The United States is the number one supplier of weapons on the planet, its military the world’s largest employer. Violence has become America’s major export to the world and we have reaped the financial rewards. The only problem is we’re addicted to the drug we’re peddling beyond our borders. The addiction passes on to the next generation through the discursive bloodstream and into the collective womb of culture. Throughout their early years we saturate our children with violent images and language: First person shooter games. Action heroes. Military heroes. Heroes with guns. Men with guns. Men using guns on other men and women and children and animals. We teach them the path of aggression, competition, and the joys of humiliating your opponents. Our entertainments provide orgies of righteous vengeance and self-piteous victimhood. And when one of our children unleashes his monstrous hate on other children we should be horrified—but we should not be surprised. We have taught our children well
As a teacher and a parent, I could readily imagine the full horror of the massacre in Connecticut. I struggle to keep my children safe from any kind of danger. At my job, I have had to practice lockdowns and deal with bomb threats. I also know how fragile our sense of security is. Inevitably in the wake of tragedies like this, people call for stricter security. Make us safe, they implore. Add more cops, more metal detectors, more guns to protect us from guns. All in vain. No matter how much we surrender our freedom for safety, how much we try to turn our homes and schools into fortresses, we will never be able to keep death from making that appointment in Samarra with us if he’s hell-bent on being there.
In the wake of the tragedy, my wife and I went out for some mindless entertainment—the latest James Bond film. Despite the critical accolades, it left a bad taste in our mouths. Fifty years of James Bond, the film proclaimed in the final credits—and I wondered why I still bother to entertain myself with such tedious and joyless orgies of violence. It has
become a habit—one acquired over decades of constant exposure—an addiction that no longer provides pleasure or even numbness. It’s more on the order of a repetition compulsion. The Dream Machine plays back the same spectacles of hypermasculine bodies and pyrotechnic destruction from one year to the next. The events in Connecticut make it easier than ever to see these films are lies: Shots fired and no pain, no disfigurement, no real danger. War with no fear, no trauma, no lingering nightmares.
The most warlike nation with the least number of people ever having felt the terrible impact of war, America entertains itself with killing. Our sports feel like combat, while the fantasies of combat we consume look like sport. The mascot of the school district where I teach in rural Pennsylvania is a bullet. Not a bulldog or huskie or owl or canary. A bullet—the same thing that killed twenty-six people in another school on Friday. Where I work many of us try our best to promote peace and tolerance, to expose students to different points of view, different cultures, different visions for the future. Nearby my school, there’s a shooting range. When I go for walks during my lunch break I can almost always hear someone firing automatic pistols, shotguns, and rifles, the gunshots echoing off my school’s feeble walls.
Inevitably and appropriately, voices rise up in the wake of these mass murders and cry out for gun control laws, for an end to violence, for America to wake up. Their counterparts froth at the mouth over the sacredness of the Constitution (which in all other cases they’re all too willing to discount). The feedback loop stumbles along with the old gun control versus liberty debate. The intractable points of view make for predictable and quickly-forgettable copy in the opinion columns. Soon we let the matter die.
The Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist in discussing the origins of genocide wrote, “It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.” So watch Obama weep as he proclaims: “Our hearts are broken today. The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them…” Then ask yourself why he doesn’t weep for the children who die at his orders from drone attacks in Pakistan—eight times the number of children horribly murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Why are we surprised when the violence we wreak on the rest of the world should plant its poison seeds in the hearts of our children, turning them into murderers of children? If this tragedy means anything, it’s that America must confront its addiction to violence, to entertainments that equate manhood with killing, and to an entire political and economic system that privileges war-making over the future—and the precious lives—of our own children.
Mark Graham is a high school teacher in the Lehigh Valley. He’s books include: How Islam Created the Modern World and Afghanistan in the Cinema.