More violence in a violent land

By now everyone knows of the murderous rampage by a lunatic at a Tucson political event, an assault that at the time of writing had claimed six lives. And by now everyone has an opinion on whether or not the attack is connected to the rabid emotions stirred up by the Tea Party faction, vitriolic Fox News partisans, or Sarah Palin.

This post intends to ignore the potential politics completely. Instead, I want to address the legacy of frontier barbarism which supports the excessive violence of American culture.

Let’s be clear — there is violence in every culture. And all of it is evil. Some of that violence is societal, like the so-called “honour killings” in India and the Middle East; some of it is religious, like the recent assassination of a Pakistani state governor; some of it is tactical, like the drug gang slaughter that left 15 headless corpses on the streets of Acapulco; some is impulsive, like the murders that are the tragic result of too many family disputes.

But there is no other nation, no other society, which has the frequency of gun violence,
of mass murder by bullet, that is epidemic in the United States. And a good deal of the gun violence that exists in other countries, including Canada, is a recent and, I believe, a direct result of the Wild West mentality which is being spread worldwide by the pervasive influence of the American media — by TV, gun-based video games, and Hollywood.

But isn’t this just an easy cliché, an egregious stereotype that maligns the peaceable majority of Americans? I don’t think so. I think that violence, especially the personal fantasy of the revenging gunman, is part of the American psyche in a way that is unknown in other lands.

Why is it that when someone attacks the Canadian Prime Minister, he does it with a cream pie and not an assault rifle? Why is there no European equivalent of “going postal”? Why are school shootings and mall killings and office slaughters everyday events in the United States, but shocking rareties elsewhere?

We could debate the influence of the presence or absence of restrictions on gun ownership. We could argue that media influence is or isn’t a factor in blunting our reaction to violence. We could discuss the influence of economic uncertainty and the emotional impact of recent job losses and financial crises. We could, but that wouldn’t change the numbers.

No matter what we believe about these issues, no matter how we resolve these influences, the fact remains: the United States is a uniquely violent place. There are more gunshot murders annually in the United States than there are in all other countries combined. For whatever reasons, Americans kill each other with greater firepower and with greater frequency than do people anywhere else in the world.

I believe that the American mythology of the Wild West — of the lone pioneer fighting his way across the plains, defending his family against wild animals and wild Indians and wild country with nothing more than his grit, his wits, and his Winchester — lies at the heart of the American love of the gun. Glorify the outlaw, admire the lone wolf, mythologize the self-reliant pathfinder, and you get what you get.

Americans don’t like it when foreigners point this out. They especially don’t like it when an expatriate American points it out. Americans like to think of themselves as an exceptional people, as a special culture that has a special role to play in the world. The idea that the American Way could be flawed, could be somehow less than ideal, angers many Americans.

It makes some Americans want to reach for a gun.


(For someone who does lay the political blame, read Paul Krugman @