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Violence and the American Mind


Had it not been for the Newtown massacre of twenty children and six adults, before the gunman killed himself, at an elementary school in the United States, this column would have been about the latest events in Egypt, where a struggle is taking place between Islamist and liberal-secularist forces over the country’s future. That struggle for the soul of Egyptian society is going to be long and complex, even when the result of the constitutional referendum becomes known. In America, the killing of so many schoolchildren, by a man just twenty years of age, has so shaken people that consideration of Egypt’s politics can wait another day. This is a time when we are compelled by conscience to reflect on a phenomenon which is both destructive and far-reaching. We should ask whether America’s culture of violence has become like a giant octopus whose many tentacles are destroying itself, as well as lives in distant lands.

When I first arrived to work in the United States in the early 1970s, before moving to Britain three years later, I was twenty-two years of age. My grandchildren now live on the east coast of America. They are as young as the victims of the gunman Adam Lanza. The enormity of his act fills me with horror, particularly because I feel close to America, although I have lived in Europe for more than three decades. So, when I am being critical of America, I am being critical of something that is part of myself. Nonetheless, it is difficult to be silent when atrocities like the Newtown massacre take place.

What happened there was particularly savage, but we should not forget that such violence has become all two frequent in American society. While television channels were focused on the Newtown massacre, there were a number of shootings across the nation, from California and Nevada, Illinois, Colorado, Alabama and North Carolina. And a sixty-year-old man was arrested in Cedar Lake, Indiana, with 47 guns, threatening to “kill as many people as he could” at an elementary school. The country is awash with weapons, the thirst for guns is unquenchable. ABC News reported that Americans tried to buy two million guns in November alone.

Let us think about some of the worst mass killings of the past twenty years. Last September, there was one in Aurora, Colorado, where twenty-four-year-old James Eagan Homes killed 12 people; in November 2009, an Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hassan cut down the lives of 13 victims; a few months before, Jiverly Wong murdered 13 at Binghamton, New York; Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, April 1999; and the Oklahoma City bombing perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh in April 1995. The list goes on.

Then, in the name of maintaining law and order, police officers, often trigger happy, shoot first and talk later. A few day ago, a Chinese woman was shot by a policeman’s Taser gun, as she tried to purchase several iPhones from a New Hampshire store. How many of us can forget Rodney King, the African American, whose savage beating by Los Angeles police officers in March 1991 shocked America, and millions and millions around the world?

While all eyes are on Newtown for a few days, killings continue around the United States without much notice. Trigger happiness is an instinct difficult to separate from the ease with which guns can be obtained. Their availability in America is in abundance, price is cheap, the reasons to possess them many. To show off as trophies, to hunt, to “protect,” to satisfy one’s macho instinct; or because it is every American’s right to carry arms. Such mindset is absolutist. Such faith in the superiority of culture, which feeds on the idea of “American exceptionalism” that gives the United States a divine mission, is fatally flawed. For man cannot remain unaffected by what he does to fellow humans. At this time of sorrow, it would be appropriate to also think of the many young and the innocent killed in America’s foreign wars.

In a Boston Review article titled “The Power and the Glory: Myths of American ” in the Summer 2005 edition, Howard Zinn wrote these words: “Divine ordination is a very dangerous idea, especially when combined with military power (the United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons, with military bases in a hundred different countries and warships on every sea). With God’s approval, you need no human standard of morality.” It is this state of mind that haunts America today.

Deepak Tripathi is a historian whose interests include the United States in the contemporary world. His works can be found at: and he can be reached at:

Deepak Tripathi is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His works can be found at: and he can be reached at

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