In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, as in the wake of all the high-profile mass shootings that preceded it, the big question looms: Why?
John Whitehead puts the question this way: “What is it about America that makes violence our nation’s calling card?”
This is the enormous question — you might call it the $700 billion question, which is the size of the 2018 military budget recently approved by the Senate — that most media and law enforcement personnel do not ask or acknowledge, as they search for clues about the motive behind Stephen Paddock’s rampage on the night of Oct. 1 amid the scattered wreckage of the killer’s life.
He was a “lone wolf.” He was a “psychopath.”
He was an American.
And he was in possession, in his various dwelling places, of 47 firearms, some of which were used to kill at least 59 people and injure more than 500 others as they attended a country music concert. And some of these firearms were modified by “bump stocks,” a cheap, legal device that allows a semiautomatic rifle to fire like an automatic.
Whitehead puts the answer out there with terrifying clarity: “Perhaps there’s no single one factor to blame for this gun violence. However, there is a common denominator, and that is a war-drenched, violence-imbued, profit-driven military industrial complex that has invaded almost every aspect of our lives.”
This is America, a global empire engaged in endless war, with an entertainment and news media that sells violence as a spectator sport and a consequence-free solution to pretty much every problem you can think of. We believe in having enemies — not in a personal sense but in the abstract: people who are different in some defining way and symbolize, in their differentness, the cause of our troubles. In other words, we dehumanize. We call people gooks or ragheads or . . . we all know the list of obscenities, past and present.
Sociologist Peter Turchin, in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings nearly five years ago, wrote: “On the battlefield, you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.”
And mass murderers behave the same way as soldiers, except the “orders” they are obeying are their own or those of some marginal hate-community. The defining characteristic of mass murder is not that it’s senseless or random, but that, to the murderer, the victims symbolize evil. This sort of behavior, in other circumstances, is publicly celebrated. Suddenly, for instance, I’m thinking about the outpouring of praise Donald Trump generated from much of the media when the U.S. dropped a MOAB bomb — the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal — on Afghanistan. Some commentators declared that he became “presidential” after this action. The poor slobs who died because of it couldn’t have mattered less to the cheering spectators.
And a serious segment of the national economy depends on the continual flow of enemies and their elimination. It depends on selling weapons.
For instance, William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, pointed out in a recent Democracy Now! interview that the Trump administration has eliminated human-rights restrictions on small-arms exports, putting them under the control of the Commerce Department rather than the State Department, as well as “restrictions on fighter planes and bombs and the large weapons, the kind that are being used by Saudi Arabia to kill civilians in Yemen.”
Remarkably, domestic gun sales had slumped after Trump’s election — gun owners apparently became less fearful that the government would take their weapons away — so “gun manufacturers are desperate for more foreign sales. And they don’t care who the guns go to,” Hartung said. “And I think that’s really the problem.”
He concluded by quoting Martin Luther King’s speech against the Vietnam War: “I can’t in good conscience fight violence at home if I don’t stand up to my own government, which is the greatest purveyor of violence around the world.”
Only in this context does it become relevant to talk about gun control legislation. By themselves, such basic regulations as universal background checks, a reinstating of the assault-weapons ban and required permits for gun ownership feel like a frail wall against American violence and the ease with which the next “lone wolf” can plan his assault.
Indeed, gun control laws are basically just stopgap measures perpetually debated by a violence-addicted society. They swell in significance because they’re so viciously opposed by the NRA. I’m not against them, but they’re not enough.
“And I awoke Monday hoping that maybe this shooting is the one that will persuade America to reclaim the mantle of global leadership that has been at our core since our origin,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy wrote in the Washington Post the day after the Las Vegas massacre, calling for sane gun control legislation.
Yes, this is crucial. But I can’t help but note that Murphy was one of the 89 senators, including, of course, most Democrats, who voted last month for the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, bestowing $700 billion on the U.S. military next year, an increase of $80 billion, which is even more than the Pentagon or Trump requested.
“Mass shootings,” Murphy acknowledged, “happen almost nowhere else but the United States.”
This is not because of tepid gun laws. It’s because the country funds — and benefits from — endless war and violence of all sorts. Occasionally the violence comes back to haunt us.