A society built on violence

October 5, 2017

There is an all-too-often-ignored problem with a society that breeds so much violence, and the solution isn't as simple as restricting guns, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

DAYS AFTER the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and more than 500 injured, people everywhere are left with the same shocked question we had from the first hours of the tragedy: What can explain a retired accountant bringing an arsenal of murderous weapons to a 32nd-floor hotel suite and firing them into a packed crowd gathered for a country music concert?

While the horror is fresh whenever a violent event like this happens, the media and political commentary afterward sounds the same old themes: Questions about the motives of the perpetrators, especially the loaded issue of "terrorism" as it is defined, and not defined, in the "war on terror" era; frantic calls for intensified security; debates about how to keep guns out of the hands of people who commit violence.

The deeper questions about the society where these nightmares take place--seemingly worse and more often as the years go by--go unanswered.

Leave it to the Trump administration to respond with a sickening political cynicism that, among other things, highlighted its cozy relationship with the gun lobby.

A candlelight vigil for the victims of the massacre in Las Vegas
A candlelight vigil for the victims of the massacre in Las Vegas

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders chastised a reporter who asked about gun control measures by insisting it was a "day of mourning," and not the time "for that policy discussion to take place." Sanders then went on to discuss "that policy": "I think one of the things that we don't want to do is try to create laws that won't create--or stop these types of things from happening."

If the companies that make and sell guns had any fears about whether the Trump administration is still on their side, Sanders settled them--on a "day of mourning."

THE MEDIA reaction to the shooting in Las Vegas was utter confusion at a white 64-year-old man who appeared to have millions of dollars at his disposal carrying out mass murder.

This was especially true for Fox News, since Stephen Paddock didn't fit their well-worn script for "Islamic terrorists" or even a disaffected white working-class person with "an ax to grind."

Instead, in the early days of the investigation, Paddock was found to have passed every background check to purchase weapons--and law enforcement seemed to have no clue about a possible motive.

The confusion on the part of the media and politicians reinforces the general sense of fear that many people feel already as incidents of mass shootings, carried out with deadlier weapons, are on the rise.

According to a database created by Mother Jones of mass shootings--defined as indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more deaths, excluding shootings stemming from more conventional crimes such as armed robbery--the numbers have increased drastically over the last decade.

The database reported some 91 public mass shootings between 1982 and 2012, with nearly two-thirds taking place since 2006. More than half of the cases happened at schools or workplaces--with the majority of those at workplaces. More than three-quarters of the guns used in these shootings were obtained legally.

Rather than ask what social factors might be involved, the mainstream discussion crams the conversation into narrow, pre-defined parameters, most of the time focusing on gun ownership: Should there be restrictions of various kinds or the unfettered right to bear arms as the Founding Fathers allegedly intended?

This only shows how incapable the current political system is of solving real problems.

Once again, the Trump administration takes the prize for hypocrisy and cynicism.

In April, Trump became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the National Rifle Association, where he told the crowd: "The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end."

At the same time, Trump can't stop berating Chicago for gun violence--last year, he proposed sending in the National Guard. So much for the sanctity of "Second Amendment freedoms."

When politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, talk about African American neighborhoods, the conversation isn't about freedom, but how to fund more police--which, by the way, means more guns in the neighborhood and more gun violence.

At the same time, they peddle the myth of a Black pathology that needs special treatment and special punishment. For Trump, it's sending the National Guard to patrol the South Side of Chicago. But before him, it was Hillary Clinton's "super-predators"--the fable of the young Black teenager who doesn't value human life, told in order to sell tougher sentencing laws.

Historically, gun laws have been used to target Black communities, not protect them--like many other mechanisms of the state, from sentencing laws and prisons to the occupying armies of poor neighborhoods in U.S. cities, otherwise known as police. These are the institutions that don't value life.

ACCORDING TO a Harvard/Northeastern survey released last year, some 55 million Americans own guns, with nearly half owning just one or two guns. A small fraction of owners, around 3 percent, are "super-owners" like Stephen Paddock, with eight or more weapons.

In many ways, the gun control measures put forward so passionately by Democrats after tragedies like Las Vegas seem like common sense: Why do we guns need silencers or other weapons modifications that make them more deadly?

But even on their face, these measures wouldn't address the biggest tolls from gun violence. Two-thirds of gun deaths every year are suicides. As former FiveThirtyEight journalist Leah Libresco wrote in a Washington Post op-ed article, "Almost no proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them" in these tragic cases.

And it is much too narrow to view the question in these terms. Even if they could be made effective, gun control measures won't come close to solving the problem of violence in an unequal society, divided between haves and have-nots, where providing for human need isn't even on the short list of priorities.

Here are a few statistics to underscore the brutality of life in the U.S. where guns play no part:

Every day, 10 people die from asthma--3,615 in 2015 alone. Most of these deaths would have been avoidable with proper treatment.

Every week, 93 people die on the job in the U.S.--4,836 in 2015.

One estimate, probably too low, of the number of people killed by police in the U.S. is almost 1,100. Add to this the violence meted out by an ever-expanding prison system, where 2.2 million people are currently behind bars.

This is a small taste of the violence that millions of people in the U.S. face every day--and it is compounded by the violence inflicted on people around the world by the most powerful military machine history has ever known.

To approach the question of gun violence as if it is a special case, disconnected from the other forms of violence in society, is to underestimate the scope of the problem.

OVER THE last year, the U.S. has felt like an even more dangerous place--because it is. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump used his message of hate and bigotry to play to a base of right-wing supporters who, on more than one occasion, physically attacked protesters.

Since he has taken office, the Trump administration's support for anti-women, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-worker policies has fueled the far right and helped create a more violent and terrifying atmosphere, producing both an increase in hate crimes and an intensified attack on anyone who dissents.

After the far right's carnival of hate in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the murder of an anti-racist protester, there can be no mistaking the fact that Trump's hateful rhetoric has opened a Pandora's box of hateful action.

Add to this Trump's drumbeat of war threats from North Korea to Venezuela, and all of this contributes to an even more violent and even more dangerous society.

There is something wrong with a society that has such a proliferation of guns and gun violence. But these are symptoms of a deeper disease: ultimately, the fact that the state and the system cannot maintain the status quo--abroad and at home, with all its obvious inequalities--without overwhelming levels of violence.

There are measures that could alleviate the everyday suffering of everyday people--above all, money for quality schools, food and housing instead of police, prisons and deportations--and have a huge effect on decreasing crime and interpersonal violence in society.

But the U.S. government and the capitalist system it serves would prefer this unequal situation to flourish, no matter how much violence it breeds, rather than change it.

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