The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted. — D.H. Lawrence
I was raised in Western gun culture. From an early age, I was taught gun safety, including an NRA safe hunter course in the eighth grade at Kenilworth School. My friends and I would go target shooting in such places as the then-empty desert around Pinnacle Peak. My scoutmaster showed me how to fire my first semi-automatic rifle. As important as the shooting was always checking to make sure a gun was unloaded, knowing that if you dropped the magazine (not a "clip," unless it was an M-1 Garand rifle), a round might still be in the chamber. Where was the barrel pointing? How to cross a fence safely. How to carry a shotgun (breach open).
"Don't point a gun at someone unless you intend to shoot them," my mother said. In addition to being a concert pianist, she was an expert shot and would not have hesitated had we been at risk. She did not like handguns. To her mind, a handgun could be too accessible while one was still angry. Through all this ran a thread of deep seriousness: A firearm was deadly, must be treated with respect and care, and its watchful possession was a sign of adult maturity. Needless to say, this culture existed in a West with many fewer people than live there today. Still, I own guns. I like them. If I had the money, I would buy more. I'm not a hunter like my uncle and grandfather. But I do like target shooting.
In the 1960s, liberal sociologists explained rising crime as the outgrowth of "the sick society." Then it included racism and lack of economic opportunity for minorities and many lower-class Americans. But that society was healthy compared with today's. These endless cavalcades of mass shootings — taking place while overall violent crime is falling — are telling us something important. I don't claim to know all the answers, but I have some suspicions.
Young men, full of testosterone and primal urges, are always especially dangerous. This makes them good soldiers, after the Army and Marines break down their individuality and turn them into trained killers, but ones who follow orders, and, at their best, abide by the rules of combat. In the old days, a stint in the service did much to turn dangerous young men into responsible adults. Or they were channeled into other grown-up endeavors such as my ambulance days, which, again, taught dependability, trustworthiness and maturity. That world is gone.
Most mediating institutions are gone, ailing or have lost their legitimacy: Unions, church, the Boy Scouts, close families, secure jobs with future advancement, etc. Real community. The commons. Women, whether mothers or girlfriends, who taught young men civilizing behavior. Fathers and uncles who were genuine role models. To be a man meant many things, including dressing like an adult and reading books, thinking critically and shouldering responsibility, acting with decency and empathy. Sorry, classes in "impulse control" and armies of psychologists won't substitute in an America so broken and decadent.
Most of today's America is marked by amorphous suburbia, everything car-dependent and separated. Our isolation breeds dysfunction. It's telling how these horrific events happen there, not in downtowns or ghettos. Much of the modern built environment is brutal and dehumanizing. Our society is hyper-stimulated by electronics. Television spews an endless firehose of the national freakshow. Once earnest and elevating cable networks such as the History Channel, National Geographic and the Learning Channel are now degraded to the lowest common denominator (e.g. Doomsday Preppers, Pawn Stars). TV also leads a nationwide campaign against seriousness and intelligence. Indeed, one of our two great political parties is actively anti-intellectual. Every day, we find new ways to define deviancy downward. Our politics is dominated by hatred, especially against that (Black) Man in the White House, and specifically among a certain cohort of angry white men. For Republicans indoctrinated by Fox "News" and talk radio, people with different views are not misguided or opponents in a worthy debate, but enemies.
Speaking of which, the teachers and administrators in this public school who saved lives, and in some cases died doing so, are heroes for the moment. The day before the attack, they were considered "union thugs" by conservatives.
Men don't read. An entire society has become infantilized. Young men who can't get girlfriends (or to be more inclusive, relationships that teach giving and compassion) no longer read and write poetry. They play murderous video games, listen to violent hip-hop, have their brains fried by constant electronic distractions. Our malls and streets are full of nominal adults covered with tattoos, dressed like adolescents, calling each other "motherfucker." We use prison language ("lockdown") and architecture for our schools. In place of being citizens, with all the weighty duty this implies, we are "consumers." We consume from corporations that steal from the public, send jobs to Asia, cut wages, game the government for their bidding and have no sense of obligation to the society that enabled them to flourish. The message of their actions is the law of the jungle, not building and conserving a civilization.
