Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reflections about Violence

Twelve people die, killed by a heavily armed gunmen in a Colorado movie theater, the latest in a series of random shootings that have become commonplace in our country. The president and his opponent suspend their acrimonious campaign and express their deep sorrow. But they have no suggestions for what the government might do to lower the level of violence. They are prepared to accept the recurrence of mass murder as a regular feature of our life.

Pundits are quick to call for more gun control. But it is not obvious that gun control is what we need to be talking about. Perhaps the more pressing question is: "why is gun control such an incendiary issue?" Millions of Americans believe that they need to be armed in order to be safe. The gruesome evidence that being armed does not protect you against a mass shooter in a darkened movie theater has no weight for them. They live in a world of imminent mortal threats where they believe that only the weapons in their hand will allow them to survive.

Most people deplore mass shootings, a high murder rate – close to 17,000 in 2011--, but these are not the only manifestations of violence in our society. 
At least half of the daily news stories report death and destruction. Violence sells newspapers and tv news. Television entertainment, year in, year out, has a heavy dose of police and spy dramas; computer games allow us to be humans or super-humans with enormously bulky weapons blasting everything in sight. Even sports are popular for the players' violence. 
Here are some quotes from a review of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises—the film showing during the Aurora CO massacre: “Fight sequences between Batman and Bane were awesome. Loved every second of it.” (

Americans love violence. 
They also live in a world where many are prepared to inflict bodily or psychological harm on others to get what they want.

The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, estimates that 19,000 women in uniform were victims of sexual assaults last year. Among civilians, one in four women suffers sexual assaults. 22% of women and 7% of men report having suffered violence in intimate relationships. In 2008 – 2009 28% of children in schools reported having been bullied. 6% were subject to cyber-bullying.

We barely extricated ourselves from the Iraq war and seem still unable to leave Afghanistan. While all that is going on we participated in a bombing campaign in Libya and the foreign policy experts in Washington are thinking seriously of a military attack on Iran. The US Navy has moved more ships into the waters around Iran.

The budget of the US govt for 2012 amounts to $3.7 trillion. $900 billion of that—about a quarter-- is budgeted for defense. We spend 5 times as much on defense as China (with a population many multiples of ours) and 10 times as much as Russia, 11 times as much as France and England. 
Who are we defending ourselves against?

And, coming back to the beginning of this reflection, no one speaks of the pervasive violence—both loved and abhorred by us-- that is the backdrop of daily life in the US. No one seems to regard these facts as unacceptable. Violence is accepted as a fact of national life. 
Gun violence is only one form violence takes in America. Focusing on gun control is to ignore the much larger problem that is the American love-hate relation to violence. We are ambivalent about violence. We glorify military violence but do not know what to think when a rising number of soldiers turn their weapons on themselves. We deplore violence done to us and those we love but are fascinated by news stories about violence. We spend $60 billion a year for Homeland Security to protect ourselves from the bloody mayhem we engage in playing computer games.

The first step in trying to overcome an addiction is to acknowledge it. America will not overcome its addiction to violence without first recognizing its existence. Nothing short of an extended national conversation about violence in American life will help. 
Will such a conversation purge us of the desire to inflict bodily and mental pain on others? No one knows the answer to that.

But obviously accepting violence, as we do today, will not make us into a more peaceful nation.