America the Violent

This column has been bouncing between the synapses of my brain for quite some time in one form or another. There is a difficult reality we Americans must face. Difficult words need to be spoken, and difficult choices need to be made. The fact is, we have a violent culture, and we cannot continue to treat each mass shooting like it is a rare tragedy or the act of a deranged mind. Of course, it is a tragedy and the act of a deranged mind, but what it is not is rare.

More than a dozen people were killed this week in the “Batman Massacre,” which is just the latest in a long line of mass shootings in the U.S. Last year, half as many died in the attempted political assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, two years prior 13 were killed at Fort Hood, another 14 dead in New York, and 11 more in Alabama. The fatal shooting in 2008 at the Knoxville Unitarian Church, which left two dead, barely made a blip on the national radar. The list of these mass shootings, sadly, goes on. While these are the most visible examples of violence in America, they are merely a drop in the bucket compared to the horrific homicide statistics in the U.S. Last year, there were nearly 17,000 homicides in the U.S., over two-thirds of which were committed by guns.

This is not a post about gun control, but I think it should be in the discussion. Over the last ten years, we have allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, allowed loopholes to be created to get around background checks, and decriminalized extended clip magazines (such as the one used in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting). Second Amendment advocates argue that more guns make us safer, but it is easier to buy guns in the U.S. than in any other liberal democracy, and our homicide rates are double, triple, even quintuple the rates in these other countries. In my view, widespread availability of  guns is a big part of the problem, and yet it is becoming easier to buy guns, not more difficult.

Unfortunately, the political situation is such that no one can mention gun control after a tragedy, for fear of “politicizing the issue.” Perhaps the issue needs to be “politicized.” Although policies with foresight–ones that actually prevent shootings before they happen–would be preferred, reactive policies are better than no policies at all. However, that is all but impossible. Instead, we do nothing while mass shootings grab the headlines, and another ten-thousand victims die each year from gun crime.

But this is not a post about gun control. Let me switch tack for a second to draw a parallel to another controversial topic in the States: abortion. One of my biggest problems with the pro-life movement is not their stance, which is a moral judgement that I happen to disagree with, but their combative attitude toward related, but separate, issues that would actually reduce abortions in America. These groups, by and large, want to do away with sex education and access to contraception. If the goal were truly about reducing abortions and unwanted pregnancies, these groups should be for any strategies that will ultimately help. The goal should be to save lives; abortions will likely always be legal (and they certainly will never go away completely), but anti-abortion groups would go a long way toward achieving their goal of fewer abortions in America by promoting these policies.

Conversely, we cannot save lives in America, regardless of the number of gun control laws we enact, without first addressing the culture of violence in the U.S., and the prevalence of guns. I think the answer is one and the same: an inherent lack of trust in one another and in our government. The U.S. gained its independence from one of the greatest empires in history with a few thousand men and muskets, so it is understandable that we have a strange reverence for guns. Very strange indeed, we own the most guns, both per capita and total. For every 10 Americans, there are nearly 9 guns in the States. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never understood the “we need our guns to protect ourselves from the government” philosophy (since they now have tanks, fighter jets, and nukes), but it is a philosophy that is deeply embedded in the American psyche.

Given the culture of violence in America today, distrust is a natural reaction. The media, especially cable news, only exacerbates the problems of fear and distrust, and have for decades.  Political polarization also adds fuel to the fire, further separating us, and making it impossible to come to a solution for any problem, particularly ones as complex and serious as gun violence. If educated, millionaire politicians work next to each other on a daily basis and don’t trust each other because of philosophical differences on some issues, how are the rest of us expected to trust random strangers?

For this reason, above all others, I am a couchsurfer. By forcing myself to trust a stranger and letting them stay at my home, I shatter the cycle of mistrust. Also, by interacting with people from very different backgrounds, I’ve been exposed to new ideas, and I’ve been shown that the rest of the world isn’t as scary (or different, or bad) as is commonly presumed in America. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: couchsurfing has taught me that most people are mostly good most of the time. This is a lesson that we must learn as a nation in order to stop the cycle of violence.

Not all Americans can (or should) be couchsurfers, so what else can we do to curb violence? For one, we need to stop exporting our violence. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for more than ten years, and in that time we have become desensitized to other acts of aggression. Drone attacks in Pakistan? Sure. Libya? Go ahead. New wars or military actions barely grab our attention for more than a fleeting moment. When and where does the War on Terror end? Do we just bomb countries until there are no more countries left to bomb? If it is justifiable for the state to kill, why wouldn’t it be justifiable for its citizens to do the same? Ultimately, the costs–human and financial–are far too high to continue this aggression.

Having lived in both Japan and Korea–two of the safest countries–the comparison is stark. While I would not necessarily consider either “ideal,” there is an inherent and profound respect for others, especially others’ property. At some point in the past, these societies decided that stealing and violence (at least within their own borders) were unacceptable. Can Americans change over time? Certainly, but as Americans, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and change what we don’t like. Gun control might not be the answer, but it will probably have to be one of many solutions to make America safer, and prevent the next deranged mind from committing the next mass shooting.

