Whenever I speak to people who have spent their entire lives outside of America, and they ask what it's like for someone who is self-aware to live here, I find myself at a loss for words. It's nearly impossible to describe. The best I can muster is to say it's like one tragedy after the next, to the point where you're in danger of going numb if you don't keep yourself grounded in humanity. It's frightening, it's brutal, and it's relentless. Yet sometimes, when you're around good people, it's great, and you love and you feel as human as anyone else. But by then you've lulled yourself into a false sense of security, and the next thing you know you get blindsided by the full weight of all that is wrong with the world and wake up wishing you were never born.
This country has a disease, and rarely is it as evident as it is now in the wake of the latest mass shooting spree.
Please don't get confused: this isn't like what happened in Norway. Norwegians had good reason to be shocked and appalled by what happened. Here in America we have no excuse - it doesn't surprise us when these things happen anymore, and it shouldn't. This is, in fact, part of the awful reality of our culture now. It fits in somewhere between the nine pound hamburger and "God Bless America" being sung at a monster truck show.
The rest of the world should expect this from a country that continually acts out its aggressive fantasies on the rest of the world. They should expect it from a country that has clearly spent the better part of its existence ignoring its collective humanity. Our history is - if nothing else - one of dehumanization. Rather than learn from our past mistakes, we stubbornly rationalize crimes as heinous as using nuclear weapons on cities. We lie and say all of our wars were necessary - even beneficial. We completely ignore the conditions of the average human being in favor of celebrating great men - those giants of industry and politic who fought progressive reform for hundreds of years, and still fight it today. This is the history we teach our kids, and we wonder why things go wrong.
Even when we do admit America has made mistakes, we fail to put them in terms of human concern. We refuse to look at history as it applies to today, and, predictably, we never learn the right lesson. So while we admit what was done to Native Americans and blacks for hundreds of years was terrible, the fate of their descendants today is casually brushed aside, or ignored altogether. When we do discuss these things, the message is always: we've come so far! A great excuse to give up hope and accept the current state of things as inevitable, no doubt.
I tell my European friends who wonder why we've taken such divergent pathways in recent times:
Remember World War II? Your cities got bombed, not ours. While you said: "Oh god, this must never happen again!", we said "Oh god, we saved the world! We're heroes! We should do this more often..."
Most societies end up having a kind of humbling moment where they realize that violence only makes things worse. Not us. By the time 9/11 came along, we were so full of ourselves that we took the absolute opposite approach. We didn't have a "Holy shit, where did we go wrong?" moment. We had a "We will rid the world of the evil-doers." one.
This type of foreign policy is but a reflection of our inner selves. Just as Bush was living out his puerile superhero fantasy on the world stage, we do the same in our own lives. We think we're helping everyone, that we have the answer to all the problems of the world. But rarely do we experience that crucial moment in the hero's journey - where they reflect on their failures and wonder if what they're doing is actually helping. You see, we just don't do self-criticism here. It takes away from that whole confident, macho, headstrong image we've got going. It's no wonder that whenever there's a shooting spree a good chunk of the populace dreams about being there with a gun of their own, killing the bad guy and saving the day.
I'm not going to lie - this kind of critique is hard to quantify. There are very few academic studies addressing "How closed minded are Americans on average?", "How well do Americans take criticism?", or "How many Americans have no critical thinking skills whatsoever?". All we have to go by are public opinion polls and trends and the like. Anecdotes, mostly. But even if we had some statistical analysis, I'm not sure it would really do the subject any justice. It's not the statistics that really speak to you. It's the year after year mental absorption of sounds, feelings, and atmosphere.
It's the skeletons in our collective closet. The fact we know too much. How can you explain the feeling of hopelessness you have after you've heard yet another person you know tell you, in vivid detail, about abuse in their life or of someone close to them? It practically destroys your own mind as you sit and listen, powerless to do anything. The nearness of it can be too much to bear. After all, it's very hard for us to fully absorb all the news stories we hear, to tell how prevalent this type of thing is. But when we look at our own lives, we learn enough. We may all be within six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but we're most certainly within one degree of child abuse, molestation, rape, or some other awful debilitating event that never fully leaves you. Try as you might, you can't unknow the horror. And you think: If this almost makes living unbearable for me to just think about, what about the person it happened to? How do they live with it? How does it affect them? How can this person ever be a functional human being again?
