The massacre of the Sandy Hook schoolchildren last month offered yet another painful proof that the creation of violent minds is big business and that, in its many aspects, the business of violence has become a far too accepted part of the fabric of contemporary life in the United States.
It is unacceptable to live in a nation that calls itself civilized and holds up its values to the world as exemplary, yet does not protect its most vulnerable members—its children. Murdering students in their schools has become something of a national pastime, extending from the colleges to the high schools and reaching into the utter innocence of the elementary school.
It is unacceptable to continue to provide the horrific means for murder to those deranged humans whose passions have focused on the murder of masses of the less strong. It is unacceptable, and not anything that can be remotely called civilized, for the politicians who supposedly represent the people, to actually represent gun interests and gun fanatics. One of our core basic needs is safety. It is unacceptable that masses of our people live in abject poverty and fear, their streets littered daily with corpses. In fact, we are far from being civilized. And the intention to create a civilized society may be waning. Instead, we live in a nation more and more removed from its wellspring of love and sharing.
Politicians shed tears, but make no definitive legislation—there are proclamations and calls, but we cannot count on enactment. Pundits offer explanations of the psychology of the murderer. The media calls on behavioral science savants to explain the violence, but ignore its systemic causes, paving over the impaired, cracked foundation of our road. “It can’t be the violence of the game culture and movies—studies have shown.” “It must be neglectful parents and divorce.” “How could they not know?” “It’s not guns but the people who use them.” “The national murder rate has dropped.” Which must mean that the second highest murder rate in the world after Russia is not so bad after all—14,000 or so killed annually in the United States, two-thirds by guns, etc. “Bull,” I say.
I am sick at heart, nauseated, listening to this manure that is hauled out after every horrific jolt to our souls. I am frustrated with focusing on the dead, as they die in ever increasing numbers and awful horror, without any meaningful political action being taken. I want solutions and action for the living! I know what it is like to fight for my child’s life and to lose him. I have experienced what civilized medicine can do to prolong life. And in contrast, against all that marvelous effort to save a life, many children’s lives, there is this instantaneous snuffing out of lives, this brutal waste of all that is ahead. Afghanistan is here in the United States! Terrorism at home is our own domestic creation. Scream No! with me. Enough!
However difficult the road ahead may be for efforts to change our society, we know that the spirit of loving-kindness survives and can be cultivated and amplified. We have only to feel the volume of empathy and communal suffering that this massacre has kindled. And there are the humane and communitarian efforts being made on the Hurricane Sandy–damaged East Coast. They exemplify our compassionate capacities. We do respond to the calls for mercy and community effort, assisting one another, rebuilding, and loving our neighbors. We have that in us! And we need to grow this as an embracing loving-kindness that seeks truth and justice, that understands our violence-producing culture and takes back control for the 99 percent, building a truly representative democracy for all.
Inciting Violence—A Definition to Keep in Mind
Inciting violence involves creating the conditions for violence to arise. This may occur by directly inciting, by using persuasive means, or by paying for and investing in violent acts and creating a consciousness that tends to violence. In other words, we incite violence when we participate in creating a culture in which violence is an acceptable aspect of mind and is cultivated, valued, eroticized, and associated with heroic archetypes.
Let’s examine the various aspects of our immersion in this culture of violence—its nature, causes, and manifestations—the contextualization of the violent individual:
Our Culture Is of Guns
There are at least 260 million of them—no doubt an underestimate. So-called self-defense is conceptualized as requiring military weapons, giant magazines filled with bullets designed for maiming and lethality. Can we even conceive of a society in which the only guns are those licensed for actual hunting? Or of a society with no guns at all? The second amendment justification for bearing arms applied to the Revolutionary period—1776 and the next few decades, when the British, indeed, might have and did try for re-conquest. But the British haven’t been coming for nigh on two hundred years. Compare our ever more gun-toting society with those that have few guns. Their murder rates are a small fraction of ours. Listen to the politicians’ reactive, feeble proposals for gun regulation, as if the use, retention, and possession of guns were key to our societal well-being.
