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Reflections on "Going Postal" in Light of, but not Making Light of the Santa Barbara Isla Vista Shooting Tragedy
Murder Fashion Trends?
Crimes, like clothes, seem to go in and out of style. Even psychotic mass-murderers seem to follow trends, almost as if the mass media is setting the agenda for whatever sort of killing sprees are going to be in vogue today. A while back we had the day trader shootings, which seemed to be followed by a wave of killings on middle school and high school campuses, most notably that of Columbine. But then these kids graduated and moved on to college and the murders followed suit, to the point where now the American public is being bombarded on a regular basis by news of killings on University campuses.
Long before college killings came into style, however, it was postal workers that were going over the top and committing horrible atrocities against their supervisors and coworkers. The term "going postal" actually entered the American English vernacular as a result of these crime binges and is still used on occasion, mostly as a joke, but with a nervous edge to it. I'll walk into a Starbucks and some wag will see my uniform and say "Oh a postal worker, I hope you're not carrying any weapons!"
The joke is tired, people. It's been an awful long time since post offices were the scene of murderous rampages. And although nobody is waxing nostalgic for those "good old days" of post office murder and mayhem it is interesting, and highly disturbing, to analyze the age old "going postal" trend in the light of this recent killing spree in the Santa Barbara Isla Vista community. Bloody rampages like this appear to follow trends, and although going postal long ago went out of style, murder in general is still going strong in other venues. Furthermore I'm afraid that we, the members of the American public, have nobody else to blame but ourselves and our insatiable appetite for disturbing news.
The purpose of this hub, therefore, is to analyze the "going postal" trend that started it all and then to speculate upon how the mass media, prompted by our own taste in news, fuels and creates the environment that is necessary to spark a massacre such as the one that took place in Isla Vista.
In case you live in another solar system...
Scientists just discovered a companion brown dwarf star for our own sun named Nemesis, so in case you live in that star system and not our own and haven't heard the news about the Isla Vista rampage I will summarize it here for you.
On May 23rd, 2014 a college student at the University of California, Santa Barbara named Elliott Rodger went on a killing rampage in his black BMW. The assaults took place in the unincorporated community of Isla Vista in Santa Barbara County, California. Armed with over 400 rounds of ammunition Rodger killed seven people, including himself, and wounded 13. In a highly disturbing and pathetically narcissistic online manifesto Rodger claimed that his inability to procure sexual favors from female coeds at the University sparked his homicidal outburst.
It seems like the news about Isla Vista is already dated, however. I began writing this hub approximately a week ago and on June 5th, a few days after starting, still another college campus rampage took place at Seattle Pacific University. Murder does not rest - the dark, twisted "reality TV" that began about thirty years ago with a string of highly publicized postal shootings continues in all of its grim and gory detail.
My Personal Proximity to "Going Postal"
Even though postal shootings seem to have completely ceased in the last eight years or so, the murderous stigma is still attached to postal workers. In spite of the epidemic-like outbreak of college shootings these days nobody running into a college student tells him "Oh, you're not going to shoot me are you?" Yet postal employees still get this all the time and it is only partly in jest. To this day some people are still creeped out by letter carriers and keep their distance.
I was affected by the "going postal" frenzy even before I entered the postal service. Three years before I became a postal employee the term "going postal" became more than just a series of distant, disconnected news stories to me. In 1990 I was working at a bank distribution center with a retired letter carrier who had a close connection to the murders that occurred at the Escondido, Orange Glen post office in August of 1989. This ex letter carrier coworker of mine had actually been a personal friend of the murderer, John Merlin Taylor, who killed his wife before taking the lives of two postal employees and then killing himself. My retired letter carrier friend had been in the hospital recovering from a heart attack when the shooting rampage at the Orange Glen post office took place. When I asked him if he believed being at work that day would have made him a victim as well he could only shrug his shoulders and say "I don't know."
Unlike the angst ridden, vociferously malcontent Elliott Rodger, John Merlin Taylor has been described as "happy go lucky" and a "model mail carrier." My friend told me that Taylor was having problems with his supervisor at work, but this is the same mumbled mantra of every employee who walks through the post office doors on a daily basis. Quite surprisingly Taylor did not kill his supervisor, but actually shot to death two fellow letter carriers that were among his closest friends. This was obviously the source of my coworker's doubts about whether he would have survived the massacre, and his feeling that his timely heart attack might actually have been a blessing of sorts.
How it Started
Including these Escondido Orange Glen shootings, at least 40 people have been gunned down in over 20 different acts of postal spree killings committed between 1986 and 1997. The incidents became so common during this decade of postal rampages that the phrase 'going postal' entered the vernacular around 1993. The term was first seen in print when a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times wrote "...in some circles excessive stress is known as 'going postal.'"
The most famous of these events, the one that put 'going postal' on everyone's radar, was the horrible massacre that took place at the Edmond, Oklahoma post office on August 20, 1986. In this case postal worker Patrick Sherill shot 20 coworkers, of which 14 died. Sherill started by killing the supervisor who had verbally reprimanded him the day before. Then, having sealed the building's exits, he proceeded in methodical fashion to kill 13 more postal employees before ending his own life with a bullet to the head. Like Taylor in the Orange Glen incident, Sherill was also a letter carrier.
