The tendency to identify manhood with a capacity
for physical violence has a long history in America.
– Marshall Fishwick
Violence is as American as cherry pie.
– H. Rap Brown
Watching President Barack Obama wipe away a tear as he spoke to the nation on the day a 20-year-old Adam Lanza dressed himself up like a Navy SEAL and took out 20 little kids and six of their teachers, it was clear the President was a good man and a deeply-committed father of young children.
The same day, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted the President’s touching emotions but quickly stressed it was time to strike hard and fast on gun control legislation. The problem of violence in America had gone unaddressed for decades and weapons were becoming more accessible and more lethal.
Meanwhile, Dan Rather told Rachel Maddow he felt President Obama returned to his first term M.O. and caved in to the right on the Susan Rice nomination for Secretary of State. Rather felt the President didn’t like to initiate fights and that when they came or were on the horizon, his first move, before the fight even began, was to concede and seek a centrist compromise.
But watching the President’s authentic sadness you had to wonder whether some of his troubled spirit might have been because he knew what this extraordinary killing spree in a Norman Rockwell Connecticut town meant for him as a second-term president. Following on the Virginia Tech, Gabrielle Gifford and Batman movie theater massacres, this instance of the systematic gunning down of six- and seven-year-olds was so incredibly efficient that it seemed even beyond the pale for the United States.
He faced three conflicting challenges:
First, there would be a resounding outcry from the left to do something on gun control, of which Bloomberg’s pointed remarks were only the beginning. The issues were to do something about military assault weapons like the AR15, better mental health screening and the influence of violence in video games and movies.
In Hollywood, producers were tripping over themselves canceling premiers for violent movies and going through TV shows to find offensive violent material. Newtown did seem to make Hollywood pause and look into its soul. But money talks and the market rules.
Second, powerful opposition to any kind of controls or bans on guns was certain to come from the National Rifle Association and the far right. The President could count on a well-funded campaign to muddy the waters and chip away at any proposed legislation.
Immediately after Newtown, the right-wing National Review published an editorial saying nothing would come of this sudden gun control fever. ”The guns of America aren’t going anywhere any time soon,” they wrote, “and generic calls to ‘do something’ — even insofar as doing something is desirable — must reckon with this fact.”
The NRA was silent. After four days, they dropped this enigmatic statement: “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” By the end of the week, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre shattered any misguided hopes of NRA compromise by poking his head out of his bunker and calling for armed police officers in every school in America. More guns! “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said. It brought visions of a crusty Charlton Heston waving a flintlock: “From my cold dead hands!”
The Dead Elephant in the Room
Then there was the third, and by far the most daunting, challenge facing the President. We might call this challenge the hypocrisy factor — or the 900-pound dead elephant stinking up the room that no one wants to talk about.
Thanks to history and the condition of our militarized republic in the post-George W. Bush era, the President has committed himself to cold-blooded killing as a solution to problems, a policy that inexorably feeds into a growing cycle of violence that Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently about before he was shot to death. What goes ’round comes ’round.
The President has a hit list of targets he approves and SEAL assassin teams and drones to do the dirty work. Moral concerns have been suspended. These strikes have tallied up, at a bare minimum, 176 dead children, almost nine times the number of dead children in the Newtown incident.
A friend of mine is an Iraq combat veteran and currently works as an armed member of law enforcement. He put it this way: “Around the world and inside the country, we enforce our will at the point of a gun.” He was referring to the fact all our military and police agencies depend on lethal weapons for their authority; intimidation is an important aspect of military/police authority, and civilians are meant to know this. This is why the 2003 bombing attack on Baghdad was called “shock and awe.” Lethal weapons are meant to suggest opposition is futile.
“For the government to, then, turn around and tell you, as a citizen, you can’t have a gun is hypocritical,” my friend said. This, of course, is the original spirit of the Second Amendment and “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” and the notion of a “well regulated militia” that may or may not be linked with the central government.
If the debate over gun control hinges on morality issues, the secrecy and the willful suspension of moral concerns that characterizes the President’s targeted assassination policy is a real problem. Our current wars operate in two very distinct modes. One is secrecy and the control of information and the press. Bradley Manning is the current example of what happens when one violates this mode. The other mode is public relations, that is, all the controlled and re-processed information the military and government intelligence agencies allow to be made public. The most courageous members of our press, media and free-lance operations like Wikileaks operate in the gray zone between these two modes, trying to shine light into the vastness of what is kept secret.
To ask for too much information on who exactly is being targeted and killed by SEAL teams and drones — and why — borders on being subversive, since it necessarily involves humanizing those on the wrong end of our government’s violence. It would involve an awareness of the enemy’s mourning process. Killing in war demands simplification and demonization and the reduction of people to words like “terrorist.” A rigidly enforced program of secrecy assures that the public here at home remains ignorant of anything other than that the killing is necessary and is being done to protect them.
A good, loyal American does not expend grief or outrage for any of the 176-plus beautiful children killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by the President’s drone project — certainly nothing like what we’ve seen expended for the 20 beautiful children killed so viciously at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Actually “seeing” the grief and outrage on the other end of our killing would be a first step to ratcheting back our assassination programs. Thus, Americans are urged to steel themselves from engaging in such weak-sister thinking and to not question Dick Cheney’s call to rely on “the dark side.”
Can a Violent Government Prevent More Adam Lanzas?
Adam Lanza was clearly operating under an unfathomable delusion. His father is a wealthy corporate executive. His parents were divorced, and he lived an inner-driven life of moneyed privilege with his mother. For some equally unfathomable reason his mother kept military-style weapons with large magazines and hundreds of rounds of ammunition within easy access to her troubled young son about whom she had recently expressed concern to friends. We must ask: What was she thinking? Why are her actions not irresponsible and culpable? Where was 20-year-old Lanza’s corporate executive father in all this? Is the father being protected from scrutiny by high-powered, expensive security?
