'Murder by Proxy': Documentary-maker looks at workplace violence

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International  |  Feb. 19, 2012 at 4:30 AM
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To Emil Chiaberi, the shooting of a supervisor by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Long Beach, Calif., is just a symptom of a greater societal crisis.

"Historically these kind of incidents precede widespread discontent," said Chiaberi, a Russian emigre who examines the causes of workplace violence in "Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal," a documentary due in theaters next month.

Late Thursday, an argument between ICE agent Ezequiel Garcia, 45, and Kevin Kozak, 51, deputy special agent in charge of the Los Angeles area, in the Glenn M. Anderson Federal Building erupted in gunfire that left Kozak seriously injured and Garcia dead, killed by another agent who was trying to save the Kozak's life.

Chiaberi has taken a hard look at workplace violence and come to the conclusion such eruptions are a symptom of a greater societal problem.

"'Murder by Proxy' is a term coined by one of the experts in the film, Dr. James Fox," Chiaberi said. "Toward the end of the movie, he explains what it means: 'For example, for Thomas McIlvane, Patrick Sherrill, etc., the enemy was a postal service. But you can't kill the postal service. So they tried to kill as many postal employees as they could, because in their mind, those people were associated with the enemy.'"

The concept of "going postal" grew out of several high-profile incidents at post offices in the 1980s and 1990s where ex- or soon-to-be-ex-postal workers brought guns into the facilities and started shooting, killing and injuring supervisors and co-workers alike.

Wikipedia counts more than 20 such incidents from 1986 to 1997 that left 40 people dead. The first was Aug. 20, 1986, in Edmonds, Okla. Sherrill shot and killed 14 postal employees and wounded six others before killing himself. On Nov. 14, 1991, McIlvane shot and killed five people, including himself, at the post office in Royal Oak, Mich. He had been fired for insubordination.

Chiaberi said he was surprised in talking to survivors of these incidents -- some of whom had been injured -- to learn they "totally get" why the incidents occurred.

"Almost uniformly, they understand where the killer was coming from. They don't condone it. But they totally get it. … People identify with the shooter because they come from the same side of the issue," Chiaberi said.

One woman quoted in the documentary said she fantasized about throwing a Molotov cocktail into the office of a supervisor who constantly berated her.

Chiaberi said workplace violence may seem like a virus "but I don't think you can infect people," though one shooter may serve as an "inspiration" for another.

The problem, he sees, is the dehumanization of the workplace, a process that began toward the end of the last century when companies that had taken a paternalistic view of employees began concentrating on profits, what Chiaberi characterized as "wealth at any cost." Workers were no longer people. They were just part of the mechanization process, expected to produce product no matter the circumstances.

Managers are not necessarily the source of the dehumanization. Chiaberi noted a good percentage comes from co-workers. And then there are people who are dissatisfied no matter what.

"The thing that angers people ... are the unintentional consequences. You have a workforce and environment driven by intense competition. The side-effect is people scared for their livelihoods," he said. "Then you have a class of [chief executive officers] that stand to lose nothing. They have a sense of entitlement, humongous salaries and golden parachutes. That's what angered people the most [as the recession started]. All those things are in play and nothing will change dramatically."

And the problem isn't limited to the postal service. The Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings were similar, the documentary says, warning the alienation could lead to terrorism, especially at nuclear plants.

Chiaberi said as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, he studied revolutionary situations thoroughly and has come to the conclusion that workplace violence is a symptom of greater societal discontent. Revolution comes, he said, when those on the lower rungs can no longer tolerate the status quo and when those on the higher rungs no longer can maintain the status quo.

"The financial crisis of 2008 helped accelerate the process," Chiaberi said. "You have Occupy Wall Street on the one end and the Tea Party on the other. It's early on in the process. … Now you have groups getting impatient. The more one group gets their way, the angrier the other group gets."

As for Thursday's shooting, Chiaberi called it "another reminder that a tragedy like this could happen anywhere, at anytime. No workplace is immune.

"As additional details come out, the picture will emerge of an individual who is rather ordinary than sinister. I will be looking for familiar signs: financial troubles, fear of losing a job, frustration with the management style. Most likely, this individual felt that with his set of skills he would be unable to achieve the same level of pay and respectability at another job. This was the case with many postal workers. Lastly, it's important to not confuse a so-called 'trigger event' with the real reasons."

So, how do you fix this?

"If I knew how to fix this, I'd have a different job," said Chiaberi, who employs more than 100 people in the Los Angeles area. "I just want to connect the dots. There is no simple solution. I think ... my goal is to make people think. … Wealth at any cost is not acceptable."

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