The phrase ‘going postal’ has become such an entrenched part of our cultural identity that it faces the possibility of losing any real meaning. Case in point: my son mentioned that his best friend’s girlfriend had broken up with him, and he ‘totally went postal’ in the locker room – which to him just meant that he flipped out.
But for those of us who have been around longer, the phrase has a more specific meaning tied to workplace violence in which someone unleashes a murderous rampage. It started in the mid-1980s in a string of Post Office shootings, but since then it has spread to other workplaces as well as schools and other institutions. In general, media coverage ascribes blame to some ‘psycho’ who simply ‘flipped out’ … but most of us know that things are seldom so simple.
Ever since I was first in contact with the publisher about getting a copy of the DVD to screen, I have been even more aware of events which would fall under the ‘going postal’ umbrella: bullying that leads to reactionary murder, way too much bullying leading to suicide, systemic discrimination leading to a hostile culture that ostracizes teens for simply looking different, and most recently .
Let’s take a look at the documentary called “Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal”.
News reports recently show how many people, like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, are growing increasing vocal and even violent at times when trying to even the playing socio-economic playing field nationally. At a time when many workers have become disillusioned by the sentiments of their bosses and employers comes a sobering documentary that delves into the frustrated mindset of the American workforce in past years. “Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal” is the first documentary to look at the spree-killing phenomenon of years past through the lens of a socio-economic shift that began during the Reagan era.
A Personal BackGround Story: Sit Back, This is a Long Ride
I can still remember that day back in 2004. I had been employed for 12 years at the same company, one that I loved and devoted countless hours and had in return been allowed to truly grow and shine as a scientist. The year before I joined the company was bought completely by the company that had taken an increasing financial interest since first investing more than a decade earlier.
For the first several years I worked there, we were handled as an autonomous business. But during the recession of the late 90’s the parent company was looking to trim costs and overhead due to other acquisitions and decided it was time to reorganize the entire company into more aligned units. For a few years more each of those units remained fairly independent, with only ‘shared services’ becoming centralized to the parent company.
Then almost like a guillatine dropping everything changed in 2004. In the first week of the year it was announced that in four weeks all email addresses would be combined under the parent name, and all naming conventions for products would be realigned and within six months the old company name would totally disappear. With a fairly common name, my experience with the email transition was a nightmare, as I was one of FOUR ‘M Anderson’s in the combined company … and clear preference was given to members of the ‘core’ business’. Internal mail had a special designation that routed by location, but external mail was a disaster.
I know I lost important communications as a result, and local IT was given strict direction not to get involved but to leave it to central IT. As you might imagine, this created a great deal of tension and anxiety – but ultimately it was looked at as a beaurocratic IT disaster that we would simply work around. Everyone we directly interacted with – IT, local HR, and so on – was genuinely doing their best.
A month or so later we had a visit from the CEO of the parent company who berated us as an organization in spite of us delivering by 5x the highest profits of all business segments; he demonstrated a lack of understanding of the business we were in or the customers we served; and finished by stating how he could build an entire manufacturing plant in India for the price of one advanced piece of equipment we had on the budget for the year. He took no questions, spoke to no one, and simply walked back down the hall to his waiting limo and headed back to corporate headquarters. That company meeting send the morale of the organization into a tail-spin, and caused the president of our division to have a follow-up company-wde meeting to re-assure everyone that our goals, focus, and commitment remained intact.
But the company was in the midst of another recession that continued to linger way too long, and as a result rumors of layoffs started spreading. Layoffs had happened before, but in general the company was always so tight with money and resources that it was only a few people involved and handled quietly and respectfully.
This time was different – it was early May, and the rumor mill was buzzing about a huge amount of layoffs, perhaps 50 – 100 people of the 750 in our campus location. But no one was prepared for what happened: the parent company hired a virtual militia of armed security guards to arrive en masse and were given specific locations and names. They went to offices, conference rooms, manufacturing locations, the cafeteria, and so on … and they publicly pulled people from those locations while announcing they were being terminated in front of everyone else. They were then escorted to their desk to get their jacket, bag, and a few possessions they could prove were personal, and had to prove they didn’t have company property in their bags. Then they were escorted to their cars and watched until they were off the company property. It was an incredibly impersonal and humiliating experience, and it impacted everyone who was touched by it in any way.