We can all agree Adam Lanza was operating under some profoundly insane delusion that made killing little kids acceptable — maybe even justified in his mind. But delusions don’t have to be insane; they can sometimes be very ordinary, even institutionally encouraged.
Anyone who has thought about the range of motivations for US war-making over the past decades should realize, while our leaders may not be mentally ill or insane, in conjunction with their great power and lethal weaponry they too often operate under various delusions. There’s the obvious examples of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the presumed link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Then there’s my favorite delusion, the notion that our soldiers went to fight in Vietnam, Iraq and even Afghanistan to protect the freedom of Americans at home. American power, yes; freedom, no way. The Vietnamese, Iraqis and Taliban had zero interest in attacking the US.
When you inject religion into the war-motivation business things can get really weird. There was the Air Force general during the Iraq War who declared to “the terrorists” that “My God is stronger than your God.” I’m now reading a small memoir of an interrogator in Iraq (Dinner With a Terrorist by James Rosone) who writes how he prayed “to see if this was what God wanted me to do.” In the end, God told him to go to interrogator school. He accepted the mission in which “God would pit [him] against some of the most evil and wicked people one could possibly imagine.” I’m an atheist, so when it comes to delusional motivations for war I tend to see the madness in the Middle East as the convergence of three powerful delusional forces: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. I will concede it is an interesting question to ask whether a supernatural belief can be a “delusion” if tens of millions of people share the same belief.
Vice President Joe Biden has been slated to lead the post-Newtown fight for gun control. He’s quite experienced with this kind of thing. When Democrats felt Ronald Reagan had knocked them out of the box in the early 80s, he was the senator who argued that crime bills would help bring the party back. He worked closely with Republicans like Strom Thurmon on crime bills and, in the process, helped design the current Drug War. Recently, he fought for counter-terrorism as a tactic in Afghanistan and in the War on Terror. This tactic won the day over General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency approach. The core tool in the counter-terrorism war is the use of intelligence to come up with leadership targets for assassination teams and lethal drone hits. Now, of course, the Drug War and the Global War On Terror are intricately linked and are one seamless US war with no end in sight.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and a host of others are now making the justified case that citizens don’t need war weaponry like AR15s with extended magazines. Ironically, vociferous gun owner Bill O’Reilly also questioned civilian use of AR15s on his show recently. Such weapons, they say, should only be in the hands of highly trained military and police units fighting terror and crime.
Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, director of something called the Killology Research Group, extends the same argument to entertainment and violent videos. Grossman is the author of the highly-respected book On Killing. He’s also co-written Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence. He says violent videos operate on young minds the same way training videos do on soldiers being trained to kill. (This kind of violent US Army training video was made accessible as a recruitment incentive to kids as young as thirteen at the Army Experience Center in a mall outside Philadelphia, before it was closed down two years ago.) Grossman’s solution would be to control violent videos for civilians, but keep them as training tools for the military and police.
I’m all for the banning of AR15s for civilian use, keeping better track of mentally ill citizens as long as they are granted dignity in the process, and discouraging violent video and film culture as long as it doesn’t entail censorship. But I’m also for ending our wars and pulling back our more than 700 bases imposing our “way of life” around the world. It seems clear to me that Pax Americana — our imperial intervention into other cultures — spurs much of the violence we fear from the world around us. It certainly spurred 9/11, an argument effectively shut down after September 11, 2001, and never really taken seriously again.
Given a government that relies on weapons and violence so much for its power, in a political landscape where both the far right and the far left don’t trust that government, it’s going to be hard for this President to argue weapons must be kept from the hands of citizens. A president with a morally questionable hit list who oversees some pretty questionable surveillance projects, including of the American people, may be a wonderful dad but he’s not a great moral model for weapons control in a violent, dark world.
Many of the second amendment “nuts” on the far right argue precisely that the reason ordinary citizens need weaponry like AR15s is because the federal government and police authorities in America have such weaponry — that the whole point of the second amendment in the 18th century was to give civilians weapons as a check against the government. The right-leaning Supreme Court has done nothing to dispute this kind of thinking.
The left is another story. The left wants lethal weapons controlled because the right relies on them so intensely to solve problems and the right sees the left as one of its most dogged historic problems. The left is more enamored of the First Amendment over the Second Amendment and, thus, sees its greatest problem as the runaway Military Industrial Complex, imperial war-making and what some see as a burgeoning police state in America. All these institutions exhibit a powerful fetishism for violence and weaponry, and all are generally associated with the right.
The President Torn Left and Right
So here’s the President of the United States on the day of the Newtown massacre. He’s just been reelected by an impressive margin that might arguably be called a mandate for change to the left. The far right has been at least temporarily set back on its heels. Thanks to Newtown, gun control has joined taxes as this president’s chosen fight. Bloomberg tells audiences the NRA’s power is overrated. Ex-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell calls the NRA a “paper tiger.”
Rather’s analysis of President Obama’s tendency to cave in to the right aside, it seems this time President Obama is ready for a real fight. He seems girded to employ his child-loving Father-in-Chief persona and Biden’s centrist legislative chops to muster the political outrage for a frontal attack from the left on the fortress NRA.
But, then, there’s that dead elephant stinking up the room and the President’s role as Killer-in-Chief. Will he and his administration begin to do something about that messy carcass or will he continue to cover his right flank by remaining deeply invested in Dick Cheney’s secret dark side?