com/s/ap/20080216/ap_on_re_us/niu_shooting;_ylt=AqPIbXLAi9CwK56h_F5juGys0NUE" > Associated Press
Northern Ill. University Massacre: A Story of Bleakness & Madness
By Mark Ames
| 1 more photos
Unlike Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui—a sullen misfit who could barely look anyone in the eye, much less carry on a conversation—[Steven] Kazmierczak appeared to fit in just fine.
Why? Why did this rage massacre at Northern Illinois University happen?
Why did Steven Kazmierczak, "armed with three handguns and a brand-new pump-action shotgun he had carried onto campus in a guitar case," step from behind a screen on the stage of a lecture hall at NIU and open fire on a geology class, killing five, wounding many more?
The explanations are a repeat of the ones we hear after every other massacre, leading nowhere: gun crazy, evil perp (Nazi, anti-Semite), didn't take his meds, broke up with girlfriend … none of them are satisfying, none of them lead us anywhere except away from genuine examination.
In my book Going Postal I proposed looking at these uniquely American and uniquely post-Reagan massacres without cheap moral blinders. Look at the setting of the crime, look at the people who live in that setting, and look at the genealogy of the crime.
These rage massacres began in the mid-1980s in post offices, one after another, all seemingly "senseless." Mass killings like the 1986 Edmond, Oklahoma postal massacre which left 15 dead, were quickly transformed into water cooler joke material: The phrase "going postal" replaced "having a cow," and the clash between the Happy Days-era mailmen and the dawning age of rampaging maniacs was too absurd, and seemingly safely confined, to be spared this pop culture transformation into cheap black comedy. What was overlooked until subsequent Congressional investigations was why postal workers were killing themselves: as a result of President Nixon's "market reforms" of the US Postal Service, the union lost the power to strike, and stress and harassment reached unbearable levels. The massacres, it turned out, were essentially logical outcome of the sort of Reaganomics squeeze that would subsequently ruin the broader American corporate world.
By the end of the 1980s, the water cooler crowd started getting shot as well: workplace massacres spread like a nasty virus from the postal service to the wider private sector, and they haven't stopped. The "going postal" jokes were told with increasing nervousness. Workplaces transformed into little Atticas, with surveillance cameras, badges, armed rent-a-cops, along with snitches and mutual suspicion. Reaganomics took Nixon's experiment with the postal service and applied it to the entire country: unions were crushed, and the onetime 9-5 American workplace was transformed into a 60-hour week pressure cooker, with slashed benefits and stagnating salaries as the reward. The last 30 years have seen the most grotesque wealth transfer in a century, as all those slashed health insurance and pension benefits and stagnating wages for those lucky enough not to be downsized meant an enormous chunk of the American wealth pie was "freed up" and transferred over to the offshore bank accounts of America's re-emerging plutocracy. In 1978, CEOs made an average of 30 times their workers' salaries; as of a few years ago, CEOs made well over 500 times their workers' salaries.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine how workers wouldn't becoming increasingly "disgruntled," and how some of those "disgruntled" workers, reaching a breaking point in the new climate, wouldn't snap with the sort of regularity we've been seeing for two decades now.
The "going postal" jokes disappeared from the water cooler in the mid-1990s, when workplace massacres spread to schoolyards, and middle-class kids started massacring their fellow students. How could there be so much vicious rage in what are supposed to be the most idyllic years of an American kids' life? Privately, in the safe anonymous world of the Internet, the Columbine killers have since become heroes to untold numbers of America's kids, just as they'd set out to do. Like so many terrorists and insurgents, Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned and executed a suicide mission that they hoped would, in their own words, "kickstart a revolution." And like many successful terrorist or insurgency movements, they succeeded by spawning an ever-growing supply of schoolyard killers.
Over the past few years, the killings leapt from the K-12 schools to universities. Not the top universities, which seems significant to me, but rather to obviously-second-rate universities, as well as the third-rate "vocational" schools. This is relevant, because in a culture so obsessed with being number one, and where the socioeconomic gap between the Number Ones and Everyone Else is growing so wide that it's starting to take on medieval dimensions, it's the ones stuck in the vast middle who face real existential terror.
