MSNBC, July 7, 2016: Instead of Rachel Maddow performing her nightly magic trick, which involves transforming five minutes of information into forty-five minutes of infotainment, it was the polished and soothing Brian Williams announcing a “national crisis”—a sniper in Dallas was shooting cops. The Dallas slaughter—five dead officers, seven more injured—was especially poignant, Williams informed his viewers, because it happened close to Dealey Plaza, where President John Kennedy was assassinated, 43 years earlier.
I was reminded of an Olympic telecast, the network commentator filling valuable airtime with details of, say, how Team USA’s javelin thrower is dyslexic and her mother is back home fighting cancer, and meanwhile, the gold medal-winning throw receives no coverage because the splendid champion hales from the wrong country. Attach your lapel mic, look sincere, fabricate sentimentalism. The U.S. bobsled team lost their luggage at the airport! The injured Dallas officers were rushed to Parkland Hospital, same as Kennedy! The newscaster tells us which stories matter, why we should care, and misses the crucial issue.
In this instance, “national crisis” is a revealing phrase. The Dallas police officers were patrolling a public protest march organized in response to the recent deaths of Alton Sterling, in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, in Minnesota—two more black men shot down by police officers. So far this year, police officers have killed 509 people. At least 123 (24%) of the victims are black, though blacks represent only 13% of the national population. The cases of Sterling and Castile sparked renewed outrage because of a familiar trope: videos appear to show that the officers involved had no justifiable reason to shoot either man. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago has already seen 338 homicides this year—that’s 12.5 per week—well on pace to surpass last year’s total of 468. Considering such carnage, does the murder of five police officers on a hot Texas night really constitute a “national crisis”?
Yes, if you understand that “national” refers only to a privileged group. “National interest” means corporate profits. “National security” primarily means protecting the ruling class from the rest of us. Police forces are the guardians of property and maintainers of order, the thin blue line between the restless masses and the pampered few. Thus, the skillful targeting of police officers is, by corporate media definition, a “national crisis.” It sparks “national outrage” and demands a “national response,” including President Barack Obama cutting short a trip to Europe and rerouting to Dallas. Why to Dallas and not Chicago? “There has been a vicious, despicable, and calculated attack on law enforcement,” the president said. “Police were doing their jobs, keeping people safe during a protest”—better understood as “keeping people in line.” The progressive reputation of the Dallas police chief notwithstanding, most anyone who has participated in a public protest march knows that a large police presence usually has little to do with protecting the protestors from harm.
But if we understand “national crisis” literally rather than euphemistically, we can say that the Dallas shooting was but one brief episode in a deadly crisis that permeates the U.S.A. Call it by its real name: Violent Solutions.
A child growing up in this country—assuming access to the appropriate electronic screens and other forms of public education—receives endless instruction on how killing and maiming solves problems. Cursory history lessons suggest that massive slaughter secured “national independence,” ended slavery, and stopped Hitler, while failing to point out that almost everyone loses in war and that each war leads to the next. Movies, television shows, and video games teach that killing is heroic, justifiable, entertaining, non-traumatizing, and socially redeeming. Soldier-worship is rampant onscreen, from recruitment advertising to the NFL’s cynical “Salute to Service” to the noncritical use of “hero” to describe anyone sporting the right uniform and a gun. (Trying to tie himself to warrior prestige, Brian Williams has lied repeatedly about his Iraq War experiences.)
What do the influential voices of the so-called “left” have to say on the matter? Jon Stewart spent years on television criticizing U.S. wars in his opening segments, then gushing over military guests after the break. Entertainment millionaires tweet out their slangy denouncements of death and destruction, then make another blockbuster film romanticizing death and destruction. Which do they think is more influential? President Obama, who accepted the Nobel Peace (sic) Prize, in 2009, by insisting that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” has ably demonstrated what he had in mind, “preserving the peace” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. “Turns out, I’m really good at killing people,” he supposedly told aides. Does he think he gets to be the only one?
The Bush-Cheney-Obama wars, begun in 1989, have militarized much of U.S. society. The U.S. occupation and destruction of communities in southwest Asia and north Africa have led to violent blowback on U.S. soil—terror for terror. In the name of “fighting terror,” the Pentagon hands out leftover instruments of war to police departments which already view urban populations as threats to be controlled, not citizens to be protected and served. Citizens frightened by onscreen violence rush to buy guns and (don’t forget) ammunition, and find few obstacles to ownership. Often overlooked, the U.S. terror machine produces a pool of trained and traumatized killers who struggle to regain their sanity and humanity after they reenter a society where opportunities for health and well-being are limited. To put it simply: U.S. war veterans are often a threat to themselves and those around them. They bring the terror home.
Turns out, Timothy McVeigh also was really good at killing people. The U.S. Army taught McVeigh to kill people and sent him to Iraq, in 1991, to practice his craft. After leaving the military, he became upset about what he considered state terrorism, most notable the federal assault on the Branch Davidian property near Waco, Texas, in 1993. McVeigh saw a problem, and, like the outstanding soldier he was, sought a violent solution. “You learn how to handle killing in the military,” he told a friend. “You learn how to accept collateral damage.” On the second anniversary of the Waco massacre, he detonated a powerful truck bomb in Oklahoma City, shredding a federal office building, killing 168, including 19 children, and injuring over 600.
Now we learn that the Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, was a military man. In high school, he joined the R.O.T.C. He later spent six years in the Army Reserve, deploying to Afghanistan in 2013-14. Like McVeigh, he was a loner, was angry about perceived injustice, and had been taught violent solutions. According to the Dallas police chief, Johnson was upset about the shooting of Sterling and Castile and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” Unlike McVeigh, Johnson was not a combat soldier. To improve his killing ability, he had enrolled at something called the Academy of Combative Warrior Arts, whose website promises “Answers For Today.”
This is not to say that every military veteran with a beef will turn to murder. But we should not be surprised when it happens. Or when a resentful student shoots up a school. Or when an alienated individual slaughters bystanders in a theater or night club or sporting event. The killers have been encouraged. President Obama, who was in Warsaw plotting increased N.A.T.O. militarization of the Baltic countries, called Johnson a “demented individual.” In truth, a society that lauds violent solutions, one that has room for militarized police departments and private warrior academies, is demented. Johnson was following Obama’s lead.
To curtail the epidemic of mass shootings and police homicides, U.S. citizens must address a variety of factors, including racism, insufficient gun regulation, and a depleted public sector. Democratic politicians are good at talking about such things; Republicans are mostly in the way. We must also correct a deeply-engrained culture of violent solutions—a culture which politicians from both parties mostly embrace. That correction begins with promoting nonviolent conflict resolution in homes, schools, and places of work. It means relearning, with Rep. John Lewis, the forgotten lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. One of them is this: When the masses use nonviolence, the politicians will follow.
Timothy Braatz is a playwright, novelist, and professor of history and peace studies at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. His most recent nonfiction book is Peace Lessons.