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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/12/16

Gun Culture and the American Nightmare of Violence

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Gun violence in the United States has produced a culture soaked in blood - a culture that threatens everyone and extends from accidental deaths, suicides and domestic violence to mass shootings. In late December, a woman in St. Cloud, Florida, fatally shot her own daughter after mistaking her for an intruder. Less than a month earlier, on December 2, in San Bernardino, California, was the mass shooting that left 14 people dead and more than 20 wounded. And just two months before that, on October 1, nine people were killed and seven wounded in a mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon.

Mass shootings have become routine in the United States and speak to a society that relies on violence to feed the coffers of the merchants of death. Given the profits made by arms manufacturers, the defense industry, gun dealers and the lobbyists who represent them in Congress, it comes as no surprise that the culture of violence cannot be abstracted from either the culture of business or the corruption of politics. Violence runs through US society like an electric current offering instant pleasure from all cultural sources, whether it be the nightly news or a television series that glorifies serial killers.

At a policy level, violence drives the arms industry and a militaristic foreign policy, and is increasingly the punishing state's major tool to enforce its hyped-up brand of domestic terrorism, especially against Black youth. The United States is utterly wedded to a neoliberal culture in which cruelty is viewed as virtue, while mass incarceration is treated as the chief mechanism to "institutionalize obedience." At the same time, a shark-like mode of competition replaces any viable notion of solidarity, and a sabotaging notion of self-interest pushes society into the false lure of mass consumerism. The increasing number of mass shootings is symptomatic of a society engulfed in racism, fear, militarism, bigotry and massive inequities in wealth and power.

Guns and the hypermasculine culture of violence are given more support than young people and life itself.

Over 270 mass shootings have taken place in the United States in 2015 alone, proving once again that the economic, political and social conditions that underlie such violence are not being addressed. Sadly, these shootings are not isolated incidents. For example, one child under 12 years old has been killed every other day by a firearm, which amounts to 555 children killed by guns in three years. An even more frightening statistic and example of a shocking moral and political perversity was noted in data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which states that "2,525 children and teens died by gunfire in [the United States] in 2014; one child or teen death every 3 hours and 28 minutes, nearly 7 a day, 48 a week." Such figures indicate that too many youth in the United States occupy what might be called war zones in which guns and violence proliferate. In this scenario, guns and the hypermasculine culture of violence are given more support than young people and life itself.

The predominance of a relatively unchecked gun culture and a morally perverse and politically obscene culture of violence is particularly evident in the power of the gun lobby and its political advocates to pass laws in eight states to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons "into classrooms, dormitories and other buildings" on campuses. In spite of the rash of recent shootings on college campuses, Texas lawmakers, for instance, passed one such "campus carry bill," which will take effect in August 2016. To add insult to injury, they also passed an "open carry bill" that allows registered gun owners to carry their guns openly in public. Such laws not only reflect "the seemingly limitless legislative clout of gun interests," but also a rather irrational return to the violence-laden culture of the "Wild West."

As in the past, individuals will be allowed to walk the streets, while openly carrying guns and packing heat as a measure of their love of guns and their reliance upon violence as the best way to address any perceived threat to their security. This return to the deadly practices of the " Wild West" is neither a matter of individual choice nor some far-fetched yet allegedly legitimate appeal to the Second Amendment. On the contrary, mass violence in the United States has to be placed within a broader historical, economic and political context in order to address the totality of the forces that produce it. Focusing merely on mass shootings or the passing of potentially dangerous gun legislation does not get to the root of the systemic forces that produce the United States' love affair with violence and the ideologies and criminogenic institutions that produce it.

Imperial policies that promote aggression all across the globe are now matched by increasing levels of lawlessness and state repression, which mutually feed each other. On the home front, civil society is degenerating into a military organization, a space of lawlessness and warlike practices, organized primarily for the production of violence. For instance, as Steve Martinot observes at CounterPunch, the police now use their discourse of command and power to criminalize behavior; in addition, they use military weapons and surveillance tools as if they are preparing for war, and create a culture of fear in which militaristic principles replace legal principles. He writes:

This suggests that there is an institutional insecurity that seeks to cover itself through social control ... the cops act out this insecurity by criminalizing individuals in advance. No legal principle need be involved. There is only the militarist principle.... When police shoot a fleeing subject and claim they are acting in self-defense (i.e. threatened), it is not their person but the command and control principle that is threatened. To defend that control through assault or murderous action against a disobedient person implies that the cop's own identity is wholly immersed in its paradigm. There is nothing psychological about this. Self-worth or insecurity is not the issue. There is only the military ethic of power, imposed on civil society through an assumption of impunity. It is the ethos of democracy, of human self-respect, that is the threat.

