public's hearts with ready-made tales of a grief-stricken community tightly drawn together in an outpouring of emotion and mutual support. This is what the country wanted to hear; and this is what the country got, regurgitated back as objective news. "Once more, a stricken community mourns its children," the Denver Post sobbed on Feb. 15, 2000. Reuters got evangelical in their account: "One group came to the parking lot of the sandwich shop and wrote on the asphalt in blue chalk, 'For God so loved the world he gave his only son so that we shall not perish but have eternal life.' (John 3:16). Using pink chalk, they wrote, 'God is love.' The students also drew a circle around the word 'hate' and put a slash through it."

    What that last line says to me is that hate is a serious problem in Littleton—otherwise the Christians wouldn't have to slay it. But, as always, no one explored why hate was such a problem. Instead, the focus was on the love which supposedly replaced it, a love officially on display for the whole media.

    So why hate? What was so hateful about upper-middle-class white suburbia? And how exactly did the community really pull together?

    Tom Galland, a pastor in Jonesboro where the 11- and 13-year-old boys shot up their middle school in 1997, had warned a Littleton minister who called him for advice after Columbine to expect this exact type of community response—lots of official grieving, but underneath it a nasty, callous reality. Six months after the Columbine massacre, the Littleton minister called Galland back and told him, "It's just like you said. We had a false sense of cohesion and togetherness, and now everyone is suing each other." That little detail never made it into the official grieving-community stories.

    Ronald Reagan

    We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes: 'Going Postal' argues that today's rage murders are bloody fallout from Ronald Reagan's policies while he was president.

    Bad Intentions

    Less than a week after I moved to Santee [California] to research Andy Williams' shooting I got a phone call from my mother: the FBI and local sheriff's deputies had just arrested a student at my former high school for plotting to blow it up. The 16-year-old boy was busted while stealing explosive chemicals from the school's science lab and arrested at gunpoint. The news came in the wake of a massive cheating scandal at my old school, a story that made Bay Area headlines. Saratoga High School is one of the top-ranked public schools in the country—first in California by some academic rankings. If cheating scandals and Columbine-style plots could reach Saratoga High, the very top of the school hierarchy, then people figured that nowhere was safe. Others in the San Jose area savored the scandal with some good old-fashioned schadenfreude.

    In December 2003, two students swiped a multiple choice test from an AP [Advanced Placement] history classroom, made copies, and passed it around to other students. Then administrators learned that the previous spring, students had hacked into the English 10 teacher's computer, stole her tests, and distributed them to others. In a third case, a student managed to install a keystroke-reading device, KEYKatcher, in his math teacher's computer—a small piece of hardware that you attach between the keyboard cable and the computer box. The device records the keystrokes over a certain period; when the device is removed and hooked into another computer, you can download everything that had been typed. The accused student managed to "read" the teacher's tests, which he then distributed to other students. In January, administrators discovered that he had hacked into the math teacher's files and changed one of his grades from a D to a B.

    All told, eight students faced expulsion. Nearly all of them besides the KEYKatcher cheater were straight-A students or close. Parents of the accused students hired attorneys and appealed. The atmosphere was nasty, like a board room battle. By the middle of the month, news of the cheating rings leaked out to the San Jose Mercury News. The scandal made headlines and brought in local and national TV coverage, with large broadcast vans ferrying in aggressive reporters and cameras that chased the students across the quad. The reputation of the state's top public school, in Silicon Valley's wealthiest suburb, had suffered a major blow, and the rest of the Santa Clara Valley was enjoying the spectacle, seeing the smug Saratogans taken down.

    Then it took a dark, familiar turn. Late at night on Jan. 14 and 15, the high school's silent alarm went off. Police didn't find anyone and there were no signs of tampering except that the pins in the door to the science lab were missing. On the night of the 16th, police staked out the school. There, sheriff's deputies and, by some reports, FBI agents caught a 16-year-old boy as he fled the science lab and arrested him at gunpoint. It turned out to be the same boy who was caught and suspended for installing the keystroke device. He was found with bottles of glycine and potassium nitrate, both potential explosive agents that he'd stolen from the classroom. He was taken down to the police station. Under questioning, which lasted five hours, the boy admitted that he wanted to "do bad things" to the school. Later, police changed their story about how explicit the boy was about his "bad" intentions.

    When our school blows up tomorrow, it's gonna be the kind of thing to affect a whole generation! It'll be the Woodstock of the eighties! —'Heathers,' 1989

    The sophomore student was charged with burglary, possession of stolen property, possession of materials with intent to construct an explosive device, and obstructing an officer. And then he was released to his parents—a move that outraged residents in less affluent parts of the Santa Clara Valley, who rightly noted that if a Mexican from east San Jose was arrested and charged with those crimes, he would be frog-marched straight to juvie hall, charged as an adult, and crushed for good.

