I should be planning my classes. School starts in a couple of weeks and I am in the middle of setting up a long and complex assignment for the technical writing class I will teach starting in September. On top of that, I need to write a new syllabus for my introductory creative writing course and for the three sections of freshman composition in front of which I will be standing starting on September 1st. Or I should be working on the introduction to my next book of translations, which I still have some hope of finishing this week, because that will allow me to get back to work on the Fragments of Evolving Manhood pieces I have been writing and on the poems waiting in the blue folder on my desk for me to revise so I can start submitting them to journals. Instead of working on either of those two projects, however, I am writing a blog post about something I have not been able to get out of my head since I read about it in The New York Times this past Friday: the story of Omar S. Thornton, who killed himself after killing eight people in Manchester, Connecticut.
Thornton drove a truck delivering beers for Hartford Distributors. He’d been called into a disciplinary hearing on the morning of the shooting, Tuesday, August 3rd, after having been accused by company officials of stealing beers; they offered him a choice between resigning or being fired. Instead, he opened fire. When he was done shooting, eight people were dead, two were wounded, and he placed a call to 911 because he wanted “to tell my story, so you can play it back.” He’d been, he said, racially harassed at his workplace to such an extent that he had no choice but “to take [things] into my own hands and handle the problem.” According to Thornton’s girlfriend and her mother, this harassment included things like someone drawing a hangman’s noose on the bathroom wall.
Company officials deny the charges of racism, which it is likely they would do even if the charges were true, and an official with the Teamsters union said that Thornton had never filed any complaint, which only mean no one officially knew about the problem, if there was one; but let’s assume for the moment that the report of the hangman’s noose is false, that racism on the job was not a problem that Thornton had. That doesn’t mean, of course, Thornton was not experiencing racism in his daily life. Indeed, it would have been remarkable, more than remarkable in fact–it would have been miraculous–if he had not been experiencing racism in his daily life since he was old enough to know what racism was; and so, while nothing justifies the murders he committed, and while it is true that if he had not killed himself, given the clear fact of his guilt, he would have deserved to be punished to the full extent of the law (though, for me, such punishment would stop short of the death penalty), there is no reason to doubt that Thornton was telling the truth when he said that the anger motivating his killing of those eight people was rooted in his experience of racism.
There is, however, a difficulty in acknowledging that truth; in its implication that Thornton might also have been a victim, it seems to place him and his victims on the same level, as if he were not responsible for his own actions. More, because racism is such a complex issue, to acknowledge that racism might have played had a role in shaping Thornton’s state of mind such that he was able to kill eight people in cold blood is to risk eclipsing the far more simple fact that he actually killed those eight people, that they no longer exist because of him; and since I do not want to lose sight of the fact that those eight people are gone, I would like everyone reading this post to pause here and go read “Remembering Lives Lost in a Warehouse Rampage,” an article in The New York Times by Patrick McGeehan that memorializes their lives.
I know many people who will think that what I have to say next is about making excuses for Thornton, but it’s not. No matter how much he might have suffered because of racism, nothing changes the fact that he was guilty of murder. When I first read about the deaths he caused, though, it was in the context of the 911 call he made so that he could explain himself, and my second thought, because my first thought was of the victims, survivors and their families, was of the first sentence from the title essay in bell hook’s collection Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder” (8). The next three and a half pages of hooks’ essay recount a “sequence of racialized incidents involving black women.” These incidents so “intensified [hooks’] rage against the white man sitting next to [her] that [she] wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with a gun [she] wished [she] had in [her] purse.” She continues:
And as I watched his pain, I would say to him tenderly “racism hurts.” With no outlet, my rage turned to overwhelming grief and I began to weep, covering my face with my hands. All around me everyone acted as though they could not see me, as though I were invisible, with one exception. The white man seated next to me watched suspiciously whenever I reached for my purse. As though I were the black nightmare that haunted his dreams, he seemed to be waiting for me to strike, to be the fulfillment of his racist imagination. I leaned towards him with my legal pad and made sure he saw the title written in bold print: “Killing Rage.” (11)
Take any one of the “racialized incidents” hooks refers to out of the context of the sequence she refers to, and I think even she would acknowledge that her “killing rage” was out of proportion to the nature of the incident, but that is why the word sequence is so crucial. A sequence implies an accumulation, an accretion, of significance, of weight, and so while the incident that triggers the rage hooks feels is relatively minor–an airline boarding pass mix-up involving her traveling companion, who is also black, during which the crew treats hooks’ companion in ways that are clearly racist–it is, on that particular day, the proverbial last straw, the one that, added to the many other racist straws hooks had been forced to carry that day, not to mention those she’d been forced to carry throughout her life till that point, left her unable to carry anymore.
