Murder American Style


“America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” – William Burroughs


Sometimes I’m tempted to agree. In the wake of the recent mass killings in Colorado and Wisconsin the question has to be asked: why does this country breed narcissistic maniacs and murderers of an intensity and vileness seldom, if ever, seen throughout other technologically advanced, affluent cultures?

Aurora, Jonestown, Columbine, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma—these names are etched in the American psyche as reminders of the baffling, seemingly unfathomable homegrown horror that bursts forth in waves decade after decade, in times of peace and prosperity as reliably as in those of war and economic crisis.

Recent studies have shown that a large proportion of mass homicides, including the Tucson, Arizona shooting that wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, involve perpetrators with mental illness. The proportion far outstrips the rates of mental illness in the general population.

A similar study in Scientific America points to another factor contributing to homicide: economic disparity. The study points to the loss of social capital—or the ability to seek and receive support from others— that stems from the rise of income inequality as a leading contributor to violence.

Still, those answers seem too small, too clinical and pedestrian to explain the rage behind these acts, which have come to seem like simply another feature of the American landscape.

When Wade Michael Page, reportedly a former member of a white supremacist rock band, walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and murdered six people before being gunned down by police, the news casts were horribly familiar, the grief stunned faces and cries for explanations blurring into dozens of similar scenes from communities across the country.

Maybe it was all wrong from the beginning. Maybe a nation built on slavery and the decimation of a native race could never hope to hold its madness in check. Or maybe the freedom and possibility inherent in this country, and the lack thereof, have produced a kind of psychosis, a craving for both solitude and acknowledgement, the grand gesture and the intimate connection.

Over the years, a number of songs have explored these very ideas, some overtly, some through mere suggestion. Violence, of course is a well-established theme in music from across the world, but the songs I’ve chosen here, I think, get at something deeper, something very American.

Jangling Jack (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) In which a good-natured Brit crosses the Atlantic to explore the home of the brave and ends his journey in a pool of blood outside of a barroom, as its indifferent denizens look on.

Jack flops on his stool
Sees the grinning man laugh
So Jack laughs back
Jack raises his glass
Says, God bless this country
And everything in it
The losers and the winners
The good guys and the sinners
The grinning man says, buddy
It’s all yackety yack
Whips out a little black pistol
Shoots a bullet in Jack


Pretty Polly (Dock Boggs) A classic murder ballad from the Appalachian region of North America, this song, much like Jangling Jack, draws a good deal of its power from the seemingly pointless nature of its violence. There is no explanation offered for the act committed by the songs narrator, who leads his bride-to-be over mountains and valleys before stabbing her to death.

She followed him a little farther and what did she find

She followed him a little farther and what did she find

A new dug grave and a spade lyin’ by


Johnny Was A Good Boy (Mystery Trend) A garage rock throw away from the mid 1960s, this song manages to capture the sensational tabloid nature of modern day mass killings, as well as the bewilderment of those close to the perpetrator.

Animals all loved him
And he had a way with kids
It was quite a shock to them
When they found out what he did


Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen)

The title track of Springsteen’s bleakest album, with inspiration drawn from the real-life mass murderer Charles Starkweather, who took the lives of eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming during a two-month road trip with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, in the late 1950s. It sums up as well as anything I’ve heard the ultimate mystery at the heart of such acts.

They declared me unfit to live

Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world


Sing-A-Long (Grant lee Buffalo)

In a few brief verses, one of the great lost bands of the grunge rock era spotlights a society that bestows celebrity equally upon famed boxers, suicidal daredevils, and a murderer of  young boys.

Man built an empire out of ocean and earth
Man built the prisons of Joliet, San Quentin,  Leavenworth
And man built a market for Muhammad Ali
Evel Knievel and the legacy of John Wayne


While gun violence in America has decreased significantly over the last several decades, acts of mass murder have increased. Would putting tighter restrictions on the purchase of automatic weapons and ammunition lower the body count?  Probably. But I don’t believe it would even begin to touch the madness behind these acts.

For all our science, in spite of all our laws, the fact is this: Sometimes a man (it’s always a man) is going to walk into a theater, or a place of worship, or a classroom, or a crowd at a political gathering and murder as many individuals as he’s capable of.

That’s America.


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