    Police managed to obtain a search warrant 10 hours later. In the boy's bedroom they found a gym bag—the rage murderer's favorite accessory—and inside that gym bag cupric choride, potassium permanganate and ammonium nitrate. Most of those chemicals may not ring a bell, but the last one, ammonium nitrate, should: it's what Timothy McVeigh used to level the federal building in Oklahoma City.

    Within days, Saratoga High School administrators managed to secure a restraining order on the boy barring him from coming within 300 yards of the school, saying in their request to the court that the boy had "a clear motive for blowing up the school." He was placed under house arrest, pending his hearing, and slapped with an electronic monitoring device—a kind of human KEYKatcher—to be monitored by a probation officer until the suspect's first hearing at the end of February. Conveniently, both the student-suspect and the principal live in a new subdivision on the other side of Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road, across from the high school. The suspect's house was barely outside of the 300-yard restraining order boundary.

    On Monday, Feb. 2, the accused bomb-plotter's 15-year-old girlfriend, also a Saratoga High student, was pulled out of her morning class by sheriff's detectives for posting threats on her Instant Messaging profile to kill and mutilate the school principal's family—her IMs expressed her rage over the way her boyfriend was "unjustifiably portrayed as a psycho." The girl was arrested at school and released to her family.

    The Bottom Line

    The bottom line is that the middle class no longer exists as we once knew it, before Reaganism destroyed the postwar ideal of a comfortable, happy, home-by-6 middle class. It's gone. A certain demographic may still be called that based on the statistical definition, but it ain't the same middle class it used to be. Today, the middle-classes struggle under increasingly unbearable conditions and are only able to maintain the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle thanks to cheap imports produced by near-slave laborers in the Third World and easy credit that is slowly picking them off one by one.

    If Ward Cleaver were alive today, he'd rarely be home to see his wife and children; and when home, he'd be an impossible crank, always getting called on the cellphone or buzzed on the Blackberry. The stress from seeing his health insurance get slashed would only be overshadowed by the fear caused by another round of white-collar downsizing and vicious memos from the senior executives implying that more fat was yet to be cut from the company payrolls. Mr. Cleaver would work weekends and forgo vacations, and likely vote Republican, forced to choose between the hypertension medicine and the blood-thinner pills since he can't afford both, not under the new corporate HMO plan. ... His anger and stress would push him into cursing Canada for being a hotbed of anti-American liberalism while at the same time he'd agonize over whether or not to order his medicines from their cheap online pharmacies. He'd have no time for imparting little moral lessons. "Not now, leave me alone," he'd grumble, washing down the last of his Cudamins with a low-carb non-alcoholic beer while watching The O'Reilly Factor through clenched teeth. His wife June would be stuck at a three-day merchandising conference at a Holiday Inn in Tempe—if they weren't divorced by now—while the Beaver would be standing in front of his bedroom dresser mirror in his long black trenchcoat, clutching his homemade pipebombs, and plotting revenge on Eddie Haskell and all the other kids who call him "gay" and "bitch" and make his life a living hell.

    A Meaner America

    Cruel and callous when on top, and afraid and smiling all the way to the grave when not—that pretty much sums up the post-Reagan zeitgeist. And if you're not just as cheerful as the rest, "you've got some personal problems." You're a weirdo if you complain. It's your own fault if you're traumatized by a massacre. It's your own fault if you're poor. It's your own fault if you get downsized, overworked, bullied and fail. Get over it. This is how Americans have been taught from the Reagan era through today to deal with people who are vulnerable: blame them for their own suffering. Move on. And if they don't move on, that means they're weird. Tell them to get over it. Which is to say, "Get the fuck out of my face."

    To recognize the essential meanness of modern American culture, caught so clearly in the example of Westside [Middle School playground massacre in Jonesboro, Ark.] in how it was transmitted from adult to child, adult to adult, and child to child, is to attack the culture's DNA. If you admit that the callousness exhibited there is awful and yet as common as Home Depot outlets, then eventually, the context changes and the shootings make a lot of sense. The post-Reagan squeeze is even evident when the school administration, by reflex, tries to deny a teacher health care benefits that would have once been considered standard, docking her pay out of a deeply ingrained reflex more than anything.

    The whole country is infested with the meanness and coldness, and no one is allowed to admit it. Only the crazy ones sense that it is wrong—that what is "normal" is not at all normal—and some of them, adults and kids alike, fight back with everything they have.


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