"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Are Americans In Love With Violence?

One of the first games I can remember playing is cowboys and Indians.  I was the cowboy and my little sister was the Indian.  I dressed her up in feathers, daubed her face with war paint and chased her around the back yard firing my cap gun.  I was all decked out with ten-gallon hat, boots, and mother-of-pearl belt.  I wore two six-shooters in real leather holsters, and I had practiced my draw until I could pull and shoot in two seconds. The game was even more fun when my friends came over, for then we could shoot at each other.  I loved the smell of caps, galloping around the rose bushes and the tomato plants and into the back woods chasing outlaws.  This was long before the days of paintball, so we had rules about who got shot and had to fall down; but even if you got plugged, you could get up after one minute, go to another vantage point, and start shooting again.

Playing war was as much fun, because you got dirty, lying in trenches, crawling towards enemy lines to throw a grenade (apple) at the krauts.  I rigged my mother’s aluminum kitchen pot with straps so I could wear it as a helmet, and I wore my father’s old army uniform.  The only drawback was that in those days toy rifles didn’t make any noise – no caps or simulated firing – so we had to make our own noises.  We whooped and hollered as we crossed the berms, or charged through the mini Maginot lines we built with chairs and rope.  We screamed and grunted as we drove bayonets into the enemy and watched him writhe in pain before expiring.  We all took turns as krauts, Japs, and Americans, and had a great time. 

When I was about ten, civil war hats became popular – blue and grey cloth with shiny brims, and of course the stars and stripes and stars and bars.  We were getting a bit old for crawling in the grass and wearing tin pot helmets, and our games became more strategic.  The rebels got a head start and were allowed to deploy themselves in the woods; and they took up vantage points behind trees and rocks, or in the high grass near one of the streams the flowed at the very back of the woods.  The Union soldiers got to deploy scouts, advance sharpshooters, and trackers; and we hunted the Confederates down.

All through this period I went to Saturday matinees where there was always a cowboy movie.  All the favorites of the era – Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger – were all there riding the plains, killing Indians.  I especially loved the chase scenes where the cowboys did all kinds of acrobatic horsemanship to avoid Indian arrows.  They rode hunkered down behind the ears of their mounts, or impossibly flattened on the flanks of their horses, hidden from frontal view, and firing away at the fleeing redskins.  Death and dying were theatrical, and cowboys and Indians did wild, flying tumbles, landing in a cloud of dust.

No one talked of violence in those days.  War and killing were simply a part of life.  We celebrated the heroism of our soldiers who fought the enemy in appalling conditions.  I couldn’t believe the courage of our men who debarked from the landing craft at Normandy and despite facing withering fire, kept charging across the sand to the German pillboxes.  I remember the grainy black-and-white films of the landing, and how soldiers just dropped in place, one after another.   We went from war to war.  My father was in WWII, and many of his colleagues at the hospital who had served were recalled to the Medical Corps in Korea.  My friends’ grandparents talked of World War I – not of its grisly realities but their exploits, camaraderie, and courage.

There had been the various wars against the Indians, the British, the Spanish, and the Mexicans.  Violence was the way of Westward Expansion and nothing stood in our way.  Yet, these wars and expansionist killings were part of our destiny, our muscular way of creating a strong, vast, and imposing nation.  They were no different than those of Europe whose nations, kingdoms, and countries had fought each other for centuries.  They were either just or part of the endless expression of an aggressive and self-defensive human nature.

Crime was also unheard of in most  towns in America in the 50s.  The small city in New England where I grew up was peaceful, murders where unheard of, and even though it was ethnically diverse (Italians and Poles),minority communities kept to themselves, worked hard to assimilate, and were never aggressive or threatening.  Of course there were bar fights, killings over women, and drunken brawls; but nothing we would consider the violence of today. 

Even the violence we associated with big cities was predictable – a remote, even romanticized warfare between New York street gangs a la West Side Story; or between gangsters in Chicago in the days of Prohibition.  America was not a violent or lawless place – Chicago was in the 1920s, but not the rest of the country. 

