The vi­o­lence comes home again

The Progress-Index - - OPINION -

In the wake of the Las Ve­gas mas­sacre, as in the wake of all the high-pro­file mass shoot­ings that pre­ceded it, the big ques­tion looms: Why?

John White­head puts the ques­tion this way: “What is it about Amer­ica that makes vi­o­lence our na­tion’s call­ing card?”

This is the enor­mous ques­tion — you might call it the $700 bil­lion ques­tion, which is the size of the 2018 mil­i­tary bud­get re­cently ap­proved by the Se­nate — that most me­dia and law en­force­ment per­son­nel do not ask or ac­knowl­edge, as they search for clues about the mo­tive be­hind Stephen Pad­dock’s ram­page on the night of Oct. 1 amid the scat­tered wreck­age of the killer’s life.

He was a “lone wolf.” He was a “psy­chopath.” He was an Amer­i­can. And he was in pos­ses­sion, in his var­i­ous dwelling places, of 47 firearms, some of which were used to kill at least 59 peo­ple and in­jure more than 500 oth­ers as they at­tended a coun­try mu­sic con­cert. And some of these firearms were mod­i­fied by “bump stocks,” a cheap, le­gal de­vice that al­lows a semi­au­to­matic ri­fle to fire like an au­to­matic. Why? White­head puts the an­swer out there with ter­ri­fy­ing clar­ity: “Per­haps there’s no sin­gle one fac­tor to blame for this gun vi­o­lence. How­ever, there is a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor, and that is a war-drenched, vi­o­lence-im­bued, profit-driven mil­i­tary in­dus­trial com­plex that has in­vaded al­most ev­ery as­pect of our lives.”

This is Amer­ica, a global em­pire en­gaged in end­less war, with an en­ter­tain­ment and news me­dia that sells vi­o­lence as a spectator sport and a con­se­quence-free so­lu­tion to pretty much ev­ery prob­lem you can think of. We be­lieve in hav­ing en­e­mies — not in a per­sonal sense but in the ab­stract: peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent in some defin­ing way and sym­bol­ize, in their dif­fer­ent­ness, the cause of our trou­bles. In other words, we de­hu­man­ize. We call peo­ple gooks or rag­heads or . . . we all know the list of ob­scen­i­ties, past and present.

So­ci­ol­o­gist Peter Turchin, in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings nearly five years ago, wrote: “On the bat­tle­field, you are sup­posed to try to kill a per­son whom you’ve never met be­fore. You are not try­ing to kill this par­tic­u­lar per­son, you are shoot­ing be­cause he is wear­ing the en­emy uni­form . ... En­emy sol­diers are so­cially sub­sti­tutable.”

And mass mur­der­ers be­have the same way as sol­diers, ex­cept the “or­ders” they are obey­ing are their own or those of some mar­ginal hate-com­mu­nity. The defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of mass mur­der is not that it’s sense­less or ran­dom, but that, to the mur­derer, the vic­tims sym­bol­ize evil. This sort of be­hav­ior, in other cir­cum­stances, is pub­licly cel­e­brated. Sud­denly, for in­stance, I’m think­ing about the out­pour­ing of praise Don­ald Trump gen­er­ated from much of the me­dia when the U.S. dropped a MOAB bomb — the most pow­er­ful non-nu­clear bomb in the Amer­i­can arse­nal — on Afghanistan. Some com­men­ta­tors de­clared that he be­came “pres­i­den­tial” after this ac­tion. The poor slobs who died be­cause of it couldn’t have mat­tered less to the cheer­ing spec­ta­tors.

And a se­ri­ous seg­ment of the na­tional econ­omy de­pends on the con­tin­ual flow of en­e­mies and their elim­i­na­tion. It de­pends on sell­ing weapons.

For in­stance, Wil­liam Har­tung, direc­tor of the Arms and Se­cu­rity Pro­ject at the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Pol­icy, pointed out in a re­cent Democ­racy Now! in­ter­view that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has elim­i­nated hu­man-rights re­stric­tions on smal­l­arms ex­ports, putting them un­der the con­trol of the Com­merce De­part­ment rather than the State De­part­ment, as well as “re­stric­tions on fighter planes and bombs and the large weapons, the kind that are be­ing used by Saudi Ara­bia to kill civil­ians in Ye­men.”

Re­mark­ably, do­mes­tic gun sales had slumped after Trump’s elec­tion — gun own­ers ap­par­ently be­came less fear­ful that the govern­ment would take their weapons away — so “gun man­u­fac­tur­ers are des­per­ate for more for­eign sales. And they don’t care who the guns go to,” Har­tung said. “And I think that’s re­ally the prob­lem.”

He con­cluded by quot­ing Martin Luther King’s speech against the Viet­nam War: “I can’t in good con­science fight vi­o­lence at home if I don’t stand up to my own govern­ment, which is the great­est pur­veyor of vi­o­lence around the world.”

Only in this con­text does it be­come rel­e­vant to talk about gun con­trol leg­is­la­tion. By them­selves, such ba­sic reg­u­la­tions as univer­sal back­ground checks, a re­in­stat­ing of the as­saultweapons ban and re­quired per­mits for gun own­er­ship feel like a frail wall against Amer­i­can vi­o­lence and the ease with which the next “lone wolf” can plan his as­sault.

In­deed, gun con­trol laws are ba­si­cally just stop­gap mea­sures per­pet­u­ally de­bated by a vi­o­lence-ad­dicted so­ci­ety. They swell in sig­nif­i­cance be­cause they’re so vi­ciously op­posed by the NRA. I’m not against them, but they’re not enough.

“And I awoke Mon­day hop­ing that maybe this shoot­ing is the one that will per­suade Amer­ica to re­claim the man­tle of global lead­er­ship that has been at our core since our ori­gin,” Con­necti­cut Sen. Chris Mur­phy wrote in the Washington Post the day after the Las Ve­gas mas­sacre, call­ing for sane gun con­trol leg­is­la­tion.

Yes, this is cru­cial. But I can’t help but note that Mur­phy was one of the 89 sen­a­tors, in­clud­ing, of course, most Democrats, who voted last month for the 2018 Na­tional De­fense Autho­riza­tion Act, be­stow­ing $700 bil­lion on the U.S. mil­i­tary next year, an in­crease of $80 bil­lion, which is even more than the Pen­tagon or Trump re­quested.

“Mass shoot­ings,” Mur­phy ac­knowl­edged, “hap­pen al­most nowhere else but the United States.”

This is not be­cause of tepid gun laws. It’s be­cause the coun­try funds — and ben­e­fits from — end­less war and vi­o­lence of all sorts. Oc­ca­sion­ally the vi­o­lence comes back to haunt us.

Robert Koehler Peace Voice Pro­gram Ore­gon Peace In­sti­tute Port­land, Ore­gon

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