Thursday, April 19, 2007

Language Lesson

I learned a new word the other day: matanza.

That’s Spanish for “massacre.” I saw it the other day at my local newsstand, on the front page of El Diario.

There it was, just above a photo of the slaughter in Virginia. Matanza. I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but I figured it out from the context.

Another Spanish paper made it a little easier. Their headline ran “Tragedia en Virginia." Pretty hard to misinterpret that. All along the news rack, foreign language papers carried the story about Cho Seung-Hui, who gunned down 32 innocent people before killing himself.

Russian, Chinese, Greek, a virtual U.N. of headlines, dedicated to what seems to be that most American phenomenon, the mass shooting.

Yes, I know this kind of thing happens in other countries, but with nowhere near the same horrifying frequency. And, yes, the guy wasn't born in America, but he spent 14 years of his life here, so the illegal alien hysteria doesn't apply.

If you lived here long enough, you know the drill. The story comes out in bits and pieces, with reports of a shooting at a certain location.

Then it turns into multiple shootings and we get the shaky news footage of people running or sobbing into each other’s arms, ambulances and police cars roaring up to the scene. It could be anywhere in the country, and it usually is.

Technology has added a new wrinkle and now thanks to the Internet we know nothing faster than ever before. Then there's the diagrams of the killer’s progress, mapping out the assault like an historical battle, rather than fresh carnage.

By now, you could probably show the same footage of these crime scenes over and over again and few people would know the difference.

To paraphrase that great American Ronald Reagan, himself a shooting victim, if you’ve seen one mass murder, you’ve seen them all.

Gradually, we get the whole story, usually a variation on the disgruntled loner who got his hands on a gun.

We learn of the innocents who died, hear about acts of bravery. There will be candlelight vigils, speeches by politicians, as people vow they will never forget these terrible events and never let them happen again.

And then it will happen again.

Been There, Done That

We also get the rundown of previous massacres, reported as if they were sports statistics. We set a record in Virginia, the largest mass killing in American history. This guy beat out the Columbine murderers and Charles Whitman, the Texas sniper from 40 years ago. Aren't you proud?

I started to read a web story about the Virginia Tech victims, with each face appearing briefly on the screen with a short bio and then fading on the next one.

I learned about their backgrounds, their talents, their hopes and dreams that were cut short, but it reminded me of the 911 victims and I had to click off. The victims are all stand-ins for us and our loved ones.

I'm trying to recall where I was when some of these shootings occurred, though they do blend together after a while. I have only the vaguest memories of the Texas tower shootings. I was only nine years old.

My dad talked about that shooting for a while, probably because that kind of thing was unheard of back then. He told a story about a fat man at the scene who ran out into the line of fire repeatedly to pull victims back to safety.

There was actually a fairly decent TV movie made about the Texas case back it 1975. It told the story of this nightmare without exploiting it.

There was a case in 1984 where a guy killed 21 people at a McDonald’s in California. The last thing he said to his wife as he left the house that morning was “I’m going to hunt humans.”

There was an attempt to make a TV movie out of that case, but the victims’ families raised such hell that the network back off. I suspect that their timing was off.

The Texas movie came out nearly 10 years after the actual incident, while the studios were rushing to the McDonald’s story just days after it happened, so it would have been like making a photocopy of the massacre just months after it happened.

In the end, there was no movie and McDonald’s demolished the restaurant.

I was working at a job I really hated at the time—I know that news, but this was really bad---and I had a lot of trouble with anger back then, much more than I have today. (No wisecracks, please.) I loathed my supervisors but I hadn’t developed the emotional cloaking skills needed to survive in the business world.

One afternoon, shortly after the McDonald’s incident, I was talking to someone on the phone and I was furious about something that had happened in the office.

So I loudly declared into the phone that I was sorry the police had shot the California killer as I would have happily paid his airfare to New York and set him loose in my office.

It was an amazingly stupid thing to say and I quite ashamed of myself. It's disrepectful to the victims, frightening to my co-workers, even if I didn't like them, it was just wrong. And it was bad for me.

What Me—Hostile?

It’s the kind of thing that would have people wondering if you’re not a disgruntled loner. I got fired from that job a few months later, but aside from calling my supervisior an asshole, I left without incident.

I was working in Pennsylvania when a guy drove into a cafeteria in Texas and killed 23 people. I recall there was some local angle on that story—perhaps a victim of the shooting was from our coverage area, I can’t remember.

By the time Columbine rolled around, I was working at CNN, so I was surrounded by TV's and computers blurting out the story almost as it happened.

As with other massacres, the Virginia case will spark a lot of talk about gun control, which will be swiftly by the usual lack of action.

While newspapers around the world ask what the hell is going on in American, why are innocent men, women and children being slaughtered, people here will be going on about their constitutional right to carry guns, even though the amendment was written at a time when people carried flintlocks, not semi-automatic handguns that can blanket the air with bullets.

Some pundits are actually suggesting that if Virginia Tech hadn’t outlawed firearms on campus, the students might have been able to fight back against their attacker.

Let me see now: we have a college campus, where young people drink, deal with the pressures of their studies, their families, and their relationships. And sometimes they get really angry.

So, of course, letting them carry guns to school is the perfect solution--if you want to have a massacre every weekend, that is. But then, of course, it’s our God given right to blow each other’s brains out.

Yes, that’s America, where we regulate abortions, but not assault weapons. Focus on the fetus, but not the stacks of corpses piled up around us.

The gun crowd has nothing to worry about. In case you're confused, just remember this little ditty: the NRA will have always its way in the USA.

As long as they're stuffing money into politicians’ pockets, we’ll be zipping innocent people into body bags. And Matanza will keep appearing on the front pages.

I'm taking a day-long yoga meditation class on anger this Saturday. I think I've made progress on keeping my temper, but I thought I might benefit from this seminar. I don't want to be making any more angry phone calls from the office.

But I'm also going to brush up on my language skills. How do you say “God help us all” in Spanish?


Calamity Jen said...

Thank you for a thoughtful post full of wisdom.

Dios ayuda a todos nosotros (or something to that effect).

Donna said...

The literal translation of "Matanza" is "Slaughter" Fitting to be sure. Great post by the way. Spanish words sometimes really fit the bill when it comes to adjectives.

"God help us all" is translated as "Dios nos ayudea todos" and of course, will vary depending on region & dialect. In fact, that would have been the better headline.

It's been an interesting week listening to people discuss the events in Virgina. It is a horrible, terrible tragedy. I hope the news programs stop running the video that the murderer sent. How much do we need to really see? Have we grown that twistedly curious as a society?

On a lighter note....

A Matanza is also, for lack of a better description, a Mexican BBQ. A large hole is dug, loads of coal poured in and lit. When the coals are just right, a gutted pig is placed over the coals and then the whole shebang is buried. While the pig is cooking, oh 8 hours or so, there is lots of nonsense and nincompoopery mostly involving alcohol. I used to work for a large construction company out here in the desert that had a matanza every July 4th. The food was amazing! The debauchery? Not so much.

Rob K said...


Thanks for the compliment and the translation.

Donna, thanks, too, for your help and thoughts on this. I just read an interesting AP article about mass killings that I think is worth your time

I wonder if its curiousity or some morbid fascination with violence. This article tooks about being less connected in society and the growing class disparity, where losers are "voted off the island and humiliated on American Idol."

And thanks for the lighter note on the pig roast. I guess from the pig's point of view, "matanza" still means slaughter.