So what happened to America in the Sixties? How did violence become endemic, no longer restricted to gangsters or war, but a universal phenomenon? The race riots in Newark, Detroit, and Watts showed that there was plenty of violence in us, only that it had been bottled up, frustrated, and held in check by a suppressive white majority. Radical and militant Black Power challenged the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King. The war in Vietnam was brutal, bloody, and ferocious, and violence got a bad name.  While the devastating fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo indiscriminately killed civilians, it was in a good cause.  Rolling Thunder, Nixon’s B-52 bombing campaign to destroy the enemy, his garrisons, his tunnels, and his transportation, was a violent use of overwhelming firepower in a suspect cause. 

The innocence of America was shattered by the violence in the streets and in Vietnam.  As inner city populations grew to believe that taking by force in an unjust society was a legitimate expression of power, police armed more effectively to counter it.  Racial tensions and associated crime grew; while at the same time the social tolerance promoted by ‘progressives’ who insisted that rage over injustice was a valid cultural expression indirectly encouraged anti-social behavior.  Income inequality persisted, especially within inner city neighborhoods, adding fuel to the already racially aggressive sentiments felt by many.

Later in the Seventies and early Eighties, hard drugs became epidemic and Washington, DC, where I have spent the last 35 years, became the Murder Capital of America as rival posses killed each other off.  Racial tensions plus income inequality plus the value of the drug trade was an increasingly volatile mix.  Guns were everywhere.  Drive-by shootings, assassinations, and random killings were common.  By the late Eighties we had become a violent, murderous society.

Many Europeans have seen this trajectory as a straight line.  That our violent behavior today is a direct outcome of the Wild West mentality of the 1800s.  We are today a violent country because of the historical imperatives of our past. Because of this heritage of individualism and frontier justice, we have internalized violent behavior.  We still feel the right to kill.

Is this a fair judgment? In some ways, yes.  We do have a particularly unique history of frontier lawlessness.  Europe has never had such frontiers except in their colonies where violence was just as brutal – the Conquistadores were no saints.  Every region of the world from Genghis Khan to Hitler has known marauding, eviscerating armies; but only the United States was an individually violent country.  We had to be violent to defend our claim against outlaws, rustlers, and Indians.

If we had not had this armed and violent Western experience in the 19th century, would there have been the Chicago wars of the 20s?  There is no reason to expect that the pursuit of illicit wealth would have been any different from brutal conflicts everywhere in the world.  The most primitive African tribes killed their enemies because of disputes over land and resources as did their more evolved brothers in Europe and Asia.

However critics still say that while violence has decreased in Europe, it has increased in America.  Civilizing influences that have neutralized much violence in the Old World have not affected the New.  Perhaps, but the new waves of unwanted immigration and terrorism are sure to change this calculus.  Europe is likely to become more threatened, armed, and dangerous.  Violence in America today has much more to do with inequality than it does with a history and supposed culture of violence; and Europe is on the same path of inclusion, heterogeneity, inequality, and violence.  Most importantly, violent crime is down in America and continues to drop.

These European critics also look at America and say that the popularity of violent video games and Hollywood movies contributes to our mayhem.  The number of these games per capita in Europe and America are similar – boys have always and will always like to shoot and kill, if only in a virtual world – and there have yet to be convincing scientific studies to show the correlation between media and violence.

The number of guns per capita in America does relate to our history.  We have always owned guns, and the days of the Wild West are not yet too far in the past to remember. The Second Amendment, however distorted today, did confer on every individual the right to bear arms because of the Founding Fathers’ concerns about the nature of government and of power; and that right paralleled the rise in individual gun ownership required for settlement, protection against Indians, outlaws, and varmints.

So, is America, therefore a violent country; or at least more violent than most?  And more importantly, has violence now been incorporated or ingrained in our character?  No. There are three possible reasons for the spate of wanton, random violence that we are witnessing:

FIRST: In addition to self-defense and hunting, Americans are stockpiling guns because of an irrational belief in a coming economic and political crisis.  This is nothing new.

The Church Universal and Triumphant became well known during the late 1980s when it predicted the possibility of nuclear war at the end of that decade. Members were urged to prepare by building fallout shelters and supplying them with food and other necessities. The predicted date of the nuclear war was April 23, 1990.

