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…
Hatred – and 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 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. 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) 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 speak about the money behind the NRA without speaking about depleted uranium bombs in Yemen. We can’t discuss the prisons that house – and breed – our killers without discussing the two million Palestinians housed in the outdoor prison known as Gaza.
Once we acknowledge the broader historical, religious and racial contexts, then we can bring in issues such as the firearms industry, the police (who actually do a shockingly large percentage the killing), the question of mental health, and the collapsing economy, with its parallel collapse of possibilities for the white, male working class.
Studies indicate that the likelihood of advancing in social class – the core fantasy of the American Dream – has decreased significantly since the 1980s. But to understand the mythic roots of the current epidemic of rage, it’s really useful to look back to 2003 and note that 56 % of those blue-collar men who correctly perceived George W. Bush’s tax cuts as favoring the rich still supported them.
The myth of the self-made man – the hero who succeeds without any community support, or who violently saves the innocent community and then leaves it – is as deeply engrained as our wild, naïve optimism and our ignorance of the facts. As late as the year 2000, 19 % of Americans believed they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19 % thought they already were. Two-thirds expected to have to pay the estate tax one day (only two percent did, even before the recent tax bill that has drastically reduced even that tiny number).
Sooner or later, the individual, non-political behaviors prove to be either unavailable or (though addictive) ultimately unsatisfying. And when our assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters his opposite – the victim / loser – within himself, and we become what we really are (except for Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history. American 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.
“America,” says Glen Slater, “has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.” When we realize that such movement is blocked, we go ballistic. 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.”
White people in America may well have had permission to dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. The gap between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – is 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, white, mass killer is an expression of social mobility gone bad.
Students of myth do not look at motivation – we don’t really care why Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. We look first at the facts of the story itself: this is what happened. Only after accepting the facts themselves do we ask why. So we ask, is mass violence culturally approved? And we have to answer, yes, it must be, since in this story, society insists on doing nothing to prevent it.
Or at least when whites, especially the police, are doing it. But when armed Black Panthers marched on Sacramento in 1967, it took only a few weeks for Governor Ronald Reagan to enact a strong gun control law. As I wrote above, there is something about the hatred – and joy – of this intensity of violence that is characteristically American. Here is something like a corollary, a sub-rule of the myth of innocence: in this story, only white people are allowed to enact their rage without consequences.
All Others are forewarned: the display of your anger at anyone other than your own people will be severely punished. Senator Orrin Hatch explains, apparently without irony, how we perpetuate our sense of innocence: “Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life.”