The shooting of homebound passengers on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train—six dead, 19 injured—is the sort of impromptu act of lunacy Americans now consider a salient feature of their cultural domain. Just as we produce giants of music and sport, just as we periodically give the world a great writer like Toni Morrison or superlative actor like Jack Nicholson or thrilling dancer like Alvin Ailey, just as we build a splendid edifice like the Guggenheim Museum and send astronauts spacewalking through the heavenly void—just as we assert the highest principles of civility and human endeavor, we also nourish and ignite those crazy enough to board a rush-hour train and turn a semiautomatic pistol on strangers.
There is an almost unbearable dissonance in this baffling combination of truths. How badly we want to believe that if we bestow on the universe a Leontyne Price or Joe DiMaggio that a certain consideration has been bought—that we have done our part and should be spared unusual grief. And when things go wrong as they did on that 5:33 p.m. train, we are apt to loudly cry “foul”—to say and think the worst. A local Long Island political leader took his first opportunity to call the gunman an “animal” for whom no punishment was too severe. A few days later, a radio talk-show host said he was outraged that the fellow had been served dessert with his jailhouse meal. “He shouldn’t be eating anything!” the broadcaster said.
As with so much in America, the Long Island Rail Road case is complicated by race. The man in custody, Colin Ferguson, 35, is a black who said he hated whites, Asians, and black conservatives, and further said he staged his assault in the suburbs so as not to embarrass New York City’s black mayor, David Dinkins. With racial matters an issue, the “animal” remark emerged as even more
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
It is counter to the American spirit of optimism and national self-reliance that we cannot tame destiny like a Ringling Brothers lion
incendiary and properly summoned a speedy request from Jesse Jackson for all parties to get a grip on their emotions. “It’s a time for redemption, not revenge,” Jackson said.
But law-abiding citizens are angry, no doubt, and mighty frustrated. The suburbs are supposed to be a relatively safe preserve, a rose-and-thistle refuge from the howl and hustle of subway and street. Perhaps even more exasperating than the shattering of suburban tranquility, though, is banishment of that touching 20th-century notion that reason will prevail. It is as though we had convinced ourselves that because we are able to call up our Christmas list on a home computer and send sandwich orders to the deli by fax, that we necessarily should have conquered the essential mysteries of existence.
Most of us are not equipped to deal easily with the notion of random violence—with events that cannot be predicted nor deterred, nor, ultimately, explained. It is counter to the American spirit of optimism and national sense of self-reliance that we cannot tame destiny like a Ringling Brothers lion. In the United States, even an errant weather report is apt to prompt a furious chorus of complaints and letters to the edi-
tor. Make no mistake, what we are saying at such moments is that the sun and clouds (and staff meteorologists) are intended to be at our command, and that anything less will be viewed as a personal affront.
So when a man stands in the aisle of a Tuesday night train and begins to plug his fellow passengers, we want an explanation and we want it pronto. “Why do these things have to happen?” asked a Long Islander calling his home-town newspaper after the shooting. “I just don’t understand.” Especially distressing is that even those thoughtful folks who take a broad view of history and current events may never arrive at a satisfactory answer. Just who do we blame? Why do these things have to happen?
While the peculiarities of American society almost certainly come to play when an individual citizen goes on a rampage, the garish excesses of the human mind cannot be underestimated. A renegade imagination, a paranoid personality, a grandiose notion of one’s power and importance—these are the factors that too often are found in lethal combination. “Sociopaths are by definition not much concerned with consequences,” wrote author Luc Santé in The New York Times. “For them, a semiautomatic weapon is a magic wand: there is barely a breath between the desire and the cataclysmic event.”
Deluded and dangerous individuals often are masked by their own benign presence. Colin Ferguson looks like your friendly insurance salesman or the guy on the next bar stool. The drooling madman is simply a conceit of Grade B movies. You do not spot these people the way you might a rare finch on a nature hike. And that is what makes the whole business so terrifying. The disorderly mind is something even America cannot control. Predictable calls for stiffer criminal punishment that attend highly publicized slayings amount only to the sound of politicians scrambling for easy votes. In New York, where there is no death penalty, demands that the state dust off the electric chair advance the bogus notion that we can outlaw tragedy. Sure: throw the switch on this maniac and the next guy will back off. Funny someone didn’t think of that before.
If we accept that irrational and imbalanced citizens are part of the American mix, and, that in some circumstances, America, itself, might make them just a little bit crazier, shouldn’t we deny these desperate souls the opportunity to do maximum damage? Police say Ferguson used a 9-mm weapon manufactured in Arizona, purchased in California and stashed in New York City. Why is he, or anyone else, drifting around the country packing a piece? Don’t give us any more of that tired National Rifle Association jive that if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. Stop making assault weapons, stop selling them, stop people from carrying them. We can’t do anything to prevent the next madman from wanting to blow away the world, but we sure can try harder to keep him from waving that murderous magic wand.
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