In American culture, the display and use of massive firepower has become a feature of the true hero.
As this week’s and, in fact, any other week’s news reveals, the United States is literally shot on a regular basis. This week is exceptional: 59 in one go is the new record for a mass killing. The feat required a battery of very sophisticated weapons and a particularly resourceful assassin.
President Donald Trump has called Stephen Paddock’s murderous spree in Las Vegas “an act of pure evil.” This from a president who seems to have his own highly developed capacity to dabble in evil, through his highly visible capital sins of greed, pride and lust, to say nothing of envy, wrath and fast-food gluttony. In such circumstances, we can be sure the invocation of hell isn’t altogether inappropriate.
Have the gates of hell opened? Many in the media already see Lucifer in the White House. Others, observing the perennial wars and increasingly frequent hurricanes, earthquakes, waves of refugees and miscellaneous atrocities all around us — complemented by regional revolt in Britain, Kurdish Iraq and Catalonia — detect a major shift in geopolitical power that will bring about radical but utterly unpredictable changes in the economy and our daily lives.
The Wounded Republic
Many lucid voices have begun announcing not just the decline, but the imminent end of the American empire. Historian Alfred McCoy predicts the imminent demise of the dollar as the universal currency — the equivalent of a natural disaster on the scale of a continent, an earthquake that will keep trembling for over a decade and, inevitably, in the words of King Lear, “lay flat the thick rotundity” of America’s and Wall Street’s world. Does this translate as “mere anarchy … loosed upon the world”? Or is a new world order — contrasting massively with George Bush père’s short-lived version — emerging to replace it?
Violence is in the air and has been for some time. If it isn’t automatic, it’s semi-automatic. Live by the AK-47, die by the AR-17. America’s military history over nearly two and a half centuries has been one long campaign of controlled and managed violence. It appeared that George H.W. Bush’s new world order, following the fall of the Soviet Union, represented the crowning success of that process of growth and strict management. Francis Fukuyama even predicted the end of history, which presumably would have meant the end of war. That was more than a decade before the launch of what now appear to be perennial wars, one of the signs of a declining empire.
In contrast to military organization and focused political wars, uncontrolled violence has always existed in the margins and, of course, at the frontier. Politically managed violence was at one time embodied in the providential idea of Manifest Destiny, permitting the conquest of a continent. It subsequently expanded to the late 20th century’s Pax Americana that was designed to seem a lot less political than it actually was. The laws of the marketplace can sometimes disguise the laws the powerful impose on the powerless.
The war on terror, which first of all doesn’t appear to be a war and secondly has no identifiable political enemy, may represent the end of the traditional distinction between controlled and uncontrolled violence. Its central message appears to be that violence is now part of the landscape, meaning that armies and militarized police are required to keep it under control. In terms of propaganda, it seeks to instill the idea that controlled violence is preferable to uncontrolled violence and hopes that citizens will trust the violent state to control all the random violence in the landscape.
In the centuries before perennial war, two major domestic conflicts had the effect of defining and orienting America’s short history. The first was the “revolutionary war” of independence and the second was the Civil War or the War of Secession. Americans still refer to the war that gave birth to the nation as a revolutionary war, possibly because it sounds exciting and innovative. It occurred at the same time as Sturm und Drang and the Romantic movement were emerging to define the new wave of European literature. The rest of the world continues to refer to it not as a revolutionary war, but with the more banal description of a war of independence — a breaking away rather than a breaking through, a proto-Brexit, in a certain sense. It was nevertheless a dramatic event, made more so by the slow unfolding of its political outcome, the emergence of the world’s first constitutional democracy.
The nation called the United States came into being through the pursuit of a war against the nation that gave it its own culture — a culture to which it continued to adhere, despite this radical act of disobedience. In some mythological Freudian sense, this resembles the castration of the father. George the son (Washington), after chopping down his biological father’s phallic cherry tree in his youth — at least according to an obviously apocryphal legend — replaced George the father (George III) as the nation’s symbolic and real political leader. By George, that was an accomplishment!
The Civil War, which began some four score and four years later, turned out to be the most important event in the history of the new republic, possibly more important in its long-term consequences than the war of independence. Not just a spat between neighbors, it has left deep traces that are still with visible across the political spectrum. Apart from its obvious racial implications, the Civil War raised the question of the literal meaning of the nation’s name. How united were the states? And were the states really states, given that the original meaning of state is semantically identical to nation? The question of states’ rights haunted the 20th century, largely because of the unresolved racial question that lay behind the Civil War.
