a man with a gun walks into a bank

February 14th, 2010

A few days ago, I learned, through Facebook updates from friends and family, that a man with a gun was holding hostages at a bank in my hometown, Kearney, Nebraska. By the end of the day, the hostages had been released and the gunman taken into police custody, and I was spared the anxious phone call to find out if anyone who died was someone I knew. No one died in that bank. The gunman had been recently unemployed, and his demand, while taking hostages, was for coverage by a news crew from the local TV station where he had worked.

“Can you imagine this would happen in a place like Kearney?” people asked, and I have to say that yes, I can imagine. No place is safe from the desperation that people can be driven to.

But the anomaly I see in this situation, the missing piece of the puzzle. Unlike the apocryphally quoted bank robber, the Kearney gunman didn’t really care where the money was. He wasn’t attempting to acquire any of the bank’s assets. He wanted attention, wanted to make a scene, and that scene could have been made at a bank or a Kwicky Mart or a bowling alley. Why a bank?

Maybe the reason I’m wrestling with this question is the fear that I know why. In recent months, Netflix has sent me the movies Quick Change and Inside Man, and those certainly aren’t the only time I’ve been at the edge of my seat, watching a movie where hostages are huddled around a bank lobby, waiting while criminals negotiate with the police surrounding the place.

Maybe I bear a tiny fraction of the blame, then. Because movie-viewers like me will pay attention to hostage situations, they make more of them, and people in real life get the idea. Hollywood has given us such a compelling image, a fine metaphor for the wits-end situation that the gunman found himself in. It’s logical that he’d follow through.

There’s increasing belief in the theory that mental illness is to some extent a product of social connection. This article looks specifically at the syndromes we see in America, and the way that Americanized treatment may influence the kinds or expressions of mental illness we see elsewhere in the world. And the question for me is whether the level of mental imbalance is a constant and the expression is a variable, or whether the society creates this. That is, if the gunman hadn’t had the mental “virus” of thinking that a common way to express deep resentment and rage is to hold a bank hostage, would he have refrained from any harm? Or would he have simply found another way, another symbol, another outburst? This is something I really can’t know, and that’s puzzling. I can’t know definitively that hostage-movies are to blame for this, and I can’t know definitively that they aren’t. I can’t know whether the alternate reality would have had no significant news from Kearney that day, or if without the trope of hostage situation, the trope that might end peacefully, I would be hearing much darker news. Time won’t tell. That’s the troubling thing.

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