Hooks, however, did what we can only wish Thornton had been able to do. She wrote about her rage, gave it a form and a content that turned it into something other than the destructive force Thornton’s rage became. The difference in how they responded to their rage does not mean that we are talking about two very different kinds of rage; and by we I mean here white people. I mean us. The fact of Thornton’s deadly destructiveness makes it easy to dismiss him as crazy, as a nut, as inhuman; it makes it easy to other him such that we feel we don’t need to understand him. We need only to punish him–though in this case the punishment can take place only in our imaginations–so that, in punishing him, in pushing him beyond the pale of reasonable humanity, we can reassure ourselves not only that the problem was his, not ours, but also that “reasonable” Black people, educated professionals like bell hooks, for example, don’t feel what he felt, could never do what he did.
Yet if we are unwilling even to try to understand a man like Omar S. Thornton, if we are unwilling to grant the possibility that he told the truth about himself when he said he had experienced such racism that he felt he had no choice but to kill, we only guarantee that there will be more like him. I do not mean by this that white people are somehow responsible for what Black people do with the rage they feel. I do mean that we need to start by really listening to Black people when they say they feel that rage, not because everything they say out of that rage will be accurate, but because we usually don’t listen–unless the rage is safely packaged in something like bell hooks’ book; and even then, how many of us read such books?
To listen at the level I am talking about is, first, to acknowledging the fact that, because we are white, we have no way of knowing what it’s like to live through, to borrow bell hooks’ phrase, sequence after sequence after sequence after sequence of “racialized incidents;” there is no way we can know what it’s like to feel the core of who we are eroding beneath those sequences, repeated day after day, year after year, the way rock erodes when water flows incessantly over it; there is no way we can know what it’s like to reach a point where we don’t feel anymore that there is a core to who we are and that the entirety of the society in which we live has arranged things for us that way simply because of the color of our skin; it is to acknowledge that because we are white, no matter how difficult our lives may have been in other ways, we will never have to know the particular desperation that emerges from that particular feeling of emptiness simply because we are white.
At the same time, however, to listen at the level I am talking about is not–as some people will no doubt suggest I am saying it is–about surrendering our own perspective on the world or suspending our own critical faculties; it is not about accepting as valid everything that people like bell hooks or Omar Thornton say out of their rage or allowing ourselves to be silenced by guilt. Rather, listening at the level I am talking about is about acknowledging that, precisely because we cannot know what it means to be Black in the United States, we need to understand what it means to be white and how what it means for us to be white contributes to the “killing rage” that hooks wrote about and that Thornton acted on. To do otherwise is to be complicit in the racism to which that rage is a perfectly reasonable response; it is to be like the white man that bell hooks was sitting next to, the one she wanted to murder, to whom she said, “[This] was an occasion for you to intervene in the harassment of a black woman and you chose your own comfort and tried to deflect away from your complicity in that choice by offering an insincere, face-saving apology” (9).
There have been times in my life when I have intervened, but I would be lying if I said there have not been times when, consciously or not, I chose my own comfort. Being able to choose between those two responses more or less without consequence is part of the privilege of being white in the United States and the degree to which we fail to own that privilege is one measure of the degree to which we fail to understand a man like Omar S. Thornton, and that, I think, is where I would like to end: not with the predictable platitudes about how, if only more white people had actively opposed the racism he encountered in his life, if only Thornton himself had had more and better opportunities, he might never have gotten so enraged and the eight people he killed might still be alive–because no matter how true that might be in the abstract, there is no way of knowing if it would have been true in reality and, moreover, that line of reasoning ultimately trivializes the murders Thornton committed; rather, I want to end with the simple assertion that, guilty as Thornton was, we still need to understand him, because I don’t think we really do.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.