“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
D. H. Lawrence wrote that in 1919, I think, or the early 1920s, after visiting the US and Mexico, driven from England by the scandal of being married to a German. It’s in reference to Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer — the character and the series of books in which he appears, including, famously, The Last of the Mohicans. Here was the American story and we never stop telling it: the perfect killer, flawless with the knife and gun to which he is spiritually wed, a man of crystalline morality and with no time to waste on the complexities of civilization, including the law.
How many people, I wonder, does the United States government in its various guises kill every year? A number we’ll never know. Drones, satellite guided missiles programmed from some control center in Virginia, air power, special op assassinations, battles unannounced in countries we citizens don’t know we’re fighting in (see, Yemen) — those advisors, you know, they’re never old and wise in the ways of war, sage teachers; they’re sleek special forces who do not, despite what NPR tells us, sit back at base camp and then ask the indigenous troops how things went in the fighting today. We don’t know the number we kill but we know it’s large. Barack Greatest-President-of-Our-Lifetime Obama* expanded these programs, he didn’t diminish them. We know all this: sophisticated, educated, informed Americans, each one of us knows this is going on and sets the knowledge aside, as Augustine postulated that God must set aside divine foreknowledge so that we may exercise freedom of will. When we first learned, or when it was first acknowledged and not denied, that our government did such things, it was 1975 and 1976, with the work of the Church Commission (Frank Church, Senator-Dem from Idaho, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) — the population was outraged. The political fallout was that the CIA was essentially stripped of any of its functions that weren’t directly related to gathering foreign intelligence (which is of course the task they’re least good at), oversight committees were established, etc etc, and conservatives and hawks complained bitterly that the US was crippled and unable to do its important work secret-policing the universe. There were whole documentary movies about how special forces went around Vietnam assassinating civilians thought to be part of or sympathizers with the Vietcong. This was shocking. This was horrifying. We must never do this again. We elected a minister. We discovered morality seemed to have a price, though of course the connection was imagined in terms of Carter’s ‘weakness’: the second oil embargo, the long occupation of the American embassy in Tehran. Our affair with decency lasted four years then we elected a guy whose last name sounded like “ray gun”. We’ve never complained about our nation’s death-dealing again, not in large and politically persuasive numbers.
Because this is who we are. Our prosperity and our identity are built above a cave of fire. We created a nation at the barrel of a gun, taking the land from the people who lived here before us, forcing them back, back, back into the desert. We made this theft into the stuff of legends that still define us.
Meanwhile, George Washington left office in 1801 warning against foreign entanglements yet that same year we began our permanent military travels, first, of course, to the Middle East, where we fought Muslims, specifically The Kingdom of Tripoli, an Ottoman satellite state, which demanded tribute to protect American ships from the Barbary pirates. As with so many of our engagements there and elsewhere the results were ambiguous and the outcome inconclusive. Nonetheless since then we’ve always been going somewhere to fight somebody. Look up the list of US military engagements on Wikipedia. It’s prodigious.
And now, 215 years later, the United States, a nation whose government is “of, by and for the people”, is the world’s largest producer of weapons, we spend more on the military than the next five countries on the list combined (53 percent of all US discretionary spending is on, essentially, guns and people to shoot them, from land, sea, air and outer space.) We have 1.25 million cops, the larger forces now highly militarized, and more people in prison, in sheer numbers and per capita, than any other country in the world.
Yet somehow we believe this armed viciousness that we’ve allowed to become the central activity of our government — these drones and special ops forces and planes and ships and satellites, this multitude of cops in riot gear (some taking time to break down a lefty lemonade stand on the Capitol lawn in Washington — note the number of cops this requires: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04MNf1YdNxI ), this whole fused core of violent values, dating back to our origin as a nation — can be kept from leaching into American civic and social life.
But if we don’t reform the violent center, put out the base fire, we can only do patchwork to fight gun violence on our streets, in our schools and theaters and nightclubs. So many have called again since yesterday’s killings in Orlando for the banning of assault weapons. This would help, of course, it would certainly reduce the number of deaths in mass shootings, but the gesture, doomed to fail in any case, doesn’t address those core values; we’ve permitted at least five generations of our leadership, ten presidential administrations (give or take, I didn’t count Ford), to expand in every way our national capacity for violence. Asking the US to ban assault weapons is like requesting that the Unser family use only public transportation, you know, to set an example. It’s a very nice idea.
There are aspects of our national culture that fill one with pride and affection: we are frequently generous people personally, friendly and open. We’re innovative, clever, we’ve done great things artistically, scientifically, technologically. We have a fundamental though almost always contextually ignorant desire to help suffering people better themselves. We believe still, powerfully, in the unqualified freedom of the individual to think, speak, believe, and express. We are almost delusionally optimistic.
We are also intensely violent. Us. There is a feminist argument to be made here, that “us” means men, not women; the argument has statistical weight yet somehow I only partially accept it. All these men have mothers and most have wives yet somehow they have exerted no notable countering influence on the culture of violence, which suggests something in the formula is amiss — in any case on that question I am out of my depth, except to say that when we talk about a culture, a nation, we are implicitly including the women and the men so how the blame gets apportioned is somewhat academic. The prospect of Hillary Clinton as president offers two scenarios to the imagination, one, that she will be the tough, even ruthless politician we’ve known her to be, able to move a more docile Congress, or two, that as with Obama and race, the macho backlash will be debilitating. In any case, so far, we do nothing. A movement to ban assault rifles may or may not (I’m betting that one) succeed but it doesn’t get to the matter of who we are, acknowledging it, working to change it by changing our vision of ourselves as intergalactic gunslingers riding into the unknown to save the good folks and kill the bad guys. The president said yesterday that to do nothing is also a choice and it’s one we have been making for many decades — since World War II, the fighting that gave us our glory, our honor, our sense of moral certitude. If we’re going to continue now going around the world in profligate sprees of killing, then we’re going to kill at home. There’s more chance we’ll get a single payer national health plan before we’ll ever see a meaningful ban on powerful weapons in the United States. You can blame the NRA folks all you want but they didn’t invent us, we invented them.
* Obama is such a curious case. I understand Bush and Cheney better than I understand him: they are clearly misinformed, intellectually deformed, and vicious. And they act that way. Obama is none of those. He loves children, it’s been one of the pleasures of his years in office to see him interacting with children; he chokes up every time he’s speaking about horrors that affect them. He is a man, clearly, not only of intelligence and some scholarship but a deep moral character. His speech at Hiroshima was a beautiful example of what, rhetorically, and compellingly, he’s capable of. Yet little of this moral and intellectual sensibility and force is allowed to interfere with administration policies. As he spoke at Hiroshima, it was important to remember he’d authorized a $3 trillion expansion and modernization of US nuclear weapon capacities over the next 30 years. He’s the drone president, the deportation president, the president whose Justice Department took to charging whistle blowers with treason, and corporate criminals with nothing at all. He allowed to continue practices such as “extraordinary rendition” and other forms of illegal war. He allowed three cuts in the food stamp programs, trading it off for other parts of the budget he felt it important to retain — trading, in other words, poor people’s food. What are we to make of him?