Ignoring the real roots of American violence

Danny Katch considers the arguments put forward by liberal figures whose first response to the Charleston mass murders was to talk about the need for gun control.

A shrine for the victims of the racist massacre at Charleston's Emanuel AME ChurchA shrine for the victims of the racist massacre at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church

IN THE wake of Dylann Roof's racist massacre in a Charleston church, there is increased public awareness of the frighteningly widespread network of violent right-wing networks.

The New York Times, for example, gave prominent attention to something that hate-group watchers like the Southern Poverty Law Center have known for years: White supremacists and other far right terrorists have killed far more people in the U.S. than Muslim attackers have in the years since September 11.

When it comes to action beyond the words, though, the main proposal put forward among the political class--beyond the long overdue, if welcome, call to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building grounds--has been for gun control.

"You don't see murder on this kind of scale with this kind of frequency in any other advanced nation on earth," President Obama said days after the massacre. "Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people. What's different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns."

For many progressives, making gun control a top priority is common sense. The reasoning is simple: If only Dylann Roof didn't have a gun, then nine more African Americans in Charleston would be alive today. What could be more practical than reducing the number of guns in U.S. society--especially when compared to the complexities of confronting violence and hate?

In fact, the Democrats' calls for gun control in the past week are anything but practical, given the hopeless partisan split in Congress that is guaranteed to stop any substantial gun legislation--aside, that is, from the "practical" goal of getting the Democrats' liberal supporters so outraged at Republican opponents that they'll donate money and time for the next election cycle.

But the more important reason why people who are horrified by the Charleston massacre should question the focus on gun control is that it channels our outrage away from the powerful institutions that produce racism and violence in a society that both imprisons and bombs more people--most of them Black and Brown--than any other on Earth.

"America's Disease," screamed the headline on the cover of the New York Daily News, over a picture of Roof. Exactly right--but the subheading and background pictures clarified that the disease was not racism or white terrorism, but "gun violence" striking the nation again.

"Gun violence," a phrase without political content or context, was never used to describe the shooting rampage of Nidal Hassan, a Muslim American who shot dozens of soldiers at Fort Hood in what was universally called "a terrorist attack."

Nor, for that matter, do the media ever use the phrase "gun violence" to refer to the daily shootings committed by police, Border Patrol or U.S. soldiers. That's tens of thousands of people, armed with the most sophisticated weaponry in history and able to it with impunity, who form part of the fabric of a society that just can't seem to fathom why there is so much violence.

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TO QUESTION the logic of gun control is not at all to line up with the paranoid, vigilante politics of the main organization that opposes such legislation: the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The NRA originated as a simple organization for hunters and marksmen, but was transformed in the 1970s into a right-wing political force by Harlon Carter, a former director of the Border Patrol. As a youth in rural Texas, Carter murdered a 15-year-old Chicano boy who loitered too close to Carter's home. Carter went free when his conviction was overturned on the dubious grounds of self-defense--foreshadowing the "Stand Your Ground" laws that today are championed by the NRA.

In the aftermath of every mass shooting incident, the NRA can be counted on to draw the most reactionary conclusions possible--always starting and ending with the proclamation that what is needed in this country that has more guns than any in the world is more guns.

This time, NRA board member Charles Cotton managed to blame Dylann Roof's murders on...one of his victims--pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, because Pinckney voted against allowing people to carry concealed handguns.

Cotton quickly deleted his social media comments, but they simply echoed NRA chief Wayne LaPierre's call after the Newtown elementary school massacre for armed guards to be placed in every school--an attitude summarized by LaPierre's widely mocked slogan: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

It's easy to reject declarations about the right to bear arms when they come from right-wing demagogues in the NRA. But it's not so simple when the demand is from women facing threats from a violent ex--or from Black people who rightfully don't think they can count on the police for protection.

In fact, the first calls for gun control came about not in response to right-wing racists, but the sight of the Black Panther Party patrolling the streets with guns to protect their communities from police violence. Those decades-old events might seem like ancient history to some, but they are a lot more recent than the Confederate flag that continues to inspire Dylann Roof and hundreds of thousands of other racists.

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THE LOUDEST proponents of gun control today are politicians in the same offices where their predecessors battled--often literally--the Black Panthers decades ago: the mayors and police departments of cities with major racial and wealth inequalities.