Before there was a photo or a name, February 14th's murder suspect was described as a "skinny white guy" wearing all black and a stocking on his head, firing calmly in the students' heads: In other words, he was a caricature of Columbine evil.
But now we have a name: Steven P. Kazmierczak, 27; and photos revealing a pimply, pinheaded grad student with a lazy eye and a vulnerable smile don't match what we'd expected, or been conditioned to expect. It's hard to match "evil" to this familiar portrait of a harmless twerp.
And, as so often happens, the initial reports suggesting racism, Nazism, and evil-personified have given way to the real Kazmierczak: a "fairly normal, unstressed person," as well as a bright honors student. His adviser in Champaign used words like "nice," "engaging," "motivated" and "responsible" to describe him. "I saw nothing that would suggest that there was anything troubling about his behavior or him," his advisor told USA Today.
How could his academic advisor not know there was anything troubling someone as deeply disturbed as Kazmierczak? There's a very simple and obvious answer, if you're honest with the real way people around you behave: Americans generally pretend not to notice signs of a person's troubling behavior because it could only mean two things: inconvenience, or a total bummer, two of America's cardinal sins … and this leads to b). the person who's suffering, in this case Kazmierczak, winds up doing his best to hide his inner agony for fear of scaring away all the golden-retriever-brained Number-Oners (or more precisely, the wannabe-number-oners, the collabos), which in turn makes it easier for them not to notice Kazmierczak's pain.
A Northern Illinois law student told the Washington Post, "The person who did it is a loser. He doesn't deserve a name or picture reference. You're not Kurt Cobain if you do that."
Let's assume he's at least partly right: Kazmierczak probably was a loser, by the standards of Midwestern American winners. For now there's too little information to sort out. But judging from previous massacres, it's likely that Kazmierczak reached a point where life no longer was worth living. His medications are now being held up as a cause, but they just as easily could have been the effects of living the life he lived. As of this writing, the media was scrambling for the name of that medication, but I think even more valuable clues will be found in the environment he lived in which eventually pushed him into taking anti-depressants.
While most of the media focuses on the healing Christian spirit of DeKalb, Ill., home of Northern Illinois University, I've done some searching of what students wrote in anonymous forums, particularly studentsreviews.com, about NIU and
DeKalb. Not what they're saying today, when the cameras are on and everyone's officially grieving and Wondering Why, but from last year to three years ago, when they were honest. What you find is a shocking amount of rage and regret -- the sort of regret you'd expect from a middle-aged Willy Loman looking back on a wasted life.
"NIU is a glorified community college," writes one former student. "Let's just say there aren't many Albert Einsteins on campus. If you got solid C's in high school and otherwise are destined for a career path that involves shoveling shit, then NIU is the right school for you. If you are a gang banger from the inner city who has just enough smarts to con a subsidized college education out of the system, then NIU is the right school for you. If your greatest career ambition is to one day be the assistant manager at GNC or Radio Shack, then NIU is the right school for you. If your dream mobile involves one day owning an eleven year old minivan with half the trim missing, then NIU is the right school for you. If you think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a "high end" beer, then NIU is the right school for you. If you like following a football program that hasn't been to a bowl game since 1983, then NIU is the right school for you. If you like following a basketball program that is lucky to draw 1,200 fans to a home game, then NIU is the right school for you. If you like going to a school that ranks as one of the butt ugliest campuses on planet earth, then NIU is the right school for you."
The physical ugliness and intellectual mediocrity are recurring complaints:
"NIU is the pits. It's a suitcase school with a horribly ugly campus that ought to re-label itself Northern Illinois Community College."
In my studies of various rage massacres, I've never read so muc
h painful regret mixed with rage. College is supposed to be the best years of all for an American: that brief blissful 4 to 5 year furlough between the hellish high school and the soul-jackhammering Office World. The college years should mean a flowering of everything good: freedom from parents, expanding knowledge, new experiences, fun, friendship, and perhaps most important of all: a newly vibrant sex life of the sort that Hollywood had promised, all set in a lush manicured campus full of granite buildings with Doric columns, and some kind of state-of-the-art sports arena.