The Republicans are still at it, especially now in the age of Trump. The Supreme Court has never taken a definitive position on the question. The preamble of the Constitution begins with the phrase, “We the People of the United States.” It’s worth noticing that all the nouns in the text of the original Constitution were capitalized. Does this mean that “the People,” as a collective entity spread across the 13 states, had the status of a unified group of members of a single nation, the source of democracy? Or using modern typographical convention, should the phrase be read, “We the people of the united states,” emphasizing the attachment of the people to the diverse political units called states to which they owed their loyalty?
The very fact that the Civil War took place proves that the young nation had no clear idea about how united the states were meant to be. The dramatic outcome of the war — after a body count of some 620,000 sacrificed citizens — was to consolidate the union, legally if not culturally, definitively weakening the status of the states. States become the equivalent of provinces. Postwar culture stressed unity. Ever since the aftermath of the Civil War, every school child in America has recited, on a daily basis, “one nation, indivisible” (or “under God, indivisible” since 1954), as they pledge their allegiance to the flag and, seemingly secondarily, “to the republic for which it stands.” It goes without saying that the pupils are expected to be standing, not kneeling.
The Ideology of Violent Justice
Dramatic historical events mold the culture and inform what will ultimately become the prevailing value system. The memory of the violence of those two traumatic wars, one parricidal and the other fratricidal, continues to feed and influence US culture and insidiously model dominant as well as competing ideologies, on the left and on the right, in the North and the South, in the heartland and on the coasts. In a certain sense, US culture, with all its strands, represents a curt answer to Hamlet’s existential dilemma. When confronting complex problems, Americans have learned to waste no time or, like Congress — clearly a special case — simply stall forever. Opposition oblige.
More typically, the instinct of active Americans will be to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Hamlet, less concerned with wasting time, dismissed that course of action as soon as he had formulated it as a possible choice in his own mind. The Danish prince had too much respect for the overpowering force of the sea. Like the meek sparrow he later mentions, he ends up trusting “special providence” without trying to second-guess it through his own precipitous decisions. How Scandinavian of him! He must have been a socialist.
US foreign policy, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Benghazi, has never deviated from the line of thought that discovers seas of troubles and then links violent action to oppose them to an idea and ideal of justice. American wars are always associated with the notion of punishing those who resist specifically American ideas of a what constitutes a just order. Good guys in Hollywood have to be strong, bold and well armed to overcome the bad guys. Their violence is ultimately justified by the requirements of justice, even when they decide to retire from a life of violent law enforcement to marry a peace-loving Quaker played by Grace Kelly.
The reasons cited for carrying out violent acts against perceived injustice are many and varied: attacks on American ships, whether real or imaginary (the Maine in 1898, the Maddox in 1964); the attempt to annex a country (Kuwait) deemed momentarily friendlier or more strategic than the former ally wishing to expand its capacity for commerce (Iraq, 1991); fantasized, but highly publicized, weapons of mass destruction (Iraq, 2003); the very real but deemed insubordinate nationalization of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (Iran, 1953); the inconvenient undermining of United Fruit’s economic model built on the exploitation of local labor (Guatemala, 1954); or simply not being politically correct or economically compliant (Chile, 1973). These are just some examples. What they reveal is that violence is always associated with the sense of a mission “to set things right” (Hamlet again). This is always defined in terms of an idea of justice, or something broader and closer to a sonorous slogan, such as the permanent need to “make the world safe for democracy,” even if it means supporting autocratic regimes.
In American democracy, the state theoretically has no privileges that supersede those of the citizens themselves. That is how most people read the Bill of Rights. What the state can do, ordinary citizens can therefore feel justified in doing as well. That has, in any case, become the standard interpretation of the Second Amendment offered by the gun lobby and libertarians. The purpose of the amendment, we are told, is to protect the citizens’ right to take into their own hands, if necessary, the righting of wrongs. That includes eventually rebelling against the federal government with romantic aspirations similar to those of the colonists who revolted against England.
That point of view has become the standard orthodoxy, supported by the Supreme Court’s actual decisions, though at least one former chief justice, Warren Burger, a Richard Nixon appointee, begged to differ, and in no uncertain terms. “The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies — the militia — would be maintained for the defense of the state.” He called the gun lobby’s interpretation of the amendment “a fraud.”
Mark Twain, more than Alexis de Tocqueville, helped us to understand that American democracy created a culture in which snake oil would be easy to sell, both for the resourceful seller’s profit of and the buyer’s tranquility of mind and soul. After all, to quote Hamlet again, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The gun lobby has proved remarkably resourceful in turning on its head the literal meaning of the Second Amendment. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is still successfully selling its snake oil, at least to the politicians who feel a boost in their health when some of the profits from the sale land in their campaign funds.