None is more prominent than former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and, more recently, Everytown for Gun Safety. Even as Bloomberg built a national reputation as a gun control advocate, he was quite the gun enthusiast himself--as long as the guns were in the hands of his New York City Police Department.

Bloomberg infamously bragged about having the seventh-largest army in the world--and this was no idle boast. Under his watch, the NYPD was deployed each day in violent encounters with mostly Black and Brown city residents--in the name of getting guns off the streets.

This is the problem with the main arguments in favor of gun control: They have nothing to say about the massive militarization of the state, from police officers to the Border Patrol to private security forces--or about the obvious racist dynamic of this militarization.

For all of their heated opposition to each other, the liberal Democrats who push gun control as a solution to violence have something important in common with the despised NRA--both assume that weapons will remain in the hands of law enforcement and the military, in order to maintain law and order.

Nor do Democrats like Barack Obama dwell on the connection between America's endless wars and glorification of the military and the mass shootings that take place at home.

"There are 'black helicopters'," Obama jokingly said on comedian Marc Maron's podcast in response to a light-hearted question about the notorious fears of the right. "We deploy them against Bin Laden...but we generally don't deploy them on U.S. soil."

It speaks volumes about our society's deep immersion in imperial culture that few commentators would think--or dare--to raise a possible connection between the celebrated assassination of Osama bin Laden and the spate of mass shootings committed in the U.S.

Of course, it's impossible to make a causal connection, but we should at least chew on the fact that Adam Lanza's massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school took place months after the release of the movie about the Bin Laden operation, publicized by ubiquitous posters celebrating "the greatest manhunt in history." Zero Dark Thirty was cheered by liberals and conservatives alike--while few gave much thought to the fact that Lanza's dead body was found decked out in military camouflage.

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WHAT ARE the other arguments for gun control?

It seems self-evident to many that there is a direct correlation between rates of violence and gun ownership. In fact, there are some countries, such as Russia, with fewer guns than the U.S. and more homicides--and other with lots of guns and little violence. Switzerland, for example, has the fourth-highest number of guns per capita in the world and the tenth-fewest homicides.

A Time magazine article explains that, just as in the U.S., "Switzerland's gun ownership is deeply rooted in a sense of patriotic duty and national identity. Weapons are kept at home because of the long-held belief that enemies could invade tiny Switzerland quickly, so every soldier had to be able to fight his way to his regiment's assembly point."

What accounts, then, for the different levels of violence in the U.S. and Switzerland? Could it be that one country has a famous history of neutrality in wars, while the other presides over a global empire, involved in an endless string of wars, coups and occupations for the past century? Time didn't ask.

Some media attempts to avoid larger political issues when discussing American gun violence border on the ridiculous.

A recent chart in the Washington Post, for example, meant to dramatize the much higher rates of gun homicides in the U.S than other countries, explained in the fine print that Latin American countries with similarly high rates were excluded because they "traditionally had high murder rates, often due to political instability and the drug war."

But the U.S. also has high traditional murder rates--long before most Americans had guns, they could make nooses--and much of the current gun violence is rooted in the war on drugs.

Apparently, it's too much to expect the Washington Post to note some of the other historical elements leading to a culture of violence that the U.S. has in common with Latin America: the genocidal conquest of indigenous peoples; the daily violence inflicted on African slaves for centuries; and the regular use of soldiers and private security forces to shoot down striking workers; to name a few.

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TO CHALLENGE calls for gun control coming from people like Obama and Bloomberg is not to dismiss the horrible problem of gun violence in the U.S. Instead, it is to take this violence seriously enough to ask real questions about where it comes from.

One of the most positive developments to come out of the tragedy in Charleston is that people are talking about the legacy of racism in the South and demanding that the Confederate flag be taken down everywhere. People rightly understand the "Stars and Bars" to be a symbol of white supremacy, backed up by millions of guns, bayonets and whips.

But let's not forget that before Dylann Roof's massacre, thousands of activists in the Black Lives Matter movement were calling attention to the racist way that guns are employed by the government that flies the Stars and Stripes instead--a government that Martin Luther King famously called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

That has to be our starting point for understanding how we can combat "America's Disease."