Saturday, March 18, 2006

Better Make That To Go

Today, as you proud Americans surely know, is the third anniversary of our invasion and subsequent pummeling of Iraq. Many will blow out the flesh candles on the blood-frosted cake in their own way, but I'm gonna mark this date by highlighting a domestic tradition that taps somewhat into our desire to kill, rob & torture people overseas -- shootings at fast food restaurants.

Recently, in southern California, there've been three shootings at three different Denny's in three days. The most serious attack occurred in Pismo Beach, where Lawrence Woods, sporting a "glazed expression", walked calmly into the restaurant, a firearm in each hand, and began shooting, killing two and wounding two before he killed himself. Predictably, the chief concern is not why this guy felt the need to murder strangers as they ate, but how to salvage Denny's "family friendly" corporate image (though an unnamed stock analyst told CBS News that the series of shootings probably will not hurt the chain financially -- phew!). Then again, this is usually the case. Perhaps because we Americans are so conditioned to random outbreaks of public carnage, every fresh ballistic freakout merely reinforces the sad cynicism within us. So why would we care what pushed this or that person into pulling the trigger? So long as it doesn't raise the price of Happy Meals or alter daily dollar menus, we can live with the violence and the off-chance that we may end up face down on an unmopped KFC floor.

When you look back over the past 20 years or so, it's amazing how much violence has taken place at public eateries. Most times it's a robbery gone wrong, but every once in a while we get the glass-eyed gunman who's not interested in money. Think back to July 18, 1984, when James Huberty entered a San Ysidro McDonald's and fired 245 rounds from a 12 gauge shotgun, a Browning 9mm, and an Uzi carbine, killing 21, wounding 19 before a police sniper picked him off. Or to October 16, 1991, when George Hennard drove his truck through the dining area window of Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, got out, fired a Glock 17 and a Ruger P89, killing 23, wounding 20, then killed himself after being wounded by police. Clearly, if you want to make a murderous statement, fast food joints are handy places to do so, given the bottomless American hunger for junk meals. You're bound to find ample targets at pretty much any time of day.

I knew that after Huberty's rampage, the McDonald's he shot up was demolished, seeing how subsequent customers might find eating there a tad uncomfortable. But what I didn't know was that after they cleared the bodies from Luby's, the restaurant remained open for another nine years, finally closing in 2000 for financial, not tasteful or moral, reasons. In other words, people kept eating in what was, for a long afternoon, a human slaughterhouse. If there was a lingering death vibe, faint echoes of shots and screams of the wounded and soon-to-be-dead hovering in the atmosphere, it obviously didn't bother those who later shoved cheeseburgers and onion rings into their faces. Hey bubba -- shit happens. Pass the ketchup.

As much as I would like to believe that this was strictly a Texas mania, I fear it is very much a part of the American whole. A culture that sells mass murder, rape and torture as games for kids to play, where taunting and trash-talking are encouraged and celebrated, where imperial war is sold as the highest moral good, isn't gonna get too shaken up by ordering a pizza in a place where a few weeks before dozens took their final breath. In a morbid way, it's rather fitting, and something to consider as we enter our fourth year attempting to make Iraqis more like us.