When nuclear war failed to occur, Prophet claimed that the community had averted the war through their prayers. Some adherents were left in debt or bankruptcy. Since then church membership has fallen in the United States. However, the CUT remains a significant presence in the area of its headquarters, and centers continue to be active in large cities across the nation. During this period, international membership has grown significantly (Wikipedia)

Church members did not stop with the building of shelters.  They armed themselves to be able to fend off invaders who had not built shelters and who wanted protection; and to be able to survive in the post-holocaust world:

Since early July, three high-ranking Church Universal and Tri­umphant members have been arrested on weapons offenses. In each case, the members were attempting to stockpile weapons in prepara­tion for an anticipated nuclear holocaust.

One of those arrested was Edward Francis, the husband of sect leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Francis was sen­tenced on December 15, 1989 to one month in jail and three months’ house detention for his role in a conspiracy to buy enough weapons and paramil­itary supplies to arm a 200-member church army. (CSI, April 2009)

The mother of the Newport shooter was a ‘Prepper’, a new breed of Americans more convinced than ever after the election of Barack Obama that chaos, anarchy, and violent civil unrest is just around the corner.  Gun store owners who have seen a rise in sales of assault weapons thanks to customers fearing a ban have said that many of them are “Armageddon-ists”  The most cursory search on the Internet will unearth hundreds of sites catering to paranoid conspiracists who feel the need to arm themselves.

We are more armed than ever, therefore, because of pervasive irrationality which itself has been traced to poor education, viral conspiracy theories racing through cyberspace, residual racial animosities, income inequality producing frustration and hatred of government, etc.  Perhaps as importantly, and often forgotten, is our Utopian past.  In the 19th century Utopian colonies sprang up in Western New York and other venues of rural America; and while these were relatively isolated, they expressed the belief that individuals grouping together could create a better world.  Armageddon, say today’s inverted Utopians, is the first step to spiritual renewal.  I have heard Far Right commentators repeat, almost gleefully, “that it will get worse before it gets better”.

SECOND: Evidence shows that mental illness is a serious problem in the United States and may be increasing.  Much mental illness goes undiagnosed, so the estimates may be far less than reported:

Mental disorders are common in the United States and internationally. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people.

NIH estimates that over 5 percent of the US adult population overall and nearly 8 percent of the 18-25 group has Serious Mental Illness (SMI).  Other sources indicate that up to 25 percent of prison populations suffer from a mental disorder.  Most health professionals cite the inadequacy of diagnosis and treatment a national emergency.

Most of the recent shooters in Aurora, Newtown, and other venues have been mentally ill or supposed to be because of the horrific nature of their actions and their suicides.

If one takes away the apparent rise in this type of violence, statistics for the more mundane type – armed robbery, assault and battery, murder, and rape – show that the rates are going down; suggesting that if we were a more violent country than most, we are getting better.

THIRD: Although there have been arguments on both side of the gun issue – i.e. some researchers say that there is no correlation between armed assaults and gun control or lack thereof; while others show that there most definitely is.  What all agree upon is the fact that we are a country awash with guns, and the number of firearms per capita beggars any other country by far. It is simply easier to kill someone with a gun than it is with a knife or blunt instrument; and a husband in a violent jealous rage will be more apt to kill his wife if he has a gun than if he does not.  Some impressionable children who have access to guns may try them out on a schoolmate.

In conclusion, I do not think that we are a more violent country than any other.  One has only to look at the brutal civil wars in Africa – Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo – to witness the uncivilized savagery occurring there.  India, home to Mahatma Gandhi witnessed an estimated one million people slaughtered by neighbors and enraged Hindus or Muslims.  Our violence is nothing compared with Pol Pot, Hitler, or Stalin, let alone Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine.  The English kings chopped off heads with the regularity of a Sunday market.  Murderous chaos was the rule in the French Reign of Terror. 

No, we are no more violent than anyone else, and as mentioned above we are reducing violent crime.  We certainly have to address mental illness, persistent racial and economic inequality, and the proliferation of guns; but there is nothing in the national character which makes us prone to violence.

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