The American Culture of Violence


As a child I played war games (cowboys killing Indians). My friends and I routinely shot each other with toy guns of course. In my south Bronx neighborhood, older gang members had real guns and sometimes shot each other. Like in the movies! The cartoons I adored as a kid were loaded with violence as were the war movies Hollywood churned out to make propaganda for the actual war against Germany and Japan.

When James Holmes mowed down 12 and wounded almost 60 people at a movie theater in Colorado, I felt fresh violence enter my body as if a masseuse had greased me with liquid hostility before beginning the massage. Aggression penetrated my pores, inundated my brain and covered the cells of my heart. While the media reported the number of rounds fired, the kinds of weapons possessed by the assassin, and the anatomy of Holmes’ booby-trapped apartment, President Obama and aspirant Romney uttered bland statements about the need for prayer, and consolation to the victims’ families. Neither mentioned control of guns or the culture of violence that defines America. Freedom seems to equal gun possession for the National Rifle Association and many of its members.

Violence, more American than apple pie and baseball, has become a major social issue and a serious public health problem. Almost daily someone shoots another dead in countless metropolitan areas. Families suffer, cops say they are investigating and newspapers and TV stations get lead stories. I, like tens of millions, see the TV blood stories and easily fall into the fascination pit of the aftermaths and consequences of violence. But the media does not analyze or look for underlying themes in Aurora or similar horrifying acts. Instead, they use them to sell news shows, newspapers, and get advertisers.

Indeed, the media soak us with the culture of violence. In Hollywood and TV films, violent death has become the only formula for adequate retribution. Movie villains suffer hideous ends – movie justice. Violence as the cultural metaphor well suits a country that for decades has lived with perpetual war, backed by the owners of the war economy.

The Aurora carnage unfolded after massacres at Columbine high school, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and the supermarket in Tucson, Arizona; and the more recent shootings in Chicago and Tuscaloosa. Since this is an election year we have not heard widespread calls for legislation to limit the sale of assault rifles, nor heard a justifiable critique of the pernicious policies of the NRA. Instead, the American public has become inundated with numbers about gun violence ranging from the fact that more than 84 people are killed daily with guns to the shocking statistic that there are more than 30,000 gun-related deaths annually in our country. Compare our use of guns to kill people with England’s. In 2010, the U.S. experienced 8,775 murders by firearms as compared to 58 in Britain. Mass-killing weapons have become the beloved treasure of millions of Americans who abandon obvious politics of self-interest in the face of any hint that a politician would move to control gun ownership. The NRA now holds Congress and the President in its institutional grip as it collects dollars from gun manufactures and peddles its sadistic pablum as Christian gospel (Jesus would have had a large arsenal in his home) for American society to eat. But violence in America transcends gun control.

Violence defines American culture. Turn on kids’ cartoons or any “drama” show and we see and hear the images and sounds of aggression against others. U.S. foreign policy advocates violence as the solution to problems. Bomb Kosovo, Libya. Invade Iraq or now Syria. Bomb Iran. Hollywood films, professional football and hockey, video games all squeeze the display of violence to attract audiences to their primary medium of entrainment. Brutal masculine domination has become the aesthetic in American “entertainment.” The media sells violence just as the language of violence shapes political discourse. In Hollywood barely a film heads for theaters without the fight and sound of a fist hitting a face, a bullet ripping through a body or a car pushing another car off the road. Our ever-growing prison system, with its industrial cousins, parallels the militarization of local police forces. The President heads the “assassination abroad committee” deciding on which people get “droned” today. Since we invade and occupy other countries routinely we have grown accustomed to permanent war, and our young people know guns and have used them against others in the Middle East. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales mowed down some 15 Afghanis, we suppose as a result of his war traumas. It’s easier to attribute war stress as a motive for mass killing than it is to figure out why every couple of months someone starts shooting down others in the street, in a mall or a movie theater.

The state’s violence gets cloaked in legitimacy. We kill people for our security via video drone games in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as we continue to exercise our violent will abroad. In the era of perpetual war, with targeted assassinations, an assault on basic liberties and the use of drones to protect our security we also undergo national mourning every time a “loony” kills “innocent” civilians – unlike those that die abroad as collateral damage. High U.S. body counts seem to occur as a parallel statistic to the violent acts initiated abroad. American soldiers kill Afghan civilians. U.S. “Kill teams” walk the countryside and we might wonder why some of this killing culture might rub off back home. Our military budget literally ties the country to war and a war economy.

Violent crime gets blamed on minorities. We read daily of prisoners (mostly black men) receiving the death penalty. But nothing happens to the people who design automatic weapons, except they get rewarded for doing a good job. Their bosses, the ultimate cultural moguls, create violence for profit. They provide the inspiration for modern U.S. culture.

Now let us pray, but keep your side arm ready in the movie theater where you may need it the next time someone imbibes too much of our violent culture and decides to play the Joker role during a Batman screening or takes cartoon violence to the streets.

Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP screens August 3 at the San Jose Peace and Justice Center, , 48 South 7th St., San Jose CA and on August 24 at Washington, DC’s Avalon Theater, 5612, Connecticut Ave. NW

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