Watching the coverage of the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, it is hard to escape the bleak sense of familiarity such events are achieving in the western world. They seem to follow an all-too predictable course: a solitary gunman (it is always a man) walks into a school, college, shopping mall or other public place and draws an automatic weapon and kills a number of people. The victims are selected either at random or without especial concern as to who is caught in the cross-fire: the principal intention seems to be to take life on a scale that is noteworthy. Then, having assured himself that he has caused maximum destruction and impact, he proceeds to add himself to the roll-call of victims. This nihilistic scenario plays itself out with cruel predictability once set in motion - and it always ends with the capture of the gunman, or more likely, his death at his own hands or those of the police.
It's a depressing spectacle: the places and names and victims change; these seem to be the variables which can be shuffled as part of some kind of terrible lottery. Then in the aftermath comes the predictable debate: how did the gunman acquire a gun - was it legal? Are the gun laws sufficiently rigorous, or guns too readily available? Were there any signs that the tragedy was about to unfold? Could he have been stopped? And, of course - that old chestnut - how can we prevent this happening in the future? These are all proper and natural questions to ask, but they are becoming as much a past of the whole predictable cycle as the events themselves. There probably isn't an answer and such events will increase in frequency whatever measures are taken to try to prevent them: they are a cultural phenomenon which is rooted in society, it pressures and the eternal tension between the individual and society.
It is remindful of the counter-cultural "running amok' tradition in South East Asian countries - particularly Malaysia. "Amok' means to go mad and indulge in a killing spree. In Malaysian culture the process is well-understood. Typically it involves an otherwise non-violent male acquiring a weapon, following a real or perceived belief that society has inflicted a wrong of some description on him, coupled with a collapse in self-esteem and then engaging in a sudden frenzy of killing. The act of running amok effects a remedy in bringing about the destruction of self, but in doing so wreaks havoc on society which has caused the wrong and thus re-establishes self-esteem.
Amok has achieved a place in Malaysian society, not of acceptance but of recognition: it is a phenomenon of the society in which they live. The parallels with the events which have become so familiar in Western society are striking: the same bewilderment is slowly being tempered by an understanding of the process, a recognition of the triggers and a level of acquiescence to these incidents. Underpinning these events is the understanding that they represent a kind of conclusion to a goal-less life and depressed mental state, that they are the terminal point in a disturbed and dislocated person's mental and physical existence. They become the means for them of leaving a bloody footprint upon the world even as they exit from it.
In our media driven world, for some, amok has become the final dialogue between their helpless situation and the society to which they belong, in one final act of utter defiance.
Author The Night Traveller