No politician dares to call for a society in which existing guns are purchased back, a limited number of guns are sold specifically for hunting, with stringent licensing, and we demilitarize our households and streets. No one!
Instead we are treated to bogus proposals for curbing the civil rights of the mentally ill, a national registry of the potentially dangerous mentally ill, and early detection by surveillance of the population. Let’s get real and choose the much more direct and more easily administered registration of all guns and gun owners. Let’s keep guns out of the hands of those who might use them—the mentally ill, the potentially mentally ill, gun owners, criminals, NRA members, lunatic fringies, etc. We license drivers and motor vehicles without a qualm, doctors and nurses, dogs—why not guns and gun owners? As though it should be a deep, sacred secret who has a gun—secret, that is, until they are used to violence others?
Guns Are Too Easy to Use
There is no taking back the act of shooting. Once begun, it is too easy to continue. Keep pulling the trigger. Harming many is all too possible with guns. The greater the firepower, the greater the ability to cause mass casualties. Guns act at a distance, allowing the shooter to remain remote and uninvolved with the victim. Guns have enormous lethality making wounding without killing less likely. Seeing the results of a heinous, violent action tends to wake us up. But with guns it is often too late. I can’t take back my act. I am launched into violence. No stopping now. I am dead. I don’t see any future. There is no consequence to my further actions.
Carl Sandburg wrote A Revolver at an unknown time before his death in 1967. The poem has just been found:
Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word,
A simple little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery, hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case cannot be appealed to the supreme
court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of
execution come in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.
Please note that he was not talking about Bushmasters, AK-47s, and Glocks.
Violence Is Big Business in the United States—Perhaps the Biggest
Our military budget grows ever larger. The war and armaments business is probably our most innovative and certainly our most profitable industry, with no curtailment of its excesses in sight. That lobby always wins, even in an economic depression, constantly citing terrorism and self-defense as the rationale for its growth. There was no “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. The missiles and their atomic warheads are still here. The aircraft carriers still roam the seas projecting military might wherever not asked. At a time when the United States is the world’s only superpower, and demilitarization and internationalization of peace forces are more possible and certainly desirable, it is the military-industrial juggernaut that is the real force for its own bloated demand for more and more.
Militarism feeds the culture of violence and creates the delusion of Ramboism, in which the individual views himself as a lone warrior. Highly moralistic within his own individualistic framework, he fights on though emotionally alienated and isolated from his own community. Civilians are inconsequentially in the way of his rampage. Might will triumph no matter the cost—an exclusionary delusion that inflames the possibility for actual rampages to occur. It is the glorification of the damaged, hurting, righteous warrior—and it has great appeal. It is emulated—and murders occur by those who posture wearing that persona. There is no love there.
The Absence of Loving Parenting
Contributing to this culture of violence is the ever-increasing number of broken families. Too many of us suffer an absence of invested, coherent, intimate, and loving parenting. Centrifugal pressures on families grow ever more severe with economic depression, the marginalization of large sectors of our society from productive labor and hope for economic gain, and the atomization that occurs as a result of the intense corporate drive to have us each buy more to increase profits. This leads to a social structure that is less loving and nurturing and less able to develop and sustain the emotional supports that build empathic connections. This materialism that defines and induces false needs as essential for well-being—consumerism—isolates people from others and their authentic emotional needs.
The Absence of Leadership Models
A model of great, trustworthy leadership is absent from our lives. We have just concluded an election in which a superwealthy, anti–99 percent man who is terrifically good at tax evasion and keeping as much for himself as humanly possible ran for our highest office and received 48 million votes. And now in 2013, hypocrisy and corruption at the highest levels and throughout the political food chain continue to justify individualism, narcissism (positive and negative), isolation, and selfishness—core aspects of the psyches of damaged, potentially harmful souls that presage the break and its destructive action.
