Only satire can look certain horrible realities in the eye, as The Onion did with its article from last year about a lone-wolf mass shooting of random strangers. Its headline cut to the quick: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
It’s the real American exceptionalism. Rampage shootings do take place in other countries (the 1996 Dunblane school massacre in Scotland, for example), but rarely. They remain distinct events in the public memory, rather than blurring together. In the United States the trauma is repetitive and frequent; only the location and the number of victims seem to change.
With Charleston we have the additional grotesquerie of a presidential candidate calling Dylann Roof’s extremely deliberate act an “accident” while the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation made a point of denying that it was terrorism. (The shooter was an avowed white supremacist who attacked an African-American church and took care to leave one survivor to tell the tale. By no amount of semantic weaselry can it be described as anything but “[an] act of violence done or threaten[ed] to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry,” to quote the director's own definition of terrorism.) But American rampage shootings do not always express an ideological agenda, or even a motive intelligible to anyone but the gunman. The meaninglessness of the violence, combined with its regularity, is numbing. So with time our scars grow callused, at least until the next spree rips them open again.
A few years ago Christopher Phelps, an intellectual historian who happens to be my closest friend, moved with his family to England, where he is now a senior lecturer (i.e., an associate professor) in American and Canadian studies at the University of Nottingham. At some point the British media began turning to him for commentary on life in these United States. “I tend to be asked on radio shows when there's a need for American expertise -- and implicitly an American accent, which adds an air of authenticity,” he wrote in an email when I asked him about it.
Among the topics he’s been asked about are “the re-election of Obama, the anniversary of JFK's death, and even what comprises the East Wing of the White House, since one only ever hears about the West Wing.” Of late, America’s everyday mayhem keeps coming up. In 2013 he discussed the Trayvon Martin case. Last August, it was the girl whose training in automatic weapons on an Arizona firing range ended when she lost control and sprayed her instructor with bullets. Phelps appeared on a nationally broadcast talk show hosted by Nick Ferrari, which seems like the perfect name for a bigger-than-life radio personality.
Ferrari wasted no time: “What is it with Americans and guns?” he asked. A fair question, though exceedingly blunt.
“I should have anticipated that, I suppose,” Phelps says now, “but I froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights, stuttering away.” Since then, unfortunately, he has gained experience in answering variations of the question. “The producers need people to do it,” he explains, “the university media team work hard to set up the gigs, and you feel as an American you should step in a bit to help modulate the conversation, but it sweeps away my life for a day or two when I have other plans and some psychopath shoots up America.” (The BBC program for which he was interviewed following the Charleston shootings can be found here.)
“It is still depressing,” Phelps continues, “in fact draining, to be put in the position of explaining my people through this kind of event, but reflection has prompted some better ways of answering.”
A one-sentence question about the American pattern of free-range violence takes many more to address at all concretely. Phelps's assessment bears quoting at length:
“While I'm as drawn to generalities as anyone -- I've always thought there was something to H. Rap Brown's declaration that ‘violence is as American as cherry pie’ -- it’s important to realize that most American households do not possess guns, only a third do. So gun owners do not comprise all Americans but a particular demographic, one more white, male and conservative than the general population.
“The shooters in mass killings, likewise, tend to be white men. So we need to explain this sociologically. My shorthand is that white men have lost a supreme status of power and privilege, given a post-’60s culture claiming gender and racial equality as ideals, yet are still socialized in ways that encourage aggressiveness.
“Of course, that mix wouldn't be so dangerous if it weren't easy to amass an arsenal of submachine guns, in effect, to mow people down. Why do restrictions that polls say Americans consider reasonable always get blocked politically, if gun-owning households are a minority? For one thing, the gun manufacturing corporations subsidize a powerful lobby that doubles as a populist association of gun owners. That, combined with a fragmented federalist system of government, a strongly individualist culture and the centrality of a Constitution that seems to inscribe ‘the right to bear arms’ as a sacred right, makes reform very difficult in the United States compared to similarly positioned societies. This suggests the problem is less cultural than political.”
Following the massacre of 26 people, most of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre waited several days before issuing a statement. Whether he meant to let decent interval pass or just needed time to work up the nerve, his response was to blame our culture of violence on… our culture of violence.
He condemned the American entertainment industry for its constant output of “an ever more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty” in the form of video games, slasher movies and so forth. The American child is exposed to “16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18” -- encouraging, if not spontaneously generating, LaPierre said, a veritable army of criminals and insane people, just waiting for unarmed victims to cross their paths. “The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids,” he said, “is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection.”
The speech was a marvel of chutzpah and incoherence. But to give him credit, LaPierre’s call for “a plan of absolute protection” had a sort of deluded brilliance to it -- revealing a strain of magical thinking worthy of… well, when you get right down to it, a violent video game. Despite living in a society full of people presumably eager to act out their favorite scenes in Natural Born Killers and American Psycho, having enough firepower will give you “absolute protection.”
On many points, Firmin DeBrabander’s book Do Guns Make Us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society (Yale University Press) converges with the analysis quoted earlier from my discussion with Christopher Phelps. But DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at Maryland Institute College of Art, places special emphasis on the corrupting effect of treating the Second Amendment as the basis for “absolute protection” of civil liberties.
The vision of democracy as something that grows out of the barrel of a gun (or better yet, a stockpile of guns, backed up with a ready supply of armor-piercing bullets) involves an incredibly impoverished understanding of freedom. And it is fed by a paranoid susceptibility to “unmanageable levels of fear,” DeBrabander writes, and “irrationalities that ripple through society.”
He turns to the ancient Stoic philosophers for a more robust and mature understanding of freedom. It is, he writes, “a state of mental resolve, not armed resolve. Coexisting with pervasive threats, Seneca would say, is the human condition. The person who lives with no proximate dangers is the exception. And it’s no sign of freedom to live always at the ready, worried and trigger-happy, against potential threats; this is the opposite of freedom.” It is, on the contrary, “a form of servitude,” and can only encourage tyranny by demagogues.
“Freedom,” DeBrabander goes on to say, “resides in the ability to live and thrive in spite of the dangers that attend our necessarily tenuous social and political existence -- dangers that are less fearsome and debilitating to the extent that we understand and acknowledge them.” It is only one of many good points the author makes. (See also his recent essay “Campus Carry vs. Faculty Rights” for Inside Higher Ed.) And the certainty that another mass shooting will take place somewhere in the United States before much longer means we need all the stoicism we can get.
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