How violent are we? The Gun Violence Archive keeps track of the astonishing numbers. The love of violence is so fundamental to the American psyche that we can easily trace it all the way back to the beginning. In 1636, a generation after landing in the New World and the same year that they founded Harvard College, New England Puritans massacred and burned 500-700 Native Americans known as the Pequots. As Bob Dylan would write 328 years later, they had “God on their side.” One of the perpetrators expressed no remorse, only praise for this God:
…It was a fearfull sight to see them (the natives) thus frying in the fryer, and the streams of blood…horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them…
The British were not unique in their God-driven savagery. Seven years later and a bit to the south the Dutch massacred 120 Lanape Indians at Communipaw (in today’s Jersey City), according to this witness:
Infants were torn from their mother’s breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small cradleboards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown…
Hatred – and communal joy – of this intensity expresses a privileged world view that begins in abstraction and alienation from the body and drapes itself in innocence. Ritual sacrifice – fire and blood – gives its practitioners a consistent moral self-image. It enabled the My Lai massacre – and dozens like it – in Viet Nam. It lies behind the communal celebration of whiteness known as the lynch mob, and it enables us to casually dismiss the torture of suspected terrorists in Iraq and Israeli massacres in Gaza. But it does not completely insulate us from guilt. For that to occur, one more step is required: the erasure of memory. After the Pequot massacre, the Puritans passed a law making it a crime to utter the word “Pequot.”
We’ve all heard the statistics by now: 40% of American adults own 260 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms. We suffer 12,000 gun homicides (a thousand by the police), 25,000 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. Glen 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.”
Some of this is about availability and the gun lobby. But we’re talking about rage, and the privilege of acting upon that rage (or ignoring it when others perpetrate it). Rage is about psychology, but belief systems are about mythology. Twenty-four percent of us – a far higher rate than in most countries – believe that “it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want.”
Of course, to maintain such complacency – and complicity – among the general population requires massive and continual government and media propaganda, which typically ensures huge support in the early stages of each foreign intervention. Eventually, our deeper impulse toward human solidarity arises, and our wars lose their popularity. The fact that the public predictably falls for the next set of lies about the next set of designated evildoers (told, as they are now, by the same pundits who lied about “weapons of mass destruction”, who never suffer the consequences of either their mendacity or their inaccuracy) seems to indicate a repetitive national pattern that we can only call addiction.
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,” writes James Hillman, “breeds innocence…the innocent American is the violent American.”
And although the idea of American innocence should always bring us back to race, our mythic blinders can prevent us from seeing the obvious. Many writers have recently addressed the pathology behind the fact that men commit most murders. But surprisingly few make the necessary leap to the deeper issue: the fact that white men commit the vast majority of mass murders, whether on school campuses or in the 170 countries where the U.S. empire stations troops.
We can’t achieve any real insight without taking this background into account. We can’t speak of school shootings without also speaking of Rambo. We can’t criticize the billionaires behind the NRA without speaking about depleted uranium bombs in Yemen, or the 1.45 million firearms the Pentagon has provided to security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can’t lament our prisons that house – and breed – our killers without discussing the two million Palestinians housed in the outdoor prison known as Gaza. And we can’t discuss the male bonding that occurs among soldiers in our imperial wars without talking about how Brett Kavanaugh and his buddy laughed while they tried to rape Christine Blasey Ford.
Yes, we have far more than our share of lone, alienated, white madmen with easy access to automatic weapons who rape women or shoot up our schools and churches. But to understand the sense of privileged anger that Kavanaugh displayed, we have to go deeper into the sense of communal joy in violence that I mentioned above. This is the only way to explain the Trump administration’s well-publicized (and highly popular among his base) separation and prosecution of thousands of brown-skinned immigrant families, including those who have legally applied for asylum. It is precisely the cruelty that is the point of all this, writes Adam Serwer:
…the president’s mocking of (Blasey Ford’s) testimony renders all sexual-assault survivors collateral damage. Anyone afraid of coming forward, afraid that she would not be believed, can now look to the president to see her fears realized. Once malice is embraced as a virtue, it is impossible to contain…The cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies, and the ritual rhetorical flaying of his targets before his supporters, are intimately connected…adolescent male cruelty toward women is a bonding mechanism, a vehicle for intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together…It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump…(his) only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear…The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
The communal experience: this is an essential, if utterly debased, aspect of male initiation. In Chapter Five of my Madness at the Gates of the City, I write:
Tribal societies celebrated individual girls as women upon first menstruation, whereas the holy madness could afflict boys at any time. The elders took on groups of boys who had shown their readiness by their behavior, regardless of their age…since girls generally mature through biological changes, their initiations were primarily confirmation rites; nature had already turned them into women. By contrast, a boy’s litima didn’t make him a man. He was made into a man through the intervention of representatives of culture. So male initiations were rituals of transformation rather than of confirmation.
From the symbolic but perverted standpoint – and let me be very clear about this – only from this standpoint – of our quickly collapsing demythologized world, where misogyny is fighting a last-gasp battle, group rape is an initiation for both the men and the woman. Actually, we more commonly refer to this communal sex crime as “gang rape.” At this level of interpretation, a gang, whether in South Los Angeles or in a Skull and Bones basement, is an initiatory group.
The men go through it together, encouraged if not shamed into participating in a ritual of gratuitous violence in which the laughter has more than a small component of nervousness. Often, they perpetrate their brutality upon each other before turning it toward women. After all, in being ritually granted membership in this fraternity of malice, they know – they really do know – that the whole point is to sacrifice the relational capacity of their indigenous souls. The rituals of patriarchal initiation have always made this tradeoff clear. They are laughing to keep from crying. And other rituals teach them to only allow their grief into consciousness as anger.
And the woman or girl who is the lone object of this theater of cruelty learns definitively, if not for the first time, what her value and her acceptable roles are in this world, according to the patriarchs. Whereas in the indigenous world, the older women would have taught her her true, core value, now even they may participate in the humiliation process, as they do when they perform genital mutilation upon her.
All understand, or are made to understand, that even this act is for the men, who do not want her to ever feel pleasure in the sex act, even with her husband. She, objectified, demonized, de-sexualized and covered up, hyper-sexualized and undressed, foot-bound and ultimately responsible for his behavior for five thousand years, is pissed. He knows this, and he fears the consequences. How does he deal with that fear? By denying it and replacing it with anger.