Several days after the mass killings at Virginia Tech, grisly stories about the tragedy still dominate front pages and cable television. News of carnage on a vastly larger scale — the war in Iraq — ebbs and flows. The overall coverage of lethal violence, at home and far away, reflects the chronic evasions of the American media establishment.
In the world of U.S. mainline journalism, the boilerplate legitimacy of official American violence overseas is a routine assumption.
“The first task of the occupation remains the first task of government: to establish a monopoly on violence,” George Will wrote three years ago in the Washington Post. But now, his latest Newsweek column laments: “Vietnam produced an antiwar movement in America; Iraq has produced an antiwar America.”
Current polls and public discourse — in spite of media inclinations to tamp down authentic anger at the war — do reflect an “antiwar America” of sorts. So, why is the ghastly war effort continuing unabated? A big factor is the undue respect that’s reserved for American warriors in American society.
When a mentally unstable person goes on a shooting rampage in the United States, no one questions that such actions are intrinsically, fundamentally and absolutely wrong. The media condemnation is 100 percent.
However — even after four years of a U.S. war in Iraq that has been increasingly deplored by the American public — the standard violence directed from the Pentagon does not undergo much critical scrutiny from American journalists. The president’s war policies may come under withering media fire, but the daily activities of the U.S. armed forces are subjected to scant moral condemnation. Yet, under orders from the top, they routinely continue to inflict — or serve as a catalyst for — violence far more extensive than the shooting sprees that turned a placid Virginia campus into a slaughterhouse.
News outlets in the United States combine the totally proper condemnation of killing at home with a notably different affect toward the methodical killing abroad that is funded by the U.S. Treasury. We often read, see and hear explicit media commendations that praise as heroic the Americans in uniform who are trying to kill, and to avoid being killed, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In recent decades, the trends of war have been clear. A majority of the dead — estimated at 75 to 90 percent — are civilians. They are no less innocent than the more than 30 people who suddenly died from gunshots at Virginia Tech.
It would be inaccurate to say that the bulk of U.S. media’s coverage accepts war launched from Washington. The media system of the USA does much more than accept — it embraces the high-tech violence under the Pentagon’s aegis. Key reasons are cultural, economic and political.
We grew up with — and continue to see — countless movies and TV programs showing how certain people with a handgun, a machine gun or missiles are able to set wrongs right with sufficiently deft and destructive violence.
The annual reports of large, medium and small companies boast that the U.S. Defense Department is a lucrative customer with more and more to spend on their wares for war.
And the scope of political discourse, reinforced by major news outlets, ordinarily remains narrow enough to dodge the huge differences between “defense spending” and “military spending.” More broadly, the big media rarely explore the terrain of basic moral challenges to the warfare state.
Everyone who isn’t deranged can agree that what happened on April 16, 2007, at the campus of Virginia Tech was an abomination. It came about because of an individual’s madness. We must reject it without the slightest equivocation. And we do.
But the media baseline is to glorify the U.S. military — yesterday, today and tomorrow — bringing so much bloodshed to Iraq. The social dynamics in our own midst, fueling the war effort, are spared tough scrutiny. We’re constantly encouraged to go along, avidly or passively.
Yet George Will has it wrong. The first task of government should not be “to establish a monopoly on violence.” Government should work to prevent violence — including its own.
NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.