The rise of violence and the gun culture in the United States cannot be separated from a transformation in governance in the United States. Political sovereignty has been replaced by economic sovereignty as corporate power takes over the reins of governance. The more money influences politics, the more corrupt the political culture becomes. Under such circumstances, holding office is largely dependent on having huge amounts of capital at one's disposal, while laws and policies at all levels of government are mostly fashioned by lobbyists representing big business corporations and financial institutions. Moreover, such lobbying, as corrupt and unethical as it may be, is now carried out in the open by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other individuals, groups and institutions invested in the militarization of US society. This lobbying is then displayed as a badge of honor - a kind of open testimonial to the lobbyists' disrespect for democratic governance.

But money in politics is not the only major institutional factor in which everyday and state violence are nourished by a growing militarism. As David Theo Goldberg has argued in his essay "Mission Accomplished: Militarizing Social Logic," the military has also assumed a central role in shaping all aspects of society. Militarization is about more than the use of repressive power; it also represents a powerful social logic that is constitutive of values, modes of rationality and ways of thinking. According to Goldberg,

The military is not just a fighting machine.... It serves and socializes. It hands down to the society, as big brother might, its more or less perfected goods, from gunpowder to guns, computing to information management ... In short, while militarily produced instruments might be retooled to other, broader social purpose - the military shapes pretty much the entire range of social production from commodities to culture, social goods to social theory.

The militarization and corporatization of social logic permeates US society. The general public in the United States is largely depoliticized through the influence of corporations over schools, higher education and other cultural apparatuses. The deadening of public values, civic consciousness and critical citizenship are also the result of the work of anti-public intellectuals representing right-wing ideological and financial interests, a powerful set of corporate-controlled media agencies that are largely center-right and a market-driven public pedagogy that reduces the obligations of citizenship to the endless consumption and discarding of commodities. Military ideals permeate every aspect of popular culture, policy and social relations. In addition, a pedagogy of historical, social and racial amnesia is constructed and circulated through celebrity and consumer culture.

A war culture now shapes every aspect of society as warlike values, a hypermasculinity and an aggressive militarism seep into every major institution in the United States, including schools, the corporate media and local police forces. The criminal legal system has become the default structure for dealing with social problems. More and more people are considered disposable because they offend the sensibilities of the financial elite, who are rapidly consolidating class power. Under such circumstances, violence occupies an honored place.

Militarism provides ideological support for policies that protect gun owners and sellers rather than children.

It is impossible to understand the rise of gun culture and violence in the United States without thinking about the maturation of the military state. Since the end of the Cold War the United States has built "the most expensive and lethal military force in the world." The defense budget for 2015 totaled $598.5 billion and accounted for 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending. The US defense budget is both larger than the combined G-20 and "more than the combined military spending of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil," according to an NBC report. Since 9/11, the United States has intensified both the range of its military power abroad while increasing the ongoing militarization of US society. The United States circles the globe with around 800 military bases, producing a massive worldwide landscape of military force, at an "annual cost of $156 billion," according to a report by David Vine in The Nation.

Moreover, Vine adds, "there are US troops or other military personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories, including small numbers of Marines guarding embassies and larger deployments of trainers and advisers like the roughly 3,500 now working with the Iraqi army." Not only is the Pentagon in an unprecedented position of power, but also it thrives on a morally bankrupt vision of domestic and foreign policy dependent upon a world defined by terrorism, enemies and perpetual fear. Military arms are now transferred to local police departments, drone bases proliferate, and secret bases around the world support special operations, Navy SEALs, CIA personnel, Army Rangers and other clandestine groups, as Nick Turse has shown in Tomorrow's Battlefield. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising, as Andrew Bacevich points out, that "war has become a normal condition [and the] use of violence has become the preferred "instrument of statecraft."

Violence feeds on corporate-controlled disimagination machines that celebrate it as a sport while upping the pleasure quotient for the public. Americans do not merely engage in violence; they are also entertained by it. This kind of toxic irrationality and lure of violence is mimicked in the United States' aggressive foreign policy, in the sanctioning of state torture and in the gruesome killings of civilians by drones. As my colleague David L. Clark pointed out to me in an email, voters' support for " bombing make-believe countries [with Arab-sounding names] is not a symptom of muddled confusion but, quite to the contrary, a sign of unerring precision. It describes the desire to militarize nothing less than the imagination and to target the minutiae of our dreams." State repression, unbridled self-interest, an empty consumerist ethos and an expansive militarism have furthered the conditions for society to flirt with forms of irrationality that are at the heart of everyday aggression, violence and the withering of public life.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)

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