Instead: "The academic rigor required to do well at NIU is a joke… Best advice to any high school students considering NIU? Do everything in your power to get yourself into a better school like U of I, Illinois State or some other well regarded public or provide school …. And don't even get me started on the NIU campus. If there is an uglier or more disorganized one on this planet, I haven't seen it in all my travels. There are rundown CHA buildings in the most blighted parts of Chicago that are in better shape then the NIU dorm complex. Outside of Barsema Hall and a few others, the rest of the other buildings are dreadful and embarassing. The first thing 95% of NIU students do upon receiving their diploma is to run like hell from DeKalb and never turn back."
DeKalb is a small farming town full of cornfields; its population is 40,000, while NIU has roughly 25,000 students. Both town and school are overwhelmingly white. One student described the town this way: "[A]llergies are bad because of the cornfields, and it smells in the summer because of the PIG FARM!! Also, people in the area are generally not very nice."
Speaking of not very nice people, DeKalb's most famous son is Joseph F. Glidden, was the inventor of barbed wire, the symbols of trench warfare and concentration camps. The university's most famous living graduates are Dan Castellaneta, the voice actor for Homer Simpson, and Republican Dennis Hastert, the sleazy ex-speaker who with the head of a Komodo Dragon. Indeed a Komodo Dragon's mouth is swarming with so many toxic bacteria that one nip on your pinkie toe and you have to have half your foot amputated to keep your leg from turning black, as Sharon Stone's billionaire husband once learned… Rep. Hastert's mouth is just about as foul, was witnessed by his famous declaration after Hurricane Katrina that certain New Orleans "neighborhoods" [read: black and poor] should be "bulldozed" rather than rebuilt.
So there you have it: DeKalb's most celebrated citizens are a pair of fascists and the voiceman for the epitomal American loser.
As one woman from NIU's class of 2006 confesses, it's really the people who make life there a living Hell [I'm including her grammar errors]:
"[D]on't make the same mistake I did, NIU is a terrible school a complete waste of my time and money. I came into NIU as a transfer student despite the fact that i had several friends that told me how horrible it was. WEll they were right!! First of all the students here are completely self centered and ignorant. Not a friendly campus AT All. everyone stays in there own cliques and groups even out at the bars, don't expect anyone to be friendly to you. Apartment and house parties are closed here usually just groups of friends. The faculty here are extremely unhelpful and unwilling to help you. The financial aid and other administrative offices treat you like shit, not to mention their "offices" look like prison cells. Coming from a school which had everything remodeled it was very hard coming here. This school looks ilek it hasn't been remodeled since 1800. ALl the buildings (except Barsema) are disgusting SICK i wouldn't be surprised if huge rats were crawling around. The on campus dorms and dining facilities I will not even get into that if you unfortunately decide to invest your time into an education here you will find out BEWARE!! THe library is terrible, I had a better library at my grade school. The gym: I have a better gym in the basement of my house. It looks liek a bunch of treadmills thrown into a basement. This is a suitcase school. 70% of students leave for the weekends. WARNING: Massive amounts of drug consumption at this school. Extremely high drug scene, so if you aren't into that you will have ahard time finding people like you. Dekalb is an awful, ugly town with nothign to do. There is no mall nearby. There are no places to work in town. NIU has been the worst experience of my life. I would give anything to go back and have listened to the 10-15 people who advised me not to go here. So here is your chance right now for anyone reading this, before you make the same mistake and regret it. Don't choose NIU!!! Invest your time, money, and college experience somewhere else."
