Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shooting in Arizona

As various observers have pointed out, mass shootings have become ordinary events in the US. There was Columbine; there was Virginia Tech. There have been so many random shootings in post offices that “going postal” has become an accepted expression in English. And now there is a mass shooting in Arizona. Everyone is upset. Congress had a tearful meeting on the South stairs of the Capitol. Everyone is angrily pointing fingers at someone else.

Once again we hear calls for gun control. There are numerous calls for "greater civility" in political discourse--such as by President Obama in his Tucson speech.

But these reactions remain on the surface and fail to acknowledge that these episodes of open, very public violence are simply manifestations of the violence that pervades American life. These reactions may even be read as a deliberate refusal to look into our own hearts to see our anger, suspicion and sense of powerlessness.

Many Americans are very angry. Many people feel suspicious of their neighbors; many feel very terribly powerless. Many carry loaded weapons. The fantasies of having a shoot out in self-defense or in defense of American Traditions seem very powerful and widespread. Shooting weapons, even on the practice range, satisfies these violent fantasies. So does the daily news of murders, grisly accidents, family violence, drug wars, and assassinations. Also police dramas, violent computer games, road rage and cut throat competition in business appeal to the angry and powerless. Bullying in the schools has recently been in the news. Family violence never leaves the news.

People who compensate for their anger, fear, and powerlessness by violent fantasies are passionate in support of gun control, of capital punishment, and prone to support a security state. Hence they are for "law and order" and join vigilantes when they can. Hence they demonize other groups: Communists, anarchists, gay men and women, immigrants, undocumented workers, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, sex offenders. All this suppressed violence creates an atmosphere of hatred. In spite of our image of “one nation under God” we often act more like a snarling pack of wild animals.

Mass shootings show us our real face. They will continue as long as a significant portion of the American people is consumed by anger, is suspicious of strangers, feel impotent in the face of the government, “liberals,” and the ubiquitous communists under their beds.

Neither gun control nor calls for “civility” and certainly not passionate attacks on Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh et al. will alter the basic mood of America. That mood is anchored in the deep structures of our society and our history as owners of slaves and conquerors of Native American lands. They are anchored in the insecurity of most peoples' work, in their dependence on the distant and often bureaucratic management of huge corporations. They are anchored in the selling of our democratic system to the highest bidder.

We can't alter our history and do not seem to be prepared to do anything about social structures. We only deal with the symptoms of widespread anger and suspicion. We may succeed for a while and allow public life to settle down to a more moderate level of anger and violence. After all our national character is complex. Next to the anger and powerlessness often sits a neighborly, helpful and compassionate streak. One moment we look with suspicion at the dark-skinned stranger on our street; the next we give generously to help victims of some far away disaster.

There are times when this kindly, optimistic streak is dominant and our public life is less violent. But such changes deal only with surface manifestations and the level of violence is bound to rise again when our angry, suspicious and powerless side once again becomes dominant. Until we manage to change, to make life better for all of us and thereby change our national character, violence will remain the periodically dominant trait of life in America..

At the moment we are not even trying.