Any discussion of serial killers has to start from the fact American culture is probably the largest death cult in human history. Even the Aztecs, famous for their mass human sacrifices, weren’t as obsessed with killing as we are – nor did they kill as many people as has the United States of America. Death is the air that we breathe and for that reason its omnipresence is normalized and made invisible. Some day people will take a look at our worship of death and see a culture in desperate and flailing decline.
Video games provide a key example here. They have become a central part of our leisure culture, exploding in sales over the last decade, with sales of $9.5 billion in 2007, representing 268 million units. A significant number of these games are about killing and death, with the biggest selling video game of 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV, built around vicious mob violence and the guiltless murder of competitors and enemies. The game broke all records upon its release, garnering $500 million in sales in the first week, by moving 6 million units. And of the top 5 selling video games of 2008, violently themed games, in which loss and victory are measured in deaths, make up three of them. The Entertainment Software Association suggests that violence isn’t key to video game popularity by pointing to the fact that only 15% of games sold are rated “mature”. However, the top-selling SuperMario: Galaxy, a game rated “everyone” is still about violence, it just happens to be stylized for young minds, not yet ready for spurting blood, entrails and shrieking. SuperMario is the cute gateway drug that leads the player towards the mass killing mayhem of Resident Evil or Gears of War.
Our movies and television: the same. Romantic love and death are our two greatest obsessions, next to the shallowest conceptions of beauty. If we’re not falling in love or shopping, it seems, we’re killing people. The top three films of 2008, for instance, involved multiple murders and a violent protagonist.
But it would be a mistake to think that video games or movies are making people more violent or crime prone, per se. Rather they are a reflection and reinforcement of social values that are as American as apple pie and a handgun hidden in Dad’s underwear drawer.
The Americas were built upon murder and theft. And the Europeans were only really bringing to the New World what they practiced in their own backyards, from the Enclosures in Britain to the Inquisition of Spain – and the Crusades just beyond Europe’s borders. The wealthy and powerful pursued a model of social engineering that set the terms for interactions all the way down to the base of society. Americans still cling to the Second Amendment of their Constitution, which proclaims the right to bear arms.
The validation – and necessity - of violence is a product of a class divided society and of colonialism. It is an extension of a whole series of coercive relationships infused with open or implied violence that hold our society together – from the economic coercion that forces you to work that miserable, alienated job, to the coercion of the police who patrol our neighbourhoods, guns at the ready. And make no mistake, forcing people out of their homes at the end of a sheriff’s baton – as millions of Americans have experienced in the present crisis – is also a form of violence. Hobbes primeval “war of all against all” isn’t the thing that society was created to end – it is the sine qua non of “civilization” itself.
Beyond the boundaries of our countries – whether that is across the world or across the wire fence between the dominant group and the occupied, forced onto reservations, ghettoes and Bantustans – our leaders still exercise mass violence to achieve foreign policy goals, territorial expansion, to open markets or access resources, etc. It is worth remembering that during the Gulf War in 1991 the United States murdered tens of thousands of Iraqis on the infamous Highway of Death as they retreated from Kuwait. The invasion of 2003 led to the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
And, of course, in the recent invasion and bombardment of Gaza by Israel, there were thousands of casualties during the three weeks of the operation, with hundreds upon hundreds of civilian deaths, not to mention the mass destruction that will cripple Gaza for years, if not decades. All of which was passed over without too many tears shed with the kind of crass “we think the price is worth it” that drives the plots of violent, quest-based video games.
And even here in Canada “the Peacekeeper” we have our share of murderous history that is still being written, as the indigenous population could well attest. Our present mission in Afghanistan was described by General Rick Hillier, former head of the Canadian Armed Forces as being to slay the “detestable murderers and scumbags” of the Taliban. And kill them we did, with greater joy the larger the number of them that we slew. After all, as Hillier said on another occasion, “We're not the public service of Canada; we're not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to kill people. This job is celebrated every time millions of commuters drive down the Highway 401, a section of which have been re-named the Highway of Heroes for the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan that are transported along its length.
So, there can be no claim that mass murder is an aberrant behaviour in our society. It is the way we get the job done. Mass murder is government policy, carried out by soldiers who are rewarded for killing more people than the next guy. No, the problem for “serial killers” is that they don’t carry out the killing in the service of power.