But the worst reality is how we perpetuate this type of behavior. We show an utter disdain for the fragility of human life, again and again, and yet that very fact itself escapes us. We ask: How could someone do this? How could they kill a bunch of poor defenseless kids? This, in spite of the fact we allow - and even advocate for - regular violence toward children as a form of punishment. And even in the absence of that, so many others are subject to various forms of mental abuse, and torments of the mind - all carried out by those whom children are programmed by nature to trust most. Many internalize this, but some act out. They are then subject to further abuse(PDF) in juvenile detention centers - and later, in jails. And all for what? To preserve power and authority. To bend another human being to one's will.
This is the sickening reality for so many of America's children, doomed to abuse by parent, teacher, and state. They are forced to submit time and time again to authority, but not to reason. Obligated to bow their heads to power - power which cannot be questioned, no matter how wrong it is. Taught that - no matter who you are - there are people and institutions you should be subservient to. Might is right. And now we sit, stunned, as the final recourse of our endless humiliation is shown front stage and center.
I ask: is it too much to ask that we treat every child with dignity, as if they were actual human beings? Is it too much to ask that we rehabilitate, rather than punish? Will we ever end this cycle of abuse, or are we too afraid to look deep within and admit that some things we do are categorically wrong? Can we forgive our parents for doing what they thought was right, and not repeat the same mistakes in our own lives?
Can we at least have this conversation? It's long past time we seriously consider that we're the ones who have problems; that maybe we didn't 'turn out okay'. Maybe the fact that our highest office is filled by determining who amongst us is the biggest compulsive liar and warmongering sociopath tells us something about the kind of society we are, about the lengths we go to in order to delude ourselves into believing that everything is okay in the homeland. Or maybe I'm just being too hard on America.
Maybe, but fuck it - if there's one thing we need it's some self-reflection. God knows we're not going to listen to anyone else. We need to take in the absolute worst of what we are - every last ugly truth we can barely stomach - and reconcile it all. Maybe then we'll stop dooming everyone else to destruction through our wondrous works. Maybe then we'll show the same level of compassion to the children we're blowing to pieces in the Middle East that we show to the ones who are killed in America.
But until that happens, all I can say to the rest of the world is: "We're broken." "I'm sorry."
We Put the Assault in Assault Rifle
(Update: Walmart has since removed the gun in question from their website.)
This is an assault rifle available for purchase at Walmart. It's one of the many ridiculous weapons you could buy there while you watch your neighbors do their grocery shopping. From the various reviews on-site we learn:
"This is an excellant entry level AR"
Oh, this is only an entry level assault rifle? Silly me. It's just I saw M4A3 with NATO rounds and was pretty sure I remembered these were military designations...
"My fivteen year old daughter can shoot this rifle with very accurate results and loves to go out shooting it with dad"
You teach your fifteen year old daughter how to fire a military-grade rifle? Is this part of her post-apocalyptic Zombie Survival class, or what?
"So, I was in Wal-Mart to buy ammo and walked by the gun display, when...
- I spied an AR in the case
- Immediately, a smile appeared on my face and I knew that things were looking up for the store."
Okay I've already seen enough.
It's generally accepted from all corners that people with mental health issues should not be able to own guns. The problem is, as mentioned, we're a pretty messed up society. How do you define mental health? Where do you draw the line? Personally, I'm afraid of the fact the three people above own any type of gun at all - and these are extremely tame examples of gun-madness. (If you don't believe me, search for gun enthusiast forums and read some everyday conversation there.)
You see, guns make murder impersonal. They make it accessible to the type of person that might otherwise be sane enough not to go through with it if their only options were a knife or their bare hands. Even someone willing to start with those crude tools might stop halfway, as they see the cost of human life they are extracting right before their eyes. Not such with a gun. All you have to do is pull the trigger once and you have the potential to end a life. It's not just impersonal, it's easy. Too easy.
Worse, guns like the one above make it incredibly easy to not just kill one person, but a whole slew of people. In fact, they were exclusively designed for that purpose. You would think this is reason enough to suggest an immediate ban - not to mention an inquiry into why they were ever legal for the average person to own in the first place. This seems like such an obvious fact that you could even say it's self-evident. You could say that, but then you would be underestimating the madness of the society in question.