The Trend Gathers Steam
Although there had been postal shootings prior to the Edmond, Oklahoma massacre, the widespread publicity of the event seemed to set off a trend of postal killings that continued for the next 20 years.
In December of 1988 Warren Murphy killed his supervisor with a shotgun in a New Orleans, Louisiana postal facility. This was followed by the August 1989 Escondido, Orange Glen rampage described in some detail above. In 1991 a Ridgewood, New Jersey post office was the scene for the murders of four more postal employees. Joseph M. Harris, the perpetrator of the crimes, was found to have been armed with an Uzi, grenades, and a samurai sword when he was finally taken alive by police.
In the following month of November, 1991 Thomas McIlvane, a fired postal employee in Royal Oak, Michigan, killed four of his former coworkers. In June of 1992 a postal employee in Citrus Heights, California named Roy Barnes committed suicide with a pistol in front of his fellow employees on the workroom floor. Then on May 6, 1993, Larry Jasion killed a fellow employee and wounded three others at a postal garage in Dearborn, Michigan. The very same day across the country in Dana Point, California, Mark Richard Hilbun killed his mother then killed two postal workers.
There is no real reason to belabor this list. The rest of the shootings are there on Wikpedia to peruse if it interests you to do so. Interestingly enough, the postal killings continued up until 2006 and then abruptly ceased. It seems that people lost interest or became exhausted hearing about this type of crime. Perhaps postal killings ceased to make a major splash in the headlines and the narcissistic, attention craving potential perpetrators of these crimes changed their minds and saved their bullets, seeing that the public really wasn't paying attention anymore. Murder had moved on.
One final postal murder merits attention, however, and this is the 2006 massacre in the Goleta, California post office, in which former postal employee Jennifer San Marco killed six postal employees. Curiously enough, the Isla Vista community where Elliott Rodger committed his atrocities is serviced by the Goleta post office. Tragic lightning sometimes does strike twice.
Why has "going postal" ceased?
The United States Postal Service has expended a great deal of resources addressing workplace violence and supposedly enforcing the policy of "mutual respect," in which management and labor interact with each other in a benevolent, enlightened fashion. I suppose that there are those executives sitting at their desks at Postal HQ at L'enfant Plaza in Washington, DC who would like to pat themselves on the back and cite the lack of recent postal killing sprees as proof that these policies have been successful.
But the truth of the situation is that there still exists a fair amount of verbal and sometimes physical abuse directed against postal employees by management, and the more aggressive postal supervisors are often moved to another office until the bullying scandals they have created blow over, after which they are more often than not promoted. Last year here in a local San Diego County Post Office a letter carrier who was responding to a physical assault from his supervisor was fired, while the supervisor who initiated the violence was not disciplined. Hence we see that the Postal Service's "zero tolerance" policy toward workplace violence is more often than not a one way street. Bullying by supervisors is still not only tolerated, it is encouraged and rewarded. Bullies, in fact, are perceived to be prime upper management material.
Therefore, the toxic atmosphere that promotes "going postal" still exists. And while it is certainly welcome to those of us that go to work within the deadly confines of postal walls every day that the killings have ceased, I believe this has more to do with current media trends then any kind of enlightened management policies promoted by the postal service. Let's face it - "Going Postal" is passé, and might not garner the media attention that the narcissistic, self-absorbed, violent creatures that commit these types of crimes are craving.
Grim Reality TV
So what's next on the program after the audience gets tired of hearing about college shootings? When the current form of murderous mayhem gets boring then what new thing will the public be offered to satisfy our morbid curiosity? When the Roman Public got tired of seeing Christians eaten by lions and gladiators clashing in to-the-death combat what new tricks did the Emperor have up his sleeve to keep the people entertained? And how will our media keep us entertained? DMV massacres? Bank teller rampages? Disgruntled fast food employees? What's the next sexy trend in killing sprees?
It's almost like some sort of grim reality TV series that is deliberately orchestrated to keep the ratings and readership for the broadcast, print, and online news sources booming, but the reality of this reality TV is that the fault lies with all of us. Yes it would be easy to blame the media for everything, but if we ain't buying they ain't selling and let's face it - every time one of these rampages takes place we turn up the volume on our radios and TVs and we're all over Twitter to see what's going on. There's no use denying that there is something in the human psyche that is insatiably attracted to graphic, sensationalistic violence, and although we love to self-righteously pat ourselves on the back and say "What a monster - I could never do that," in a way we are all partly responsible for these deplorable acts. The fact that I have written this article makes me responsible too.
So what's the answer folks? Quite honestly I don't have one. We can't change human nature and so we can't change our voyeuristic tendency to intrude upon everybody else's problems and tragedies. I suppose we can vow to boycott murder and not tune in to any media outlets when one of these outrages occur, but if we don't watch the news then how are we going to know if a tornado, hurricane, or brush fire is bearing down upon us, or who is the new President of the Ukraine or whether or not our boys are going to be brought home from Afghanistan tomorrow? There are simply too many useful, informative things we get from the news media to boycott it altogether.
In the meantime the murderous trends continue. We long ago graduated from "going postal," and I'm pretty sure we'll get tired pretty soon of reading about college campus rampages, but it's only a matter of time before a new form of murder comes along that nobody thought about before, and you can bet we'll all be there watching.