Refusing to accept a society steeped in violence

February 22, 2018

With the powerful response to the mass shooting in a Florida school shaking U.S. politics, Robert Wilson and Danny Katch look at the roots of violence in the U.S.

THE NEWS last week of yet another horrific school shooting seemed to promise only more despair and mourning--both for the 17 lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and about the larger direction of U.S. society.

Instead, the collective anger and defiance that has been organized and expressed by many classmates of those killed has marked this tragedy as a line in the sand--marked out by young people who are demanding that this country try to actually do something about the epidemic of mass shootings.

The future protests announced this week--school walkouts on March 14 and March 24 and a day of action on April 20--are deeply inspiring, but they're not just that.

By bringing the gun debate into the arena of social struggle, this new movement has the potential to develop a left wing that can take this issue out of the cul-de-sac of an unresolvable "safety vs. freedom" clash--and instead start raising pointed questions about militarism, social alienation and the right-wing politics of paranoia that stretches from Reddit threads to the Oval Office.

Florida students rally in solidarity after the Douglas High School mass shooting
Florida students rally in solidarity after the Douglas High School mass shooting

MASS SHOOTINGS have become a recurrent feature of contemporary U.S. life that strike deep into the collective psyche.

Conversations range from the personal to the political level: What was the shooter's personal background? Why did he (and it's invariably a "he") reach such a horrifying breaking point? Why can people buy firearms so easily? Why doesn't Congress do something?

Yet despite the broad range of questions, these tragedies have been invariably followed by common refrains and a limited scope of debate.

Liberals justifiably point to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its Republican lackeys, while conservatives make vague claims about mental health--while minor legislation that probably wouldn't have prevented the shooting is raised and then discarded, and a week later, the news cycle moves on.

This dull and predictable pattern is partly what's driving the protests. Students in Parkland who were hiding under tables last week will have to return to school. Parents will bury their teenage children and then go back to work. Teachers will have to teach classes the rest of the year with notable holes in their seating charts. And soon, we'll all hear about another massacre in another town.

As the sign seen at many of the protests puts it: "Enough is enough."

The sudden emergence of a protest movement to end this sickening cycle is adding another important layer to the resistance to Donald Trump and the Republican right.

For socialists, who have traditionally been skeptical, and for very good reason, of measures that give governments even more of a monopoly over the use of deadly force, it will be important to discuss and debate the specific policy demands that emerge from these protests. is committed to airing that discussion.

But mass shootings are a social phenomenon that demands a social answer. Reforms connected to gun industry regulations might be a first step, but the central question we need to face is how to broaden the scope of discussion to target the root causes of violence in the U.S: imperialism, racism and oppression, exploitation and alienation.

IN HIS excellent 2012 essay "When the Burning Moment Breaks: Gun Control and Rage Massacres," Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow notes that the seemingly random mass shootings so prevalent today largely didn't enter into U.S. public consciousness until the 1980s after a series of workplace killings by postal workers.

This first wave of well-documented massacres came amid the neoliberal measures of the Reagan era that created increasingly unbearable working conditions for postal workers--which led to the phrase "going postal."

Similarly, in a 2005 book, journalist Mark Ames suggests that the implementation of many of these reforms in public education in the 1990s set the stage for an uptick in massacres at schools, like at Columbine High School in 1999.

The question remains, however, why there is a connection between misery in the workplace or schools and mass violence. Sparrow suggests that the answer lies in the erosion of collective culture during the neoliberal era--through the decimation of unions, civil society and social movements--combined with the long history of glorified violence in the U.S. patriotic tradition.

Returning to the example of postal workers, it should be remembered that 16 years before the infamous 1986 post office massacre in Edmond, Oklahoma, 200,000 postal workers across the country went on a national wildcat strike in 1970, winning significant reforms in the U.S. Postal Service.

