I have waited a few days to process my feelings (yes) and thoughts about the slaughter in Newtown. I have had to work hard to separate what seemed to show up in my consciousness into what came mostly from taking in what I read and listened to and what came from somewhere in my body. My first reaction to the manipulative reporting I found in both news and electronic media was that this horrifying murder was neither unspeakable or unimaginable or unnecessary or un-many other things. It is perfectly speakable and imaginable, neither of which reduce its horror and sadness. I think that sadness is the feeling that has most captured me.
It is unspeakable only because those who could both speak up and effect changes choose not to. It is imaginable simply because there are so many guns out there and so many opportunities to (mis)use them. It is even more imaginable when you acknowledge and accept the violence that is so deeply embedded in our culture. It started with the birth of the nation by an armed rebellion, followed by a continental expansion in which millions of the original inhabitants, human and non-human were killed or violently ousted from their homes. A prominent mythic figure of the Western expansion is the gun-toting sheriff or the bandit that he is inevitably shooting at some point.
Today violence shapes popular media shows, movie trailers, video and computer games, even those for the very young. The trailers for coming attractions outshoot one another trying to be the most violent that can sneak by the rating system. Game Apps are rated according to the amount of violence they contain, but without any meaningful way to control who downloads and plays them. I wonder how much control parents in gun-owning households exert over the games their children watch?
This is nothing particularly novel; I played cops and robber with toy guns 70 years ago, but it is so much more pervasive now. Something else must be working on us. My research on and thinking about sustainability points to our culture as the systemic context out of which the tragedies of Newtown are born. We have a toxic and lethal mix of narcissism, materialism, libertarianism, and probably a bunch of other isms at play. Gun-owning is a symptom of something much deeper. It’s probably not fear. We are a pretty safe country; in a catch-22 way, it’s the guns people own in the name of safety that makes us unsafe. If we were really concerned about safety, we would wear our seat belts, stop driving under the influence, really stop smoking, lose weight and on and on. So what is it?
I believe the most fundamental root cause is the “don’t tread on me” attitude that is prominently exhibited by roughly half of the country these days. Rugged individualism has always been a feature of the American ethos. This issue was front and central in the recent election with one side claiming to be the makers and pinning the label, the takers, on the other. I built it with the stress on the “I” was one of the Republican’s battle cries. “Get the government out of my life” is the language we hear around election time, but this is just a politically correct convenient excuse for the expression of negative liberty: the right to be left alone, preferably all alone, with one’s possessions, so as to pursue whatever one wants to do with them.
Given that we live in a crowded and interdependent world, there will always be somebody, whether from the government or elsewhere, who will be encroaching on one’s private turf. The awareness of this, a suspicion that somebody is crowding me, can easily grow to a paranoid sense and a corresponding self-protective response. Violent means of self-protection are found everywhere in the virtual cultural messages and in reality of the merchants that offer them. The news tonight noted that there are more gun dealer locations than McDonald’s shops or supermarkets.
It is too late to “control” guns. It would be like trying to control TVs. There are too many out there and any attempt to intervene could only raise the level of paranoia even higher with possibly more violent incidents. Maybe not so many massacres, but the killing will go on. The killings do go on; the massacres, although terrible and seemingly inexplicable, are the least serious result of our violent culture. The 27 killed in Newtown is about the same magnitude of the number of people killed by guns day in and day out in the US. Why not gather their names every day and run them across the screen as ABC did tonight at the end of their evening news? Do they not deserve the same outpouring of grief and horror?
Certainly the killing of children is more repugnant than the deaths of the strangers we hear about one at a time on the local news. But even those are human lives lost to violence. And why not include the rest of those who die violently but by other than guns. It’s the violence that we should be talking about, not just the guns. They only deflect our conversation from the real issue.
We are the world’s largest merchant of death, making and selling weapons of all sorts to the world. We have the means to kill by remote control, but not to kill so cleanly that children, as young as those in Newtown are murdered along with our targets. We invented and employed the most destruction killing machine known to humankind. I am not arguing here about the morality of the use of drones or nuclear weapons; I am simply pointing out our connections to violence.
Former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee disgracefully and shamefully attributed the killing to the absence of God from schools.
> “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools,” Huckabee said on Fox News, discussing the murder spree that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT that morning. “Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”
He would point us in entirely the wrong direction. No “surprise,” I would agree, but hardly an issue about godlessness. Huckabee was Governor of Arkansas which along with its neighboring Southern States are usually among or at the top of the annual per capita homicide rates. Maybe God has abandoned the South more generally than just in the schools?
We are sure to hear many cries for gun control now. I note that the politicians are starting already. Senator Boxer has announced she will put forth a bill to ban assault weapons. This is not a brave act. It is rather a sign of the cowardice of those who have taken oaths to protect us. Mayor Bloomberg exhorts President Obama to elevate guns in his priorities. Senator Lieberman is a little better, calling for a Commission on Mass Violence, but is also unwilling to name violence itself as the issue to face. There are already enough assault weapons out there legally to create many more Newtown’s. Gun control is only a Band-Aid for America’s violent heart condition. We need thoracic surgery, not palliative treatments.