Last night’s BBC2 documentary, Going Postal, looked at the horrible multiplicity of high school, campus and workplace shootings which have happened with alarming frequency in America since the late 80s when the term Going Postal was adopted in the wake of massacres committed by – primarily – postal workers.
These killers were, so we heard, prompted to do what they did in response to a number of factors; socio-economics, the availability of guns and feeling marginalised by the society within which they lived.
The film was part of BBC2’s ‘The Violence Season’ which, “explores the social, historical and psychological causes of violence” and this documentary was not only interesting – albeit somewhat morbidly – but it was produced in a non-biased, non-judgemental format by British film maker Paul Tickell who avoided many of the ‘norms’ when making films about similar subject matter…
He avoided the reverential, sombre and often emotive incidental music which many similar films are prone to offer as a subtext in and of itself. He also didn’t offer up any overall narration, rather, he allowed the victims, the perpetrators and those with expert knowledge of what motivates or causes such terrible crimes to speak for themselves.
However for me, the raison d’être for the film, and ultimately potentially part of the answer as to why so many people ‘go postal’ often in seemingly quiet, suburban towns, was summed up by one sentence; “The shooter was standing right over there in front of the gun case.”
In that instance, “the shooter” was 14 year old Michael Carneal who had taken a gun into school with him in the sleepy town of Paducah, Kentucky, and opened fire on a prayer group made up of his peers. He killed three of them and injured five.
The sentence I just mentioned was uttered seemingly without any comprehension of the import or paradox of what the speaker – Dianne Beckman, a former teacher at the school who was there that fateful day – was saying; the incongruity of a group of young kids praying in front of a gun case in a high school lobby didn’t seem to occur to her. Youngsters who were devout and reverential Christians praying in an area where deadly weapons were stored as trophy exhibits goes – in my opinion – a long way to answering the ‘why’ of the questions raised in this film.
Many of the experts consulted for the programme agreed that the ready availability of guns in the US is in part responsible for the reason why they’re used by those who ‘go postal’ and of course, violent media was accused as being part of the overall problem as was America’s complex relationship with the weapon that they have a “right to bear” according to the second amendment.
Hunters are proud of being good shots, proud of killing animals and they ‘celebrate’ guns and gunmanship. Homeowners often keep guns as weapons for self-defense and movies and video games glorify the use of guns. So, according to one expert, the all too often very young killers in situations such as those in Paducah don’t make the association that shooting someone equals death. There’s a subconscious lack of a connection made between firing the weapon and someone being dead. They fail to recognise that there’s no reset button and nobody’s acting…
There were numerous emotional interviews with people who’d been affected by these shootings and one such interview was with the parents of Jessica James who had been killed by Carneal. They talked movingly of the events of that day and, twelve years later, they’re still devout in their belief in God, despite what had happened to them. Jessica’s mother said, “We never know when the Lord’s gonna call us home. Our children are a gift to us and God doesn’t say he’s gonna let us keep ‘em forever.”
The film also featured real footage of police interviewing killers and in addition, Michael Carneal was interviewed and appeared at various point throughout the film. He described the events of that day as being “life defining” but strongly expressed the desire that he personally shouldn’t be “defined” by them. He looked like a totally innocuous man, not really anyone’s idea of a multiple murderer but despite his pleas not to be defined by one action, he of course is, and rightly so. In the space of a few short minutes, he devastated the lives of dozens and dozens of people.
Another case covered was that of Joseph Wesbecker who, on September 14th, 1989, parked his car in front of the main entrance of business premises Standard Gravure and entered the plant carrying a semiautomatic AK-47, a SIG Sauer pistol and a bag containing a variety of other guns as well as hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
He entered the reception area on the third floor where he began firing at receptionists Sharon Needy and Angela Bowman. Sharon died at the scene and Angela was left paralysed. Wesbecker was ultimately searching for Michael Shea, the president of Standard Gravure, but he also wanted to kill other supervisors and bosses of the plant.
Eye witnesses described in emotive and still raw detail how Wesbecker calmly walked through the hallways, shooting randomly but with deliberation at people who happened to be in his way. He killed several people in those hallways before heading down the stairs to the pressroom where he killed one man and wounded two others. He then left his bag under a stairwell before continuing on his killing rampage in the basement area and more specifically, the employee’s break room.
Some thirty minutes or so later, with 8 people dead and 12 wounded, Wesbecker put his gun under his chin and blew his own head off.
Amongst the many harrowing cases discussed for the film was also that of teenager Charles Andrew ‘Andy’ Williams who came from a broken home and who’d been moved around the country several times in his young life due to his father’s work.
At the high school where he went on a killing rampage in 2001, he was bullied and abused by even those he considered friends. Most notably, boys named Josh and AJ who carried out some of the worst bullying on this boy but who were the only people who’d ‘befriended’ him at Santana High.
Together, the three had ‘planned’ a Columbine-like massacre in that Josh and AJ “egged on” Andy but as one expert explained, kids like Josh and AJ “know which buttons to push” in order to provoke a vulnerable and troubled person into doing something they may want to witness but wouldn’t do themselves. This was apparently the case when Andy walked into the school and randomly fired his gun.
His first victim was a boy called Bryan whose mother is haunted by the fact that her son died alone on a bathroom floor with, “no-one there to comfort him or cradle him.” Bryan was one of two students who died that day and 13 more were injured.
Then came the equally distressing story of how just last year, 27 year old University student Steve Kazmierczak shot to death 6 fellow students and injured 18 more on Valentine’s Day.
As with most of the cases covered, nobody really had any idea what was going on in the killer’s head; no idea that this person would be capable of committing such heinous crimes, but commit them they did. And Kazmireczak shared another commonality with murderers of this ‘ilk’ in that he killed himself once he concluded his murderous spree.
He’d been discharged from his career as a soldier when his previous mental health issues – the fact that he’d tried to commit suicide several times – was revealed. This rejection affected him deeply and ultimately, his rage at society and ‘the system’ was acted out the day he walked into the school’s auditorium and opened fire from the stage.
Ultimately, the why’s and wherefores can be discussed forever and a day by specialists the world over, just as they were for this film, but what lay underneath all the expert opinion and analysis was the devastation brought upon individuals and their immediate society as well as society in general when events of this magnitude occur.
This film was, in part, simply a narrative of events made the more intense by footage of the actual events, but it didn’t presume to offer an answer, rather it took the subject matter and allowed for discussion of it from every angle; victim, perpetrator and specialist study but the conclusion was ultimately, murderers of this kind are not necessarily born evil murderers but circumstances may make them become that way.
Again though, as I mentioned at the beginning, kudos must be given to Tickell for not trying to put bias or his own feelings about the subject matter of his film into it; he simply documented the events before, during and after from several points of view making it a thoroughly interesting though deeply saddening film which, if you missed, you can watch again on BBC iPlayer.