But however you read the constitution, it remains merely the law of the land, not the culture of the nation. It’s what people believe and feel that counts. The idea of addressing evil and injustice through violence, so characteristic of both foreign policy and Hollywood drama, has been grafted into the cultural DNA of the nation. Hollywood has written it into the scenario of every action and crime film, to say nothing of war films. It has found its way into the most respectable documentaries. Mogie, the Vietnam war volunteer Ken Burns has just in the past weeks turned into a slightly ambiguous but clearly heroic icon, lived and breathed that cultural meme until, at the age of 17, he managed to run away from home and then blackmail his parents into allowing him to enlist for battle in Vietnam. Why? Not just because it was a romantic ideal, but also to, in his mother’s words, “prevent communism.” As if communism was a disease that could be prevented with the medicine of violence.
Which brings us to Las Vegas, Sin City — the one place in the world where whatever happens there, stays there. After three days of investigation, we still have no real clue about Stephen Paddock’s motives for massacring a crowd of concert attendees gathered across the street from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay. All we know for the moment is that he wasn’t a “terrorist,” because he was white. Furthermore, he had no known political leanings. That makes him officially a “lone wolf.” Perhaps we should invent a new term for this type of assassin and call him a “human drone,” because that’s what the essentially white government of the US, even under Barack Obama, prefers to use to terrorize populations.
Although he left no clues, Paddock certainly felt he was righting a wrong and using the means written into the Constitution to do so. Will we find a video confession similar to the one Elliot Rogers left us, who took the trouble to explain to us that he was about to right the wrong done to him by women, who had deprived him of “sex, fun and pleasure”? Could he have been driven, unconsciously, by Thomas Jefferson’s words concerning every American’s inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness.”
Dylann Roof, who cold-bloodedly murdered at close range nine black members of a church group, was more explicit: “Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
In US culture, the feeling of having a mission, when combined with the belief that it is right for citizens to be armed in order to eliminate some perceived injustice, contributes powerfully to a culture of getting even. Or rather more than even, since the display and use of massive firepower has become a feature of the true hero. Trump went to the United Nations just a few weeks ago to tell the world he was ready to pulverize an entire nation and all its people.
Politically motivated terrorism exists. It is typically a direct consequence of situations characterized, rightly or wrongly, by political and military aggression and domination. Politically motivated terrorism is easier to justify, more rational and — heinously inhuman as it is — makes more political sense than shooting random women because one is still a virgin at 22 or because one believes, as Roof claimed, that “blacks were taking over the world.”
We may never know what probably imaginary “cause” was behind Paddock’s militaristic rampage aimed at a crowd of people he had never met. What we can surmise because of what we know about the culture is that he had mentally bought into the military mystique of automatic weapons and efficient killing as an appropriate means of confronting a sea of troubles. The mystique consistently promoted not just by the NRA, but with more emotional impact by popular media.
Banning assault weapons is unlikely to have much of an impact on such occurrences, as author and statistician Leah Libresco has correctly pointed out just this week in an article documenting her conversion to a laissez-faire attitude on gun control. What she fails to consider is that legislation, even if it is likely to fail as an effective material constraint, can actually have an effect on culture. Statisticians rarely show concern with culture or even awareness of it. That’s normal. Culture obdurately refuses to offer up the numbers they like to crunch. But a little creative thought will reveal that the commitment by a majority of hitherto pusillanimous legislators to the principle of gun control would contribute powerfully to attenuating the culture of violence. Law doesn’t control human behavior. Statistics can’t sum it up. But law does work across generations as a statement of collective purpose and values, particularly in a democracy.
So to extend the NRA’s reasoning, we could conclude: “Guns don’t kill. People (generally) don’t kill. Cultures kill!”
Which also means cultures can stop killing. The problem is that cultures don’t change easily or quickly. But with the decline of the American militaristic empire, the confidence that still pushes phony heroes to carry out real acts of false bravado in the name of imaginary justice may, like a devastating hurricane upon reaching land, begin to lose some of its destructive power. The vast majority of civilized Americans, known for their generosity, humanity and creativity, may yet find a way of saving the republic from the chaos associated with declining empires. They may help to consolidate that very republic at the moment it renounces empire. They can still work to restore some form of sanity through their still viable democracy, as the nation seeks to find its productive place in a better balanced and possibly more equitable world.
*[This article was updated on October 10, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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