5 comments for “America the Violent

  1. JF Smytheson
    July 23, 2012 at 09:06

    So many people in America take owning a gun as their birth right. Yes, enshrined in our constitution is the second amendment. But what people fail to look at is the context and times when this amendment was written. What they also fail to do is read the amendment carefully and realize that the amendment does not clearly give individuals the right to bear arms as private citizens. No, it gives people the right to bear arms as part of a “well regulated militia.” It should be interesting to note too, that the NRA itself leaves out this key phrase in many its own marketing materials. Is what this amendment gives Americans the right to do is to bear arms when forming militias to put down insurrections, which were commonplace back in the 18th century, or when countering a tyrannical government which was still fresh in the minds of Americans in their newly formed country (though how tyrannical the British truly were is another question open for debate). If you think I’m nuts just look at a recent Supreme Court decision made on the point I’m making in which they handed down 5-4 decision in favor of continuing to allow private gun ownership in federally controlled areas (in this case Washington, DC), hardly an overwhelming majority decision.

    In an idea world, there would be no need for guns. In an ideal world, an outright ban on gun ownership would be followed by all law-abiding citizens and America would then be free of gun violence. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Far from it. If we were to even attempt to outright ban or partially ban guns, you can imagine the black markets that would spring up and the political fallout that would occur. An outright ban on guns will never happen in the U.S. in the foreseeable future. But what can be done is to limit the types of guns made available to the public and easy access to them. Who needs a gun that can fire 60 rounds a minute? What possible intent, other than to kill as many people as possible, could you do with that kind of fire power? Personally, I’d rather limit ones rights to get his rocks off firing such a gun at a firing range than have to read about 70 lives being torn too shreds in a movie theater because some asshole was able to exercise his 2nd amendment “right” to possess a firearm.

  2. JF Smytheson
    July 23, 2012 at 09:30

    Oh, and on abortion, I think you paint VERY broad brush strokes when summing up the anti-abortion groups as those who want to do away with sex education and reduce access to contraception. I believe that abortion should be legal, safe and rare and only when a woman’s health is in jeopardy or in cases of incest and rape. Barring that, it should be illegal, and women need to take responsibility for their decisions outside of the instances I mentioned.

    And this isn’t coming from a far-right religious zealot, this is coming from a left-leaning Democrat who is able to write this today because abortion was illegal in the time and place where they happened to be born. And I know I speak for a lot of adopted people out there when I say this. So before you brandish anti-abortionists in the same way they brandish you, think about the fact that there’s a lot more to that side of the story than religious zeal.

    • Zachary A. Marx
      July 23, 2012 at 16:54

      First of all, thank you for your long, well-thought-out comments, they are appreciated. However, either I wasn’t clear in my message or you read something that wasn’t quite there. On guns, I just said gun control (like the reasonable measures you proposed) needs to be on the table for discussion. At the moment, politicians have been paralyzed on the subject. You’re right, the cat is out of the bag concerning the gun problem in America, but that doesn’t mean that our hands are tied. There are policies that can be implemented to curb gun violence and to get guns out of the hands of those most likely to use them to harm another.

      On abortion, yes, I did paint a broad brush. But abortion it wasn’t the main topic of the column, so I was not prepared to go further in depth and discuss all of the nuances of the anti-abortion movement. Instead, I was merely drawing a comparison, and raising the point that non-direct (but related) policies can have a similar beneficial impact.

  3. Frodders
    July 24, 2012 at 00:44

    Hello Zach!

    Interesting blog. Made me think of a couple of things. With regards to the ‘War on Terror’ (terrible name), you might be interested in an academic article by a a guy called Sidaway who coined the term ‘sovereign excess’. There are some interesting applications of this term to the US and UK’s involvement in Iraq & Afghanistan.

    Secondly, your point about the US’ trust problems are interesting, however I think you’ve missed out a huge and significant part of this distrust; the fear of the rest of the world, other religions, other cultures etc. Living in the US I found it to be the country with the highest level of ‘the fear of the other’ that I’ve ever been to/lived in (including Japan!) As you rightly pointed out, your fearmongering media doesn’t help. In order for the inherent distrust and fear to dissipate Americans need to stop fearing ‘the outsider’ and ‘the other’ (John Agnew has some really interesting points on ‘the fear of the other’). This requires better education (MUCH better education – in NY I worked with a Jew who had gone to an Ivy League school but didn’t know what was going on in the Gaza strip; she recommended building a fence to stop the fighting…), better integration of other cultures, your politicians also need to stop using fear as political tools, and, most importantly in my opinion, US citizens need to be motivated to become more interested in other cultures and the human differences that make our species such an interesting one.

    • Zachary A. Marx
      July 24, 2012 at 12:41

      Right on, KT. You’re 100% right about Americans not trusting the rest of the world, a point I alluded to, but didn’t even attempt to drive home. Many Americans, especially conservatives, will say with a straight face that “America is the greatest country ever to exist.” Naturally, no evidence is necessary to support this claim, nor will any evidence to the contrary persuade these Americans to come off this stand. Expensive healthcare that fails to cover everyone? Doesn’t matter, we’re still the best. Exceptional levels of violence and gun ownership? Doesn’t matter, still the best. I could go on. Comparisons to other countries are completely unhelpful to those that believe America is inherently the best.

      I guess for that reason, I stayed away from that topic (among many others, including socioeconomic inequality, which I studies have shown to be a major contributing factor to the violence). So this is really the crux of the issue: if Americans can’t even identify gun violence as being unusually high and a problem, what chance do we have of fixing it? I felt like this piece was more about awareness, and getting the discussion moving, so thanks for the comments!

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