One refrain we hear describing the violent attacks that spread the blood and brains of children and adults across the linoleum floors of our schools, shopping centers and churches is that it’s “sick.” That this chronic, infectious violent plague is sick. It is, obviously, sick. But what kind of sickness is it and in what part of the culture and body politic does it reside? Is this national disease a collective mental illness that replicates, spawns and manifests in the individual shooters? Is it a symptom of the corrupt practice of allowing the gun lobby to support individual senators who are so cowardly as to put their flush reelection coffers ahead of the coffins of children – a culture that prospers from placing the ethic of profit over the value of life? Is it suggestive of a kind of suicidal ecstasy – individuals acting out a profoundly disturbing apocalyptic death wish on our most vulnerable people?
Surely it isn’t any one thing. But an honest appraisal of our history may help diagnose an aspect of the problem. The United States is a very violent society. Born in violence, propagated by, enriched by violence.
Think first of the genocide of native people, the willful slaughtering of indigenous children so they wouldn’t grow into adult ‘savages’ with claims on their own land. Then the torturous violence toward millions of enslaved Africans – white people being, then, marginally more careful of the black children because of their resale value. Think of environmental racism, citing our most toxic industries in poor and minority neighborhoods. Think of our history of criminal, imperialistic wars, all of them as violent toward civilians, women and children, as the opposing soldiers. Think of our sick economy based so deeply on weapons sales. America sells weapons to genocidal dictators the same way it sells them to deranged mass murderers – and for the same reason.
One wonders if the price of hundreds of years of bad karma for all this violence isn’t wreaking its revenge. It was not for nothing that James Baldwin said, “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”
Malcolm X said it less poetically referring to the shooting of JFK, “The chickens have come home to roost.”
Yes, the moral arc of the universe is long and it may not always bend toward justice, but it does tend to double back on itself. As you have done unto others, it shall be done unto you. America’s cavalier, and profitable, use of violence around the world has engendered a moral sickness of unspeakable atrocity. The snake is biting its own tail.
Universal background checks would be a good, partial step toward curbing some of this sick violence, awillingness to put a glimmer of daylight between morality and profit. So would red flag laws. So would a ban on assault weapons. But there are already 400 million guns in the United States. The background check ought first to be done on the country. If the mental history of the shooter is terribly twisted, once we admit that it reflects our country’s history, it’s not so hard to understand. The bitter pill which must be swallowed to precipitate the long process of healing from this violence begins, just as it does with systemic racism, by examining our history, examining our jingoistic justifications for violence. A country that values economy and profit more than life, the sale of a gun more than the target of its bullet, sooner or later puts the gun to its own head. And doesn’t know how or when or why to stop shooting.