Once again, perhaps in the most anguishing manner ever, the deadly shooting of 20 children (and 8 adults) between the ages of 5 and 10 at the Newton, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School, has left America in a stunned posture of tragic bemusement. Why should such incidents be happening here, especially in such a peaceful and affluent town? The shock is accompanied by spontaneous outpourings of grief, bewilderment, empathy, communal espirit, and a sense of national tragedy. Such an unavoidably dark mood is officially confirmed by the well-crafted emotional message of the president, Barack Obama.
The template of response has become a national liturgy in light of the dismal pattern of public response: media sensationalism of a totalizing kind, at once enveloping, sentimental, and tasteless (endless interviewing of surviving children and teachers, and even family members of victims), but dutifully avoiding deeper questions relating to guns, violence, and cultural stimulants and conditioning. What are called ‘difficult issues’ in the media reduce to what some refer to as ‘reasonable gun control’ (that is, a ban on assault weapons, large magazine clips, and somewhat stiffer gun registration rules) and to improved procedures for identifying those suffering the kind of mental disorders that could erupt in violent sociopathic behavior. These are sensible steps to take, but so far below the level of credible diagnosis as to promote collective denial rather than constituting a responsible effort to restore a semblance of security to our most cherished institutions (schools, churches, family dwellings). It is ironically relevant that almost simultaneous with the massacre at Newtown there occurred an attack on children in an elementary school in the Chinese city of Xinyang in the province of Henan, approximately 300 miles south of Beijing. The attacker slashed 22 children with a knife, and significantly there were no fatalities, suggesting the important differences in outcome that reflect the weapons deployed by an assailant. Although this is an anecdotal bit of evidence, it is suggestive that strict gun control is the least that should be done in light of recent experience, with seven instances of mass violence reported in the United States during 2012. It should be noted that Connecticut was one of the few states in the country that had enacted ‘reasonable’ gun control laws, but clearly without a sufficient impact.
If what is being proposed by politicians and pundits is so far below what seems prudent there is fostered a societal illusion of problem-solving while sidestepping the deeper causes, and the truly ‘difficult issues.’ It would be a mistake to attribute the overall concerns entirely to the violent texture of the American public imagination, but surely inquiry must address this atrocity-inducing cultural environment. America leads the world in per capita gun possession, violent crime, and prison population, and is among the few developed countries that continues to impose capital punishment. Beyond this, America vindicates torture and glamorizes violence in films, video games, and popular culture. Political leaders support ‘enhanced interrogation’ of terror suspects, and claim an authority to order the execution of alleged terrorist advocates in foreign countries by drone strikes oblivious to the sovereign rights of foreign states, a practice that if attempted against American targets would produce a massive retaliatory response preceded by an outburst of self-righteous outrage. At work, here, is American exceptionalism when it comes to lethal violence, with a claimed right to do unto others what others are forbidden to do unto us, a defiance of that most fundamental norm of civilized peoples an inversion of ‘the golden rule’ and basic biblical commandments.
There are other features of American political culture that are disturbing, including the uncritical celebration of American soldiers as ‘the finest young Americans,’ ‘true heroes,’ and the like. Or of America as the greatest country that ever existed, such a claim especially in light of recent history, is a rather pure form of hubris long understood as the fallibility that comes with excessive individual or collective inability to recognize and correct one’s own faults. It is certainly true that the government is asking American servicemen to risk their lives and mental health in ambiguous circumstances that produce aberrant behavior. To undertake counterinsurgency missions in distant countries at a lesser stage of development and much different cultural standards invites deep confusion, incites national resistance and hatred in the combat zones, and prompts responses driven by fear and rage. Recall such incidents in Afghanistan as American servicemen urinating on dead Afghan corpses, burning the Koran, and random shootings of Afghan unarmed villagers. In effect, this ethos of violence against others, constrained by the most minimal standards of accountability has to be part of the violence inducing behavior that is these days haunting civic life here in America.
In effect, until we as Americans look in the mirror with a critical eye we will not begin to comprehend the violence of Newtown, Portland, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Columbine, Virginia Tech. No amount of tears, however genuine, can make our children and citizens safer in the future, and even gestures of gun control seem likely, if treated as solutions rather than palliatives, are likely to be no more than a spit in a national ocean of sanctioned violence. What may be most depressing is that it seems ‘utopian,’ that is, beyond the horizon of possibility, to advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment on the right to bear arms or to renounce the kill doctrines associated with drone warfare or counterinsurgency rules of engagement. Only moves of such magnitude would exhibit the political will to take measures commensurate with this disruptive and horrifying pattern of violence that has been an increasing source of national torment.
President Obama has called, as he has on prior occasions, for “meaningful action,” which is too vague to be of much encouragement. Almost certainly the main effort in American public space will be to explore the individuality of this shocking crime by way of mental disorder or tensions at home rather than to address its systemic character, which remains a taboo inquiry.