Nobody seems to know what is appropriate, nor is this expected by grown ups, even the small things. A gentleman holding the door for a woman is not taking away her vote. Wearing a suit to work, a funeral or the symphony is not being "uptight." These are among of the scores of things that once civilized potentially dangerous young men. We call our children "kids." A kid is a young goat. We call crimes "tragedies." The death of a child by cancer is a tragedy. A man gunning down innocents is a crime, among the most villainous acts imaginable.
America has been coarsened by more than a decade of ill-advised and failed wars. Those conflicts mired us in situations where combatants and civilians were often indistinguishable. Not surprisingly, our compassion for civilians evaporated. Led by mediocre generals and bad doctrine, these wars have broken the force and severely weakened discipline. Torture became enshrined as national policy and a shocking percentage of Americans thought it was just fine. We continue drone wars where youngsters play real-life video games with real Hellfire missiles; sometimes the strikes kill bad guys, often innocent women and children. This naturally migrated to the home front, and not merely with disgruntled, traumatized soldiers returning to a nation that had little to offer them but Wal-Mart wages. The society as a whole has become paranoid and allowed our liberties to be subsumed by "homeland" security (can you imagine the reaction if the Newtown shooting had been carried out by a Muslim?)
Much of this is not new. America created its continental empire through violence, especially Indian removal, white supremacy, slavery and Jim Crow, whose lynchings were so popular that they spawned a postcard industry depicting this racial brutality. It's important to note that many Americans opposed these measures, but they were usually on the losing side. In 1849, a dispute between audiences for rival performances of Shakespeare cost as many as 31 lives in New York City. The Southern culture of "honor" violence goes to the headwaters of the Republic, persists today and has spread. The Jacksonian Democrats happily turned a blind eye to civil violence in the cause of their political rule and white supremacy, and they failed to enforce the rule of law. Even so, people of good will worked over generations to tamp down these tendencies, to "let justice roll on like many waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing river." As my mother (the grand-daughter of a woman who was scalped in an 1861 Comanche raid) told me, my forebears on the frontier wore guns so I wouldn't have to.
Some is new. President Obama's election and re-election have been followed by record gun sales. Record levels of the maturity and care required to own a gun are doubtful. Research indicates that more guns do translate into more gun violence. Mass shootings are getting more prevalent. The body count is spread across the nation (see also here).
Do we need more attention to mental health? Sure. But the reality is that most of these killers wouldn't have availed themselves of such services or taken their meds. Indeed, I wonder how much worse we've made things by putting children on psychotropic drugs and turning being a little boy into a mental illness. But the crazy argument can be a crutch, as it was to explain away the political assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords in Tucson (one more shooting, soon forgotten).
We do need more mercy, less vengeance.
As for gun control, my Second Amendment stance will not please progressive readers. The amendment is unfortunately worded ambiguously, but all of the Bill of Rights pertained to individual rights and limitations on the government. If the framers had intended the Second Amendment to apply to the militia, it would have been inserted elsewhere in the Constitution. That said, no right is absolute, trumping all others. The Constitution was written before we became an urbanized society with 312 million people and before assault weapons. So limitations on assault rifles and magazine size, requiring registration and eliminating the gun-show loophole all sound reasonable to me.
The National Rifle Association, of which I was once a member, has become a disease on the body politic. Along with the corporate-backed ALEC, which writes bills to be passed without question by extremist Republican legislatures around the country, the NRA has enabled and encouraged shootings and the opportunities for using a gun instead of a harsh word or a fist. Nothing should be more abhorrent to gun owners. It's telling that wealthy Republican Sen. John Sidney McCain III, R-Fox News, is the biggest individual beneficiary of gun-lobby contributions. I hope this latest massacre brings these vicious organizations down. I fear it won't.
With an estimated 310 million guns already in the country, I am skeptical that merely passing some gun-control laws and enhancing mental-health operations can stem the bloodshed. Taxing ammunition heavily would go further. But we must do more still, addressing the other cancers I mentioned above.
My agnostic and atheist friends can stop reading here. Mike Huckabee and the other religious hucksters have claimed that lack of God in the classroom or whatever other supposed transgressions from fundamentalism led to these shootings. Yet all of the savagery in creating this empire of violence was done in God's name. If they really read their Bibles, they would find that when the Israelites worshiped idols, allowed human sacrifice, spilled the blood of innocents and did not care for the poor, the anger of the Lord was kindled. From the very founding of the nation, most Americans saw us as the new Israel. Considering our recent behavior, I am afraid.