It's not just the transfer students who grieve about the people in DeKalb, as one psychology major explains:
"I think NIU is the shittiest decision a person can make as far as picking a university that will broaden their horizons. I was very motivated with my studies before I moved out there and the lack of job opportunities doesn't give you a way to apply your studies so I've lost a lot of inspiration. It may be reasonably priced financially, but I was absolutely miserable so it wasn't worth saving the money. If you're planning on depending on your bike to commute around town good luck. It seems that people in Dekalb are unfamiliar with the invention of the bicycle. When I've ridden on the sidewalks I get harassed. When I ride on the street on one trip I have numerous people yelling obscenities at me to get out of the street. Last year when I was living in the dorms while my bike was chained to the bike rack somebody stole my entire front wheel. I got it fixed this year and within two weeks of the repair while I was in class somebody seemingly attacked my bike (the front wheel's rim was bent and tire was flat.) I don't understand why anyone would do something so pointless, but it seems that's how a lot of people in Dekalb are. I managed to make a few close friends but the majority of the people in Dekalb are insensitive, uninspired (with reason considering their surroundings), and pretentious even though they have no reason to be cause a lot of them are very lucky to have even gotten into NIU. Even if you're motivated and don't have trouble finding a job where you're from, it's very hard to find a decent job in Dekalb. Almost everything is minimum wage. I was making $11 an hour before I transferred to NIU and then the best I could find was a job at a gas station making $6.50/hr. The only way for you to get experience in your field is through volunteer experience because there are very very few decent jobs in the surrounding area. This is going to sound ridiculous but the weather is seriously always worse in Dekalb than anywhere else. I'm from the south [Chicago] burbs and when I take the hour and half drive to Dekalb it's always storming harder, snowing more, more humid in the summer or the wind is much more extreme. Dekalb is always very windy though probably because of all the farm land and lack of trees breaking the wind. Whatever it's from, NIU is like a wind tunnel. The majority of my professors are also insensitive and don't understand unusual family situations. The campus is ok in some parts but hideous in most areas and it doesn't have a lot of natural beauty. The most scenic part of campus the main entrance by the lagoon is ruined by ugly looking satellites scattered about. I could go on forever. I attended for a year and a half an now i'm transferring. I had a bad feeling about the campus from the start when I visited and I guess I should have gone with it. I'm just trying to keep other people from making the same mistake."
If you're wondering why Kazmierczak transferred out of NIU to the University of Illinois-Champaign last spring, these bloggers presented a pretty solid case; if you're wondering, as many bloggers have, why he'd come back and shoot up NIU rather than his current university, these sentiments are at least worth considering. UI-Champagne, unlike NIU, does have a good reputation and a nice campus.
Before going off to college, Kazmierczak grew up a Chicago suburb called Elk Grove Village. Located on the edge of Chicago's hyper-busy O'Hare Airport, Elk Grove Village has a modest population of roughly 40,000 almost all-white middle-class citizens (mostly German and Polish stock), yet it hosts, as it proudly boasts, the largest consolidated business park in North America. Packed into its humble 5.4 square miles are 3,800 business, hosting over 100,000 workers servicing O'Hare Airport alone, and several Interstate highways taking endless container trucks into the maze of wall-to-wall giant flat-roofed warehouse structures, and mid-sized cars to the corporate offices and, yes, one-story suburban tract homes. The region used to be home to many elk, hence the name; today, on the outskirts of town, a small patch of wood contains a few token elk as a kind of selling point. The city's website includes a petition from the town elders begging O'Hare Airport not to carry out current plans to add and extend more runways because the noise from the jets flying overhead is already beyond intolerable.
Two years ago, Kazmierczak's parents moved from their Elk Grove Village tract home to Florida, where his mother finally died after years of suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease, which kills its victims slowly and painfully.
Scratching the surface of his life, a very familiar, flat sort of American Hell, makes his need for medications a bit more understandable, as is the case for the millions of Americans like him who take psychiatric medication. Indeed, someone who wouldn't turn to antidepressants if condemned to this kind of life would seem, in my opinion, to be rather dull and insensitive, or downright sick.
If we bracket Kazmierczak's massacre as the work of an evil lunatic on drugs, we'll miss yet another opportunity to genuinely examine what life is like for most Americans today, who live in that vast, terrifying chasm between the official propaganda about a nation of happy fun-loving Number Ones, and the reality of mediocrity, petty malice, and a flat physical setting that reflects the malice and mediocrity and miserliness of its town elders.
A version of this article appeared in Alternet.org.