Americans have always considered themselves rugged individualists before anything. It's a large part of our myth: the refusal to submit to the crown, the adventurous explorers, the wild west and gold rush. You know, the glorification of times where slavery was prevalent, women were subjugated, Native Americans were slaughtered and driven off their land, and immigrants were demonized (at best). At the time of our independence, there were a couple hundred "rugged individualists", and they all either inherited their fortunes, or built them at the expense of others. Usually both. But that doesn't stop us from swooning when we hear Jefferson or Madison quoted.
Today, a whole lot more of us can own our own land, homes, and guns. And that makes us really believe in the myth. Rather than "no man is an island", we believe every man is an island. We're all self-made here: no outside help, no mention of greater society. Of course, if it so happens that we fail... well, then it's clearly not our own fault. Something disrupted us. Something got in our way. Something (the government), or someone (blacks, immigrants, the leeches of society). That's the American mentality in its most telling moment. Like the child who never knew compassion, we blame others for our problems.
These primal responses are only aided by the long-standing tradition of our political parties to divide and conquer. While outright racial and ethnic slurs have been abandoned in the last few decades, the same sentiments filter through Lee Atwater style. They enforce the idea that someone is actively out trying to ruin your livelihood, and you need to defend yourself from them: "These people are criminals after all! Protect your family! Protect your property!" This is the mindset in which we lose ourselves, our humanity. It's the rhetoric that kills; the inflection in a man's voice that tells you that he really means it when he says "it's us versus them". And he tells it to his kids. He tells them it isn't a game.
And, of course, he owns a gun. Or two. Or a dozen. Now, living in America you know a few sane, rational people that own guns, and you're okay with that to some degree. But most of the time you worry, because you know who else is on that list. It's that friend of yours who was always prone to rages, always a little more violent than you were comfortable with. It's your neighbors who you have to call the police on because the sounds of domestic violence are so frightening you worry someone is dying. It's the sex offender down the street whom society has abandoned, isolated, and humiliated. And this knowledge scares you. But worse yet: many of them don't just own guns, they worship guns. They collect guns. They go to gun shows, and gun conventions, and hang out at gun ranges. They love guns, and they teach their children to love guns.
Clearly, we aren't sane enough to be trusted with these things. And yet we have the most guns in the world, and the largest military to boot. And we can't ever, ever give them up. You see, it's just never the right time.
But even that belies the point. We, as citizens, have very little recourse in situations like these. We don't want to admit it, because of what it says about our "democracy", but it's true. When we think of signing a petition, of writing to (the representatives of) our representatives, or of exercising our power to vote, our mind says: no one's going to see it, no one's going to listen, and no one's going to care. After all, we've tried before. We've tried and it didn't work because there weren't enough voices to break the political creatures from their habit and scare them into fearing for their jobs (that is, their loss of power).
The problem is we're missing a huge chunk of our fellow people. They're kept in wage slavery, often without the time to even grasp the reality they live in. They come home after working their second (or third) job, and they just want a couple hours of escape from the hell of it all before they have to go to sleep and start the grind all over again. What little they're able to absorb about political life is filtered through layer after layer of the disinformation machine. By the time it gets to their ear it turns out to be some anecdote about why one of the political parties or its leadership is terrible - a perfectly executed ploy to appeal to our most base, reactionary tendencies. All of their political will is then directed into the election cycle - the area in which they actually have the least amount of say.
The real power in America lies with lobbyists and the money they throw around. This is why progressive groups have focused their efforts on attacking the NRA just as much as they have in trying to find some way to influence their representatives to pass gun control legislation. The NRA is the most powerful gun lobby out there - and one of the most powerful lobbies period. The R stands for rifle; they advocate for handguns, and your 'right' to take them wherever you please: schools, national parks, restaurants, government buildings. Anywhere, basically. It's a type of madness they've gotten away with for years and years, despite fairly regular outrage at the extent of gun violence we face.
But even if some headway is made in freeing members of Congress from the NRA's cold, dead hands (a feat in and of itself), we still have to worry about political expediency. By the time some sort of gun control is passed, and controls on the ground are put in place, how many more times will we face tragedy? In 2012 alone we've had at least sixteen mass shootings. A multiple-victim shooting happens once about every six days. There is no time too soon to start acting on this.
Of course, the practicality of implementing any sort of gun control is an issue all its own, which I will not go into here. It's clear that it will have to be a slow process from start to finish, with many problems to work out, and that makes urgency even more important. I just hope that when we do finally embrace it, it will be the first step to acknowledging the other serious problems underlying our deeply disturbed society.