“What might happen,” asks my friend Carolyn Baker, “if instead of talking about gun control and the war on terror, we spent the next 48 hours just GRIEVING. No shopping, no TV, no Internet. Instead, we come together in our neighborhoods and communities and wail and sob – not just for the children in Newton, Connecticut but for the planet that human beings are killing; for the 200 species that are becoming extinct every day; for wars everywhere on earth; for millions of humans who go to bed hungry every night. We can’t answer ‘what might happen?’ until we actually do it. Nothing else has changed our planetary suicide. I believe two solid days of grieving would.”
After that, and after the usual expressions of outrage that the Democrats are too afraid of the NRA to enact real gun control, we might look at the mythological elements in American culture for some insight, as I did in Chapter Nine of my book:
One of our most fundamental values is social mobility, or the opportunity to get ahead. However, the likelihood of advancing in social class in America has actually decreased significantly since the 1980s. But fifty-six percent of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived George Bush’s 2003 tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them.
Why? Because the myth of the self-made man is as deeply ingrained as our wild, naïve optimism; in the year 2000, nineteen percent believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another nineteen percent thought they already were. Two-thirds of us expect to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent will).
But when our long-ingrained, American assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters his opposite – the victim – within himself, and we become what we really are (except perhaps for Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history.
Violent crime is a natural by-product of our values, an alternative means of social mobility in a society where “anything goes” in the pursuit of success.
In this context, mythologist Glen Slater of Pacifica Graduate Institute wrote an excellent piece in Spring Journal (# 81) a few years ago. “America,” he writes, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” We go ballistic when we can only imagine moving forward and that movement is blocked. Then guns become the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, they are “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.”
Americans may well dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. Gaps between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – are also far higher here than anywhere else. When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, mass killer (almost all of whom have been white, middle class men with no criminal background) is an expression of social mobility gone bad.
Our frontier myths and terror of the Other prevent the gun-control legislation common in most countries. Forty percent of American adults own 260 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms.
Here is where our mythology enters the conversation: Twenty-four percent of us believe that “it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want,” a far higher number than in any European country.
We suffer 15,000 gun murders, 18,000 gun suicides and 1,500 “accidental” gun deaths per year. America’s adult murder rate is seven times higher and its teen murder rate twelve times higher than in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and Germany. These nations together have 20 million teenagers; in 1990 a total of 300 were murdered. That same year, of America’s 17 million teens, 3,000 were murdered, while thirty of Japan’s ten million teens were murdered, a rate one-fiftieth of ours.
Slater concludes that gun violence “keeps the national psyche in a holding pattern, preventing it from a more conscious encounter with more soul-wrenching issues.”
In response to such violence, America murders criminals (especially if they are men of color) to show that killing is wrong. However, the impulse to scapegoat the Other clashes with the temptation to deny our darkness. Executions, though common, are private affairs; the state no longer displays the grizzly results publicly (as commonly happened up to the 19th century). The result is that capital punishment has no deterrent effect.
Meanwhile, constant, massive, fictional death in film and TV reduces the emotional impact of actual death. By age eighteen, an American will have seen 18,000 virtual murders. “Harmless violence where no one gets hurt,” wrote James Hillman, “breeds innocence…the innocent American is the violent American.”
History, too, has conspired. No one alive can recall the Civil War, and there are no movie records of its carnage. There had been no warfare on American continental soil for well over a century until the recent terrorist acts. The U.S. has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. It lost comparatively few soldiers and fewer than 2,000 civilian war deaths during the twentieth century. Except for the World War II generation, we have little memory of loss comparable to other countries. Consequently, America is one of the few nations in which public figures glorify the military.
Given our beliefs about using force, it follows that we rarely object to externalizing our violence. The U.S. spends more money on arms than the rest of the world combined. Calculated accurately, annual military expenditures typically exceed $1.2 trillion, over half of the federal budget. What are these beliefs on the international scale? Forty-two percent of us (compared to eleven percent of Europeans) strongly agree that, “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice.” Only forty-six percent of us believe that bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians are never justified.
Bullets and bombs: Apollo was the Greek god whose arrows killed from afar. We are talking about Apollonian (and therefore often emotionless) violence at a distance, where we remain insulated from the human consequences.
Forty years ago, the sociologist Philip Slater identified the pattern: “America has developed more elaborate, complex, and grotesque techniques for exterminating people at a distance than any nation in the history of the world…perhaps the distance itself carries special meaning.”
American exceptionalism: What is extraordinary about us, wrote historian Richard Hofstadter, is “our ability to believe that we are a peace-loving and law-abiding people.”
And what about the rest of us, the non-violent, the pro-gun control, the pacifists, the average people? Who among us hasn’t said something like this: “I just don’t understand how that person could have done that, how he could have killed those children.”
The shocked reaction is understandable. “No sane person,” we say, “would commit such heinous crimes. He must have been mentally ill.” But in a culture of violence, our disbelief can be a measure of our own innocence and a way of distancing ourselves from the darkest truth: in this time, in this nation, we are all capable of such actions, because we choose to remain innocent. As long as “we” don’t acknowledge what we as Americans subtly condone by our inaction, “others” will have to carry our darkness.
The myth of innocence allows us to perpetrate mass destruction while simultaneously denying death’s reality. Until we as a nation can go to that dark place and grieve together, the violence will continue.