This week our household has been visited by some kind of nasty virus. Last night with my little daughter it began its intestinal stage. After vomiting all over the den, she was moved to her own bed, which she proceeded to render uninhabitable; then to our bed, with the same results. Our washing machine could not keep up with all the sheets, towels and blankets. Out of beds and clean sheets, we finally made a bed for her with a little mattress on the floor, and there she stayed for the night. As my wife remarked, after yesterday’s horrific events in Connecticut, we’re grateful for the petty annoyances of childrearing.
Like most Americans I feel heartsick and angry at the endless repetition of these killing sprees. Following the news and social media, one watches how such emotional events become a pivot point for just about any and every social issue, with pundits blaming the mayhem on inadequate gun control or austerity cuts to mental health programs, violent video games or movies, absence of prayer in schools or the lack of teachers who carry guns. (Only in America would you hear such sophistry that our problem is not enough guns.) I imagine somewhere someone was relating the deaths to God’s judgment for homosexuality in the military, abortion, or fluoridation of our drinking water.
Gun control advocates definitely have a point. So do mental health advocates. It would seem there are just too many guns, especially assault weapons; they’re too easy to get, and too many are in the wrong hands. Ours is also a broken society, with a high divorce rate and increasing isolation of hurting individuals. But there is a wider backdrop to this story, besides the easy access to guns, which I believe helped make the difference between a troubled adolescent and a mass murderer.
We live in a violent nation. Our history is a violent one. The American frontier was “tamed” at the end of a rifle. Much of the land we live on was taken by the same method, with its previous inhabitants eliminated or rendered helpless. If we wanted something, we took it by force. For over 200 years, much of our economy was built on the backs of slaves, who were branded, whipped or maimed if they tried to escape. When he visited this country for the first time, author and social reformer Charles Dickens noted how may column inches in the newspapers were given to runaway slaves, who could be easily identified by the marks of their masters’ cruelty. Yet the mayhem did not end there, for white-on-white violence was just as rampant: “’These are the weapons of Freedom,’” Dickens writes. “’With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other.’”
Four of our Presidents have been assassinated with guns, not to mention numerous other attempts. When JFK was felled by a rifle shot, Malcolm X remarked that America’s violent foreign policy had finally “come home to roost.” Violence has a way of breeding violence. We have always been a culture that likes to settle its private disputes with bullets, and its larger conflicts with bombs.
America was once called the “arsenal of democracy.” The democracy dropped out long ago; now we are simply the largest arsenal in the world, with the weapons and arms trade making up a significant portion of our economy. We spend more on “defense” (the tools of war) than all of the other world economies combined. The more weapons you have, the more likely you are to use them, and the more probable that violence will be the first response. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once remarked, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
American movies and other media celebrate this military superiority and use of violence, as well as our dangerous exceptionalism. It’s a game. Why should we be surprised that a disturbed young man thought he had the right to gun down 20 innocent children? The US and its allies, such as Israel, do that as a matter of policy. We call it “defending democracy.” The rest of the world calls it murder. Violence, even when committed 10,000 miles away, has a way of coming home to roost.
There are other countries that have higher per capita gun ownership but only a tiny sliver of the violence. The U.S. accounts for 80% of the gun deaths among the 23 most developed nations. Over 8,000 Americans are killed by guns each year (not including suicide or gun accidents). While certainly necessary, new and tighter gun legislation alone will not entirely solve the problem until we as a nation also come to terms with our culture of violence, both past and present. Until the “family values” we desperately want for ourselves are something we want for other peoples as well, we will have neither.