Why do I talk about that day? Well, two of our biggest customers were IBM and DEC, both of whom had been decimated during the PC revolution and desktop transformation of the 1990s. Each also had huge layoffs and dealt with considerable damage by departing employees in terms of deleting files, shredding documents, and compromising a wafer fab’s pristine environment. No violence, but our company management decided to avoid that possibility at all costs. They probably hadn’t intended to treat employees of up to 25 years like criminals or handle the layoff like a drug bust.
The impact was huge and immediate – I was in a ~15 person meeting including someone who was laid off; she had started as a technician right out of high school, slowly taken classes and gotten her degree and been promoted to engineer, and was less than a year away from her 20th anniversary. She was one of the nicest and most loyal people we all knew … and two armed guards escorted her away in a surreal situation. The room was in shock, a couple of women were crying, and amongst a couple of men their was anger, including one manager who called it the ‘most humiliating and shameful thing he had ever seen’ and remarked that ‘if that had been him they would have had to pull their weapon to stop him from reaching the senior management area and beating the crap out of someone’.
No one said or otherwise indicated that they disagreed, or that he was over-reacting. What I heard again and again was that the company had taken a violent action against their people that was the culmination of a year of dehumanization. That day much of manufacturing was halted due to walk-offs; maintenance costs and waste mysteriously spiked for the remainder of the year; there were more fire/emergency evacuations due to alarm failures that year than the rest of my career combined; and on and on – people took actions to show their displeasure.
What is ‘Murder by Proxy’?:
Obviously, no one was killed in my story, so you never heard about it on the evening news. But you also likely saw a workplace that went from a happy and productive family run business to a low morale corporate cog where people were ‘resources’ never to be trusted. That place was never the same, and I was never the same employee. There was a massive ‘brain drain’ in the next few years, and that division never regained market leadership. Of those laid off that day, a few left the industry, others found jobs, and one ended up taking his own life in a way that struck me again watching the George Clooney film ‘Up In The Air’.
But no one ‘went postal’ that day, so it is just another sad little workplace story. I can shelve it next to dozens I have heard from colleagues and friends through the decades at parties, conferences and so on. Even when there WAS violence, it was property-based – someone watched another employee put a chair through a viewing window as an executive had customers on a tour of the facility simultaneous with a layoff!
We all care about the companies we work for, all put in considerable time and energy and effort trying to help ourselves and our company succeed. But the relationship is clearly not equal – our employer is the one with all of the power, and therefore is able to leverage that for good or evil purposes. In the years before my story, that same company was a tremendous positive force that allowed me creative and technical freedom that allowed me significant professional gains which I turned into intellectual property for the company.
But I have also seen people who seem singled out for destruction. Perhaps a manager disliked the employee, or the employee was hired by a rival, or perhaps got ranked higher in the division and blocked the promotion of a manager’s pet employee … or SOMETHING. Truth is that in my many years in engineering and as a supervisor I have seen all of those and many more. I have seen a manager who knew that an employee couldn’t work in certain job-types for two years due to NDA and non-compete clauses in their job seem supportive for that person’s job search and two-week notice, and only at the very end of the last day as the person turned in their badge and signed all exit paperwork say ‘oh, by the way, you can’t work for X because you signed THIS’.
The psychological impact of THAT type of treatment is what is at the heart of ‘Murder by Proxy’. It is the assertion that by a systematic and relentless dressing down and harassment that insinuated itself into every corner of a person’s life, a company can drive an employee who was once happy and productive to the point of either murder or suicide. And as for the obvious ‘why not just leave?’ question … ask the abused spouse or child why THEY so often stay in horrific circumstances. The answers typically come back to the abuser creating a sense of helplessness in their victim.
What ‘Murder by Proxy’ the Documentary Tells Us:
In the first half-hour of the documentary, you will find yourself transfixed as film maker Emil Chiaberi starts with the beginnings of what is known as ‘going postal’ in the 80s, which was characterized as a madman rampage. But then as it happened again and again, and as investigations were cut short and internal probes were stifled, for some it became clear that this wasn’t the case of someone who simply snapped – especially since they knew the people and knew what was happening around them.
It is amazing to me as someone who remembers all of these events from the news to see them from a fresh angle with a critical set of eyes provided by the documentarian. Let me be clear – he isn’t attempting to relieve the shooters of culpability with some weak ‘society is to blame’ defense. Not at all … what he asks is “perhaps there is more at play here than we are being told”.
