The phrase “going postal” has become part of American culture since those awful days in the early to mid-80s when there were news accounts of mass murders at American post offices — murders usually committed by employees or former employees. Wikipedia even has an entry on the expression “going postal” — which explains:
“The expression derives from a series of incidents from 1983 onward in which United States Postal Service (USPS) workers shot and killed managers, fellow workers, and members of the police or general public in acts of mass murder. Between 1986 and 1997, more than forty people were gunned down by spree killers in at least twenty incidents of workplace rage.”
Now the phrase has gone beyond referring to postal workers. Kids who murder their teachers and fellow students? Going postal. On a recent radio talk show aired on XM a caller referred to Josh Powell’s unspeakable evil act of blowing up his house, killing himself and his two young sons (who he chopped with hatchets after saying “I have a surprise for you” as they entered the door and a social worker was locked out) as “going postal.”
But it does refer to the 80s when murder seemed to undergo a shift: yes, there been assassinations, murders, mass murderers and serial killers from time to time, and state sanctioned mass murder in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union — but this seemed to be the beginning of the lash-out workplace mass murders. Each murder got tons of publicity and — to use the accurate cliche — gave other rage-filled or unstable potential killers ideas on how they, too, could get back at their perceived enemies and the world by creating a big body count.
“Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal” is a masterful documentary examining not just the string of postal mass murders starting with one of the first in Edmond, Oklahoma on August 20, 1986 when 14 employees were shot and killed at the post office by postman Patrick Sherrill, who took his own life with a shot to the forehead. It also puts it in a larger context.
Context: most of the people involved had no criminal records. Context: some of those who became killers had faced what some co-workers later insisted was bullying, targeting, harassment and abuses by management. “Murder By Proxy” at no time condones the killers, but it seeks to find the “why” underneath the “how shocking.”
Though superb use of archival and some rarely seen footage, top rate editing, and expert interviews, “Murder by Proxy” traces how these killings that seemed to inspire later mass killings in other areas of American life seemingly reflected a major shift in the relationship between individuals and society as well a between workers, management and government. These changes are political and economic: the film traces some of the shift to the Ronald Reagan era, with Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers, which many experts believe ushered in a decline in labor union power and accentuated management workplace power.
But “Murder By Proxy” is not a partisan political film.
It answers some of the questions of what led up to someone walking into a post office and tossing aside all standards of humanity and empathy would wipe out not just people the killer had clashed with but virtually anyone nearby who breathed. It’s like the workplace became one big, shooting gallery video game rage-filled employees used to vent.
“”Murder by Proxy” answers the question: what can bring a person who seems totally normal to the point of becoming a mass murderer? But, even more importantly, some interviews explore efforts to try and rectify at least part of the problem.
PERSONAL NOTE: I know the impact of this kind of tragedy a too well. On July 18, 1984, James Huberty, an unemployed security guard and survivalist, walked into a high traffic McDonald’s restaurant on San Ysidro Boulevard in the San Ysidro section of San Diego, California and opened fire. His shootings resulted in 22 deaths (including his own via police sniper). He snuffed out the lives of innocent men, women and children (including a boy outside riding his bike). Nineteen others were injured. I was interviewing the Consul General of Mexico in downtown San Diego in my job as staff reporter on the San Diego Union when I got the page (before cell phones) from the city desk.
Then San Diego Union City Editor Marsha McQuern (one of the very best journalists and editors I worked with in my career) called in everyone and their mothers to report and edit this major story (I did some reporting and was drafted to work on the desk). And here is what stays with me forever:
“Murder by Proxy” communicates the grief and tragedies such as this. These aren’t just numbers. These are lives. And when each life is obliterated, several linked lives are changed forever. It was wrenching enough covering “The San Ysidro Massacre.” But it was not much better a year later when the paper assigned yours truly and other reporters to go back and talk to victim’s relatives and see how they were doing. The answer? Not well at all. Part of their lives were brutally murdered as well the same day Huberty butchered the men, women and children in the McDonald’s (which McDonald’s Corporation quickly tore down, donated the land and rebuilt up the street — fearing a copy cat massacre one day).
In the case of Huberty, books have been written to try and find out the why (unemployed, couldn’t get an appointment at a mental health center) he did what he did.
“Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal” provides a good explanation of why some things that happened provided a trigger for tragic postal massacres that happened — and what legislators can do about it. But politics nixes needed solutions.
Writer-Director Emil Chiaberi’s “Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal” is required viewing as a vital history of the chain of massacres that inspired other massacres in non-postal areas of American life, a chronicle of the conditions that fostered some of the workplace conditions that seemingly set off employees, and a film that explores ways to try and change some of conditions that could contribute to workplace massacres.
Here’s the film’s trailer:
“Murder By Proxy: How America Went Postal” will be opening in select cities around the United States — but you can also buy a DVD copy of it by going to this website. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.