Friday, December 14, 2012

A History of Violence

I wrote this back in July after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Just four and half months later, it seems it is once again relevant. My conservative cousin, who works on Wall Street, would likely repeat the familiar mantra that "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." While I am willing to accept that reasoning to a point, let's get real here. A gun is a tool specifically designed to kill or injure someone or something. What the hell else is one to use a gun for? As a paperweight? I am not so naive as to think greater gun restrictions would instantly rid the world of all acts of violence. But it would certainly be a step in the right direction. the wake of today's deranged shooting in Connecticut, I feel this piece deserves prominent position on the blog.
We will likely never know what made James Holmes walk into a crowded movie theater, armed to the teeth with deadly, marines-style assault rifles, and fatally shoot 12 people last Friday. Such an act of violence is simply incomprehensible.

Is the man psychologically disturbed? Was this a pre-planned attack? And, if so, what provoked it? Was he, as his now infamous claim of “I am the Joker” seems to suggest, inspired by the latest Batman movie, which was showing at the scene of the shooting? Again, we will probably never know the true motive for his horrific actions. All we know is tragedies such as the Colorado shooting simply do not make sense. They defy rational, human comprehension.

The Aurora shooting once again painfully demonstrates this country’s need for stricter gun laws. This need should have been evident after last year’s Arizona shooting, in which former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded. Or after the horrific Virginia Tech campus shooting in 2007. Or the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, also in Colorado.

Sadly, I would not hold my breath waiting for stricter policies on handguns anytime soon.

The Democrats lack the political courage to take on the NRA or the other various right-wing gun-rights groups. And the Republicans cloak themselves in the Constitution, casting any talk of even mild reductions of Americans’ Second Amendment rights as tantamount to treason. Instead, Republican leaders cling to the childish fantasy that if all citizens were armed at all times, the responsible “good guys” could shoot the psychotic “bad guys” before more innocents are harmed. Only in the conservative world-view does real life resemble a Clint Eastwood shoot-em-up movie.     

My heart goes out to the victims of the massacre. All they wanted to do was see a movie. That was their only crime. It is a stark reminder that life is fragile and unpredictable. We naively believe we have some control over the events and circumstances of our lives—that we can anticipate our day’s end. But the truth is we cannot.

“As flies to wanton boys we are to the gods,” Gloucester exclaims in King Lear after he is tortured and blinded. “They kill us for their sport.”

Gloucester’s bleak observation sums up, not only one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, but in many ways the human condition as well. As the tragic events of the story unfold, Gloucester and Lear—both the privileged elite of their time—are forced to come to terms with their own human frailty. Lear in particular, comes to understand that, in the grand scheme of things, he too is insignificant. In the end, the universe remains utterly indifferent to the characters’ suffering.

The Aurora shooting is, furthermore, another example of our violent culture. Though we prefer to believe otherwise, America is an extremely violent nation.

We maintain 761 military bases throughout the world according to the late Chalmers Johnson in his now-classic book, Sorrows of Empire. (The precise number of military installations, however, is nearly impossible to pinpoint. Some estimates place the total at closer to 1,000.) The U.S. has been involved in countless wars, invasions, coup d’états, and covert military campaigns since the end of World War II—from Panama, Nicaragua, Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Chile, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan and Haiti. Indeed, Orwell’s dystopian vision of a nation locked in a state of permanent war has come to pass.

Perhaps the most telling indicators of our collective approval of the culture of war are the revered terms we reserve for military soldiers. The troops who fight our wars are praised as “heroes,” who “fought for our freedom.” Teachers, social workers and other public employees, meanwhile are derided as “parasites” and collectively blamed for the economic recession.

Yet we rarely make the connection between seemingly random domestic acts of violence like the Colorado shooting, and our aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. Instead of asking “What happened?” to Holmes to drive him to commit such violence, perhaps the question should be redirected to the United States.

“What happened [in Aurora, Colorado] is horrifying but it doesn’t frighten me,” Maine visitor, Doug Horwich told the Portland Press Herald Tuesday (“Moviegoers shocked, not deterred, by tragedy,” 7/24/2012). “I believe it was a unique experience, an anomaly.”

I wish I shared Mr. Horwich’s reassuring outlook. Frankly, it strikes me as highly naive. Unfortunately, our country’s long, sordid history of violence, empire and bloodshed would suggest this was no “anomaly.”

“So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies,” wrote philosopher Elbert Hubbard, “private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.”

One thing is clear: Something must be done to restrict the ease of availability of firearms. Furthermore, we must as a society, create a culture in which individuals no longer believe they need guns, rifles and other weapons in the first place. And we must evolve beyond our barbaric infatuation with war, imperialism, and violence.

Until these things happen I fear we will see more deranged individuals like James Holmes who succumb to the sinister urges of human nature that, despite our efforts to deny them, exist in all of us. 

Lear's epiphany of his own insignificance comes, alas, too late in Shakespeare's tragic play.

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