The brutal and tragic killing of 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado has raised the thorny issue of gun control in an election year. Not surprisingly both Obama and Romney, fearful of being targeted the politically powerful National Rifle Association have dodged the issue and stated that they are committed to defending the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to bear arm. For or against gun control has become the central focus of the political debate.
But what if the entire debate is, in part, besides the point? Don't get me wrong, the American obsession with owning M-16s and Uzis is a clear signpost that America is a sick society. The fact that it is easier to get guns than it is to get decent healthcare or to organize a union is also a symbol of America's bizarro world priorities. And it is those priorities that ought to be interrogated because they are ultimately at the root of America's gun crime world record.
First, the idea that mass killers - or even just run of the mill murderers - are the result of gun availability or not misses the underlying point: why do so many Americans solve their problems with weapons? I mean, why would a guy who had a bright future, like James Holmes, do such a thing? Why would high school students show up to school and shoot their fellow students? Let's try to pick this apart.
There's an element of chickens coming home to roost in all of this - obviously not that any of the victims deserved what they got but rather that America valorizes violence in its foreign and domestic policy and, as a reflection of that, in its popular culture. The US spends more on the military than the next ten biggest military spenders combined. They spend as much on the military as on education and sixty percent more on the military than on welfare. America holds its pre-eminent place in the world order, as the empire that rules other empires, by use of that enormous military might. It propped up the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak by supplying weapons and money for weapons. It sells plentiful weapons to Saudi Arabia that are used, in part, to suppress their own population. The lion's share of aid to Israel is also in the form of military equipment. In fact, America is the world's largest supplier of weapons used in global conflicts.
Given the importance of weapons to the US political and economic system it's no surprise that the foreign policy response of the USA involves violence or the threat of violence. After 9/11 the first response of America wasn't to examine why they were targeted, it was rather to organize a war... against two countries that weren't responsible for the 9/11 attack, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, America has invaded more countries and overthrown more foreign government than any nation in history.
At home the response to social problems and social movements is also profoundly influenced by the role of violence. From the violent repression of the Black Panthers in the 1970s to the police brutality by leading NYPD officers that brought the Occupy Wall Street movement to national attention, violence is the go-to response to political movements. It's no surprise that America incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country on the planet. Punishment for deviancy is a core American value.
And this dependency on violence to maintain America's dominant position in the world order can't but help find its expression in popular culture. Of the top ten highest grossing films of 2011at least eight have plots that revolve around violence, or in which the problems of the lead character are solved through violence. I'm no prude and I like a good action movie; this isn't about judging people's personal tastes but rather making the point that American society is steeped in violence.
But it doesn't end with valorizing violence. That valorization itself is rooted in the fact that America is the most unequal society on the planet. America NEEDS violence to sustain that inequality - that and a stiflingly conservative and narrow ideology that labels anyone who disagrees with the main tenets of US foreign or domestic policy (never mind challenging the dominance of the market) as "UnAmerican." In part because social and political responses to inequality are shut down, the frustration that working people feel is often channeled into interpersonal violence, both verbal and physical. Secondly, the inequality and repressive laws, for instance around drugs, lead many poor people into a life of crime, understanding that "crime" is itself defined by those with power. It's OK to steal the homes and livelihoods of millions of ordinary workers (in fact, you will be rewarded with a bailout when the pyramid scheme comes crashing down). But if you sell a bag of weed or crack cocaine you will spend some serious time in jail. When people are defined as living outside the law they are the subject of violence, both by state institutions like the police and prison system, and from outlaw gangs who compete through violence as a side effect of their outlaw status.
Finally, the military and repressive priorities of the US federal and state governments and the lack of a comprehensive and universal health care system, austerity to social programs at the state level, etc. means that deeply disturbed people are on their own. The destruction of any institutions of social solidarity - outside of the family, which lacks the training and resources to tackle mental health issues - means that someone as deranged as James Holmes is left to fend for himself. He had more opportunity to purchase guns and ammunition online than he did to receive treatment. If the money spent on the US military were instead spent on a comprehensive network of support services - from welfare to mental health services and more - it would be less likely that someone like James Holmes would fall through the cracks. And it would also create a paradigm shift in some of the dominant values of American society, making it less likely that his mental derangement would lead him towards violence.
Gun control? Sure. But it's time to talk about the sickness at the heart of American society that is at root - not least because that is exactly the model which Harper's conservatives would have us emulate here in Canada.
Obama, Romney back gun owners as they decry shootings - The Globe and Mail:
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