In the wake of yet another mass shooting, we are again being inundated with all the usual chatter attempting to attach the singular blame for the incident on one of a number of theoretical culprits: the prevalence of guns and lack of their regulation, mental illness and/or antidepressants, race, gender, and on and on and on. And it’s not that any of those factors should be ignored, but the myopic focus on any one of them at the price of ignoring or even delegitimizing others is not going to solve the very real problem that these mass shootings keep happening and are going to keep happening until we get serious about trying to understand why we have so many of them in the United States. We need to understand that there is a fundamental problem within our culture and it is not attributable to totalizing factors like ‘too many guns’ or ‘not enough focus on mental health’ or ‘men have anger problems.’
The fundamental problem of our culture, the substrate upon which these violent acts catalyze, is that we have long seen violent means as not only a rational and acceptable solution for overcoming our perceived problems as a nation, but we have made it so that these acts of violence are viewed as ethically sound, even to the point that questioning them is itself deemed unethical, unpatriotic, and morally repugnant. It is a cultural virtue to defend the atrocities routinely committed by our government and is considered a social crime to question them; it is ‘unpatriotic,’ and some even go as far as to say it’s treasonous.
For centuries we have dehumanized and committed acts of ostensible genocide against Native Americans, and for not quite as long, but quite long enough to have left an indelible intellectual mark on our society, we have been extending these conquests extra-territorially, to the point where we now have military outposts in dozens of foreign countries and routinely bomb, invade, and utilize drone strikes to accomplish murkily explained policy imperatives we’re supposed to just gleefully cheer on as ‘the right thing.’
We allow our military to massacre innocent people in foreign countries, even cheering them on as they do so, so it’s only a matter of consistency that we have become ethically and morally numb to the regular occurrence of our citizens doing it to one another. If we’re cool with the US government killing innocent people without having to provide anything but the vaguest of explanations, and sometimes not even that, then how can we seriously stand up and say to the lone gunmen in Oregon, South Carolina, Connecticut, and wherever else is next, that their violence is of some other variety that we vehemently condemn? The answer is that we can’t, unless we’re being ethically inconsistent.
That ethical inconsistency is the crux of the problem. We can’t pretend like we’re a society that opposes violence when, at every turn, we imply that we’re totally okay with violence, as long as it’s state sanctioned violence. We can’t continue being the most imperialistic and violent military force in the world and not expect that certain segments of our citizenry will internalize this attitude, that violence is an adequate solution, and decide to apply it to their own lives when the time comes. Let’s face it, a drone strike that kills 20 people, most of them innocent, simply because one alleged ‘terrorist’ is hiding out in the same house, is of the same line of thinking that causes some asshole to grab his gun and murder a dozen or so people because he’s mad at Christians, black people, women, or society in general.
Until we honestly and openly start engaging in a serious national discussion on our violent tendencies as a society, we are not going to address the real problem. This starts with an honest reappraisal of our history, how we’ve treated people over time, including the Native peoples of our land, and the black people we brought over as slaves, in what is an official policy and legacy of violence whose tentacles still wrap themselves around our cultural institutions to this day. It continues with a serious reflection on our military history, especially in regards to our rise as an imperial power in the 20th century. Finally, we must do a better job of confronting US state violence as it exists today, both within our borders and beyond.
It is only when we finally get honest about who we are, that we will be able to confront and ultimately change the things we don’t like about ourselves.