I cannot think of anything more painful than suffering the loss of a young child. To survive one’s child is perverse in itself but to see young lives cut short is so unbearable, I refuse to even contemplate it, except momentarily. Yet hysterical responses to public tragedies are not wise and we are well advised to reflect carefully on the social conditions which have led to the state of affairs where such tragedies are possible.
At first brush, it may seem that the spike in high-profile mass shootings this year is unconnected with other world events. However, it is clear that something has changed over the decades since the Whitman sniper massacre of 1966 first splattered the issue of multiple-victim public shootings onto the consciousness of Americans. While it is difficult to estimate firearms per capita in the US over time, there are fewer armed households than there were in 1966. The kinds of guns used in MVPS today are not anymore deadly than those that have been used in the MVPS events since 1966. But it is undeniable that events of this nature are becoming more frequent and that the total number of victims continues to escalate at a disturbing rate.
The knee-jerk reaction of the politicos is to divide on partisan lines – one side calling for stricter gun-controls and the other side averring guns are not the problem. The instinctive response of journalists, city officials, police administrators and unions is to call for more restrictions on gun ownership and possession. But it is not at all clear that restrictions on gun ownership reduce the risks of MVPS events. The gut reaction of those who are uncomfortable with popular gun possession to call for greater restrictions on gun ownership is largely emotional and the arguments for gun restrictions based on preventing MVPS events are invariably specious.
Another thing to keep in mind during such tragic events is that – in the grand scheme of things – we live in the least violent epoch of human history, a surprising thesis that Steven Pinker puts forward in his thought-provoking book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker explains the thesis of his book in this talk delivered at TED in 2007.
There was a striking decline in the murder rate during the 1990’s which economist Steve Levitt has controversially attributed to the Roe v. Wade decision in his book Freakonomics. But other than this decline, we have seen a general militarization of police forces in response to better armed and more adept criminals.
There is one correlata with the increasing violence of US culture that often goes ignored by the media, probably because soul-searching is not very popular: the steadily increasing militance of US foreign policy since the end of WWII. The US military budget today is larger than the next top thirteen national military budgets combined. This is rather surprising given that there has not been any news that there is an imminent invasion of US territory by the thirteen next largest militaries in the world. The US maintains 700 military installations in over 170 of the 200 nations on this planet. The US is involved in two overt wars that have extended for over a decade – Afghanistan since December 2001 and Iraq since March 2003. In addition, the US is covertly involved in countless conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere around the globe. The US covert capacity (headquarted out of JSOC of recent infamy) has been dramatically expanded since 2001. In addition, the ambitions of the US to expand its reach are being realized through automated methods.
The culture of military-worship has its social costs. The tragedies wrought by some of the psychologically disturbed war veterans in the years since 2001 are a portrait-in-miniature of the wider social consequences of unending war. The list of atrocities – however inadvertent they may be – at the hands of US forces since 2001 is staggering.
Violence abroad comes home to roost. It evinces itself in the increasingly paranoid obsession of the public with exaggerated security threats – however miniscule or distant they may be. A quick perusal of the cable channels at any given hour reads like it were a broadcast from Pentagon headquarters: Homeland, Covert Affairs, NCIS, Military channel, History channel (military technologies), military-themed movies, and so on. Naturally, war nerds – who are otherwise pro-peace – like to watch these kinds of TV shows and movies but I strongly doubt that the interests of the wider public in this programming is driven by disinterested fascination with military history and modern military strategy. I see in it a worship of all things military, an undue reverence and awe accorded to the Pentagon, a vicarious pleasure in the fantasy of military invincibility and even a secret and hypocritical lust for imperial dominance over others.
Rather than just reaching for emotionally-driven, knee-jerk reactions characterized as “meaningful action” by the political establishment in Washington, DC, I would like to see some soul-searching on the cultural pre-conditions that have led us to where we are. The same culture of war-worship inevitably has as its byproduct the fetishization of all the means of violence, including firearms. So, we are well advised not only to question the firearms fetish of some in the “right-wing” but also to ask ourselves how we reached the current situation of “bipartisan” support for the US government’s worldwide militarism which is costing American taxpayers as much as $2T all told (the costs of US military activities are larger than just the DoD budget). While no one – not the US President, not “Americans”, not anybody – has the power to make certain that tragedies like the one in Connecticut cannot occur, we must still take a serious-minded approach to learning from these events rather than allowing them to be distorted into serving short-run, partisan ends.
1 – It is sometimes misreported that the US maintains 700 military bases in 170 countries and this is not accurate, many of these installations are not bases in the military sense of housing soldiers or war materials.