Shocked, But Not Surprised: The Sandy Hook Massacre
I’ve been having real difficulty trying to write something about the Sandy Hook massacre. The circumstances of what happened are terrifying for anyone to contemplate, but when you have a small child, like I do, the horror hits home in a way that’s hard to describe. Mostly, I’ve found that I don’t know what to say, except to repeat that I am horrified, and that only leads me to the dark but inevitable conclusion that there is no way to completely prevent this kind of thing from happening, so we can live happily on autopilot. That said, I really don’t know how anyone can deny with a straight face that Adam Lanza would have had a much, much harder time killing all those people and all those kids if he didn’t have access to firearms designed for the maximum efficiency of killing.
My writer’s block broke when I saw this shit: a prominent Tea-Partier blaming the massacre on the existence of public schools, teachers’ unions, government bureaucracy, and most astoundingly, sex in movies and on television. I had no doubt, of course, that some reactionary, hypocritical nincompoop was going to write something like that sooner or later, but actually seeing the words on the screen changed my despair to anger. Bottom line, while almost everything that’s been offered so far as a reason for Adam Lanza’s actions is speculation and conjecture, one thing is certain: we have a culture that inspires a thirst for blood in a fairly significant number of individuals, some of whom go so far as to kill a bunch of people (whilst others, like Judson Phillips there, contend themselves with vicarious thrills).
So what is this “culture of violence”?
Contrary to what the loaded term implies, I am not against violent entertainment generally. I think it’s been demonstrated conclusively in the last couple of decades that there is no direct causal link between violent movies or video games and individuals’ propensity for violence, and that most people, even kids, distinguish between mock violence and the real thing. Moreover, the prevalence of some form or another of violent imagery throughout history suggests that perhaps people have a normal psychological need for such displays, possibly as a safe way to explore their own mortality.
Still, I don’t think we can let violent entertainment off the hook entirely if we look at it in context. A culture of violence is one whose entertainment routinely romanticizes violent death, one that presents it in loving, choreographed, idealized detail that has little relationship to reality, one where viewers hypocritically indulge in the emotional pornography implicit in graphic images of warfare, beatings, torture, murder and rape.
A culture of violence is one where images of people having enthusiastic consensual sex are considered more offensive, more risque than images of people being dismembered. Look at Judson Phillips arguing that it is sex that causes violence — that it is desiring closeness with another human being that makes you want to kill, rather than the breezy glorification of killing that’s so ubiquitous in right-wing talk and the kind of entertainment that people like Phillips consider “family-friendly”; that it’s the sight of breasts, not severed heads, that inspires people like Adam Lanza to kill children and their teachers. And this attitude does not exist in a vacuum. This is someone who truly believes that sexual desire is more of a problem in society than wanting to murder people who feel differently about taxes.
A culture of violence is one where an explicit rape scene is deemed more appropriate for a young viewer’s eyes than an explicit scene depicting a woman having an orgasm. Don’t believe me? Pay close attention to how movies depict sex, even plain-vanilla consensual heterosexual sex. If there is any hint of the woman actually enjoying herself, she’s either a villain, or she’ll get murdered at some point, probably fairly early in the film. Sex between positive characters is invariably solemn, almost ceremonial — virtually never playful or just fun — and the woman is passive. Sex-having teenagers meeting a gruesome end is such a well-worn horror trope, it’s ridiculous. If all this reflects prevailing mores, then the contrast between the stilted, scripted way in which mainstream entertainment depicts sex and the orgiastic abandon with which it approaches violence is troubling indeed. I’ve already noted that most people understand that violence in entertainment isn’t real — but the fact that most are more offended by mock sex than mock violence does not speak very highly of our values.
A culture of violence is one where politicians routinely resort to violent language when referring to their opponents. I understand figures of speech are just that, but as my favorite Russian proverb goes, “there is a joke in every joke”; words have meaning, and the kind of figure of speech you use to express your ideas says a lot about you. Politicians who talk about vanquishing their opponents in terms of taking them out, “eliminating” them, or those who depict them in crosshairs may not literally call for people to get killed, but they cynically rely on the possibility of some yahoo taking them seriously to create and sustain an atmosphere of bloodlust and fear.
A culture of violence is one where people embrace a pathological, irrational hatred of public institutions and dream of a “revolution” in which they use their guns to stamp out the evil gubmint and regain the right to use spouses and children as property (and to take slaves, of course). What better way to act on those ideas than by attacking a public institution? And since schools represent the most vulnerable kind of public institution, the choice of target would make sense to someone who hates the government, but is too lazy or stupid to become another Timothy McVeigh.
A culture of violence is one where the solution offered to tragedies like Sandy Hook is more violence — normalizing violence more, promoting it more in the public space. Arming teachers for now, and next time, who knows, maybe high school students? And then kindergarteners. I don’t know if the NRA will eventually lobby for giving firearms to children, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it did.
A culture of violence is one where “survivalism” is a thing. Adam Lanza’s mother was a survivalist, who liked to talk of an imminent “economic collapse”. Perhaps this was just a harmless quirk in a person who was otherwise as sweet and pleasant as apple pie, but most survivalists I’ve come across — with the rare exception of those who view it as a sport — are various degrees of deranged. These people aren’t just convinced civilization is about to end, they want it to end (and the more they invest in survivalism, both financially and emotionally, the more they want it). They dream of a world where there are no courts and no police to stop them from doing as they damned well please — which means, first and foremost, an ability to kill with impunity, in what they, in their terminal stupidity, believe will be a consequence-free environment. They are so eager for this opportunity that they merrily ignore the more obvious implications of the civilization collapsing, such as a lack of access to clean water and an explosion of infectious diseases. If Lanza grew up in such an environment, it would not be surprising for him to have had apocalyptic delusions that drove him to kill.
A culture of violence is one where pundits like Judson Phillips characterize mass murder as an “understandable” (read: justifiable) response to some vague dissatisfaction with public education and government bureaucracy; that killing children and their teachers is the logical end result of students being subjected to Sequential Math, “Romeo & Juliette” and Social Studies. And why not? In the last couple of years, they’ve been increasingly open in their desire to violently suppress anyone who does not meet their test for ideological purity.
A culture of violence is one where the very language we use every day couches winning or any kind of success in violent terms. “Kill ‘em dead,” says my boss when I get assigned a particularly important court appearance. You “make a killing” in a trade. When you lose, you describe it in terms of being “had” or “fucked over”. When someone complains about something you said, you dismiss them as “butthurt”. Everything is a zero-sum game, and you are either the killer or the prize, the rapist or the raped. Note, I speak other languages. My first language is Russian, whose native speakers do indulge in violent and rapey idiom, but not nearly to the extent that speakers of American English do. I am also fluent in French, and I’ve lived in France, where people almost never use this kind of language in ordinary, casual conversation (at least outside of urban dialects). This doesn’t mean that you, me, our neighbors or any other individual who uses these common phrases is a psychopath. Language is, to a great extent, a superorganism — everyone speaks like everyone else. But on a societal scale, the prevalence of violent imagery in a language represents what I’ve already mentioned before, a normalization of violence.
Without any doubt, we have a deeply entrenched culture of violence. I don’t know what can be done about it in the short term, but limiting the practical means of mass murder for people like Lanza would be a good start. And solutions certainly aren’t going to come from the right side of our political spectrum.