The Deterioration of the Mental Health System
Great, good values enacted and lived tend to produce great, good souls. But not invariably. Psychotic breaks occur also among the most loved and nurtured. Fear and paranoia can accelerate and altered states may produce behavior destructive to a person’s self and others. In my over forty years as a psychiatrist, the mental health system has disintegrated. It has not been a priority for our society. Pharmacological treatment long ago reached its zenith; there has been relatively little progress in over twenty years, despite all the sensational big Pharma television advertising to seduce the end-user. With community mental health programs defunded and insurance coverage usually absent, with lack of first-line treatment for individuals moving into psychosis, with civil laws constraining psychiatric incarceration—usually reasonably so given the history of psychiatric incarceration as a tool for punishment—there is too little possibility for constructive interventions that might interrupt a destructive process.
We Are Investing in Violence
Violence is attractive and sells. The humungous billions extracted from willing wallets to pay for simulated violence as entertainment creates murderous combat illusions and delusions. We are witnessing the great success of investing in violent minds. They buy and buy and buy, matching their wits in war and street fighting against newer and more violent myriad enemies of myriad sorts—the stunning creations of murderous video games and megaviolent movies.
As a doctor, I know what life looks like in its myriad torments and endings. It never resembles the virtual. Virtual violence does not prepare anyone for combat, or the streets, or self-protection. It is entertainment in realms of fictive identifications. Watching tens of thousands getting wounded and dying, killing in unimaginable numbers, dividing the world into enemies and allies, taking sides based on your culture and religion—murder in droves by the end of adolescence—all of this warps. There is no similar investment in peace and love, and, in contrast, that pursuit feels relatively tame and unrewarding. You don’t get rich, get the girls, or become the macho guy, protect your race, thwart demons and world destruction. Peace movies are not box-office smashes.
There is an obvious payoff to our immersion in virtual violence—more real violence.
And what is to be done right now? Our life orientation is a function of our values. Decades ago Martin Luther King said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” That means personally and collectively challenging our assumptions, desires, and ways of being—our attitudes that have been influenced by this negative and violent culture. We must examine our prejudices, preoccupations, and even our fantasy worlds. Do we consciously and unconsciously, by our actions or inaction, support this violent culture? Will we get guns out of our society? Are we afraid or too immersed in our lives to build a movement for love and connection—for peace and safety? Will we reclaim our political lives by getting money out of politics so that democratic representation will return?
I really appreciate you writing this piece. I’ve been upset for years by the gratuitous use of guns in movies—nearly every American movie has a gun shooting in it (versus food and wine in French movies). And now so many young kids sit and shoot at people as they play video games. I appreciate that you wrote such a thorough and thoughtful piece about this very important issue.
Thanks very much for including the Carl Sandburg poem.
You described many underlying causes, but I’d also add this: Americans are generally fearful. We were conned into the Iraq war because 9/11 terrified us literally beyond reason. I know people who are afraid to drive in Miami, Oakland and LA because they’re sure that they’ll be carjacked.
Undocumented immigration has been at net zero for a couple of years, but we vote for politicians who tell us that we must build a giant fence!
One last thing: the rest of the world thinks we’re completely insane on this topic.
I like this piece because it touches on what has not really been addressed at all in the gun-violence debate: the reason for the high demand for guns in the U.S. Our society is merciless and cruel. There’s nothing wrong with individualism. The form that individualism has taken in the U.S., however, is pathological. We need a better understanding of how we have gotten this way and what we can do to change if we really have any hope of reducing gun-related violence. See: http://mgpiety.org/2012/12/15/the-logic-of-limiting-violence/
This piece as all your prior works, inform me, inspire me, enrage me because I feel somehow powerless to do anything to change. Killing for sport, or owning guns to defend oneself or family have no place but in a battle field. Mental health is the ultimate scapegoat for this is an ENCORE to the 99% movement… 99% of us being held HOSTAGE by the politicking of the 4,500.000 NRA membership. I am grateful for you speak for the our silent majority. Shalom