Partially in response, the 1978 Federal Labor Relations Act--passed under Democratic President Jimmy Carter--barred strike action for federal employees, leaving workers hamstrung by the time Reagan's attacks on the public sector began.

With the strike option heavily restricted and workplace speedups pushed into overdrive, workers were left with few collective options to resist. Meanwhile, the "war on drugs" was ramping up, leading to police occupations of Black neighborhoods--and movies like Rambo revived the glorification of military violence to erase memories of America's defeat in the Vietnam War.

Ames chillingly notes that many of the workers he interviewed expressed a certain sympathy with the workers who had "gone postal."

WHILE THE phenomenon of the lone gunman shooting dozens of people in public is a unique feature of our current moment, gruesome violence has been a central feature of U.S. society throughout its history.

In her new book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz traces the centrality of violence in the U.S. from colonialism through to police killings and imperialism.

"Successive generations of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, made the killing of Indian men, women, and children a defining element of their first military tradition and thereby part of a shared American identity," Dunbar-Ortiz writes. She notes that this tradition carries through to vigilantes like Dylann Roof and George Zimmerman, who are:

acting and speaking openly in support of the very roots of United States nationalism, which is embedded in the institutional structure of the country, from the Constitution itself, which includes the Second Amendment, to the "lost cause" of the Confederacy to save the institution of slavery and the continued colonization of Native lands.

The centrality of violence to the U.S. colonial and imperial project can't be overstated, and the state has historically endorsed civilian violence to further these ends.

While there is an important distinction between the disgruntled postal worker, the isolated high school student and an avowed white supremacist like Dylann Roof, all operate in the same American culture that establishes violence as means to attain one's goals.

It has been estimated that the U.S. has been at war for an astonishing 93 percent of its existence--from the dozens of colonial conflicts against Native peoples in its early years, to the endless wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan that span the entire lifetimes of many students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

War breeds a mindset in which violence is both justified abroad and replicated domestically by police and Border Patrol agents.

It's crucial to understand that this is the context in which seemingly random mass shootings occur.

Only by striving to understand why people become alienated in contemporary American life and the historical role that violence plays in our culture can we begin to identify the broader targets that a movement needs to challenge in order to create a less violent world.

WE SHOULD take confidence from the collective rage being expressed after the Parkland shooting and recognize that the widespread desire for something to be done can be a powerful thing.

But we also have to be aware that this desire can be steered toward expanding the role of police forces, Homeland Security watch lists and the Big Brother surveillance apparatus. This would only increase the powers of the U.S. government, which remains what Martin Luther King Jr. called it 50 years ago: "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

Given the character of the U.S. state, proposals for more background checks, metal detectors in schools and forced requisitioning of firearms will invariably be disproportionately carried out against poor and working-class people of color.

It's obvious that Donald Trump will direct anti-gun laws not against the arsenals of the white supremacists he panders to, but against Black and Brown people, in the name of his scapegoating crusade against Chicago street gangs or the Central American MS-13 gang.

As we take part in debates about what reforms will take us forward or backward, we should be clear that there are other demands which don't fall under the framework of "gun control," but might be more relevant to preventing future massacres.

Many mass shooters do indeed struggle with emotional and psychological issues, which is why we need universal health care. They are consistently violent toward women, which is why we need a militant feminist movement that can bring domestic violence out of the shadows in the way that #MeToo has done with sexual assault.

And if people are alienated at school, trapped at work and see no hope for their future, we need unions and social movements that can discredit the institutions that promote racism, sexism and oppression--while showing that there's a better world to be won through collective struggle.

The militancy of the high school students in Parkland has galvanized millions of people who are fed up with the rampant violence plaguing our communities, and not only in schools.

As this new movement gets off the ground, we need to continue to broaden the scope of debate and demands beyond immediate legislative reforms and what they will and won't accomplish. Ultimately, we need to mount a challenge to the wider society and its institutions that make violence so central to our collective culture.

Further Reading

From the archives