We see in some of the scenes how people who turned into mass-murderers started as decent folks who were well thought of in their work and community, but slowly encounter challenge after challenge starting with the systemic change in their work place. There are a couple of detailed descriptions by co-workers of how someone had been so beaten down and how the supervisors worked to actively take everything away from certain employees. It is heartbreaking.
Even more heartbreaking is listening to co-workers of those who did the killings. There is tremendous sadness for the innocent people who ended up dead … but there is also tremendous empathy for what the killer went through before he snapped. There was not much sympathy for the senior managers who were often portrayed almost as torturers who ended up dead.
Those who worked in larger companies in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s are familiar with the term ‘hatchet man’. This is someone brought in by a senior manager to sit in on meetings and project reviews and make ruthless cuts of projects, budgets and people. In the film the term is not used, but it is clear that the people brought in to lead the post office after privatization were filling exactly that role.
Where ‘Murder by Proxy’ Falls Short
For a documentary that obviously has touched me and my family at such a deep level, it is a shame to say this – but we almost didn’t make it through our first viewing. About an hour into the documentary we were all getting fidgety – it was getting boring. The focus was entirely on the postal service, had narrowed to a couple of cases, and was tracking some legislation through Washington State.
What had been such a gripping tale that reached inside of what we knew and twisted it around was now wallowing around in subcommittee mired in political minutia. I know that the intent was to show how difficult it is to move something that seems like common sense through an intransigent political system … but it quite simply played out for too long and threatened to lose the audience.
Almost Perfect by the Ending
Fortunately just about when we were ready to give up, the film makers took a turn we had been waiting for – they looked outside of the post office. We had been waiting for this, as it is hinted at throughout the early part. The pitch is this: what happened in the post office is not ABOUT the post office, but is a larger trend in how people are treated, and how they react to feeling dehumanized.
We see some cases of workplace shootings and other violence, elements of some high profile school shootings that tie into common themes and elements that had been brought up throughout the documentary, and even delve deeper into the psychology of what is happening. The down-side is that there is not the volume of information to deal with in many of these school and workplace violence cases.
But there is a chill when we hear a woman say she knew it was time to leave when she had it all planned in her head how she could block exits, stifle airflow, and throw a Molotov cocktail into the management meeting room. It has a huge impact, not the least of which is because she says it virtually without emotion – and she is a sweet-looking, mild-mannered middle aged woman. She doesn’t look like some psycho personal that we love to attribute to these killings.
It is unfortunate that the body of knowledge for these later cases isn’t more complete, it would make the film even more compelling. I wonder how many more cases there are like my story that ended not in death but in some form of violence or industrial sabotage or other things that bordered on catostrophic but didn’t quite get there. The fact that we were left discussing that amongst my family at the end shows the compelling nature of the core theme.
One thing I haven’t really focused on that permeates the entire film is that the majority of these killings are not random; how in nearly every case there were at least a few people who COULD have been killed but who were intentionally skipped due to some small act of kindness or concern: those people had become human to the killers, and not part of the system of torture they sought to escape.
There is another unstated undercurrent to some of the cases: that the killer is doing a service to fellow employees in some way. As was mentioned, for many survivors a simple act of kindness was the difference between life and death. With each detailed walkthrough we saw that these were not random shoot-em-ups, but instead started in a specific location with a specific target unless something happened to force the killer astray. Almost universally in the workplace killings there was a directed attempt to take out an oppressive supervisor after suffering an extended period of abusive treatment.
We might not know exactly why some choose murder and others choose suicide and still others suffer in silent misery, but we can easily look around at most workplaces and see elements of what drove these people to the brink. In the last few decades work hours have gotten longer, pay has stagnated or shrunk for most, disparity between highest and lowest paid employees has exploded, and continued periods of economic uncertainty and job loss to off-shore labor has caused tremendous stress.
It doesn’t justify the taking of lives, but the documentary suggests that perhaps by understanding the underlying themes at the place where violence happened that might have contributed to the situation we can learn how to better identify and solve those situations.
Here is the trailer for the film … and just TRY to tell me that after seeing that you don’t want to check this out!
Review: Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal
Where to Buy: Official WebSite
Price: $19.98 for DVD
What I Like: Intense and indepth look; repetition of themes drives home messages; looks beyond the killings without absolving the killers
What Needs Improvement: Slow pace during middle practically lost the audience.
Source: Screener DVD provided by publisher