By WALLACE BAINE
This is what we do in America. Whenever we are confronted with a despicable act of violence against innocent people like what happened Friday morning in Newtown, Conn., we play out a mass response as ritualized and predictable as kabuki theater.
Horror and heartbreak filtered through contemporary media culture manifests every time in grab-the-lapels news coverage, sidebars about the accessibility of guns and a cascade of “thoughts and prayers” statements by celebrities and public officials, the more daring of them mixed with an enough-is-enough broadside against guns.
I’m certainly not cynical enough to believe that such a response is done with calculation or self-justification by anyone, regardless of their stance on the gun issue. It is, instead, the path of least resistance to those deeply troubled and/or outraged by such acts. How else do you express a sense of anguish and empathy this overwhelming?
But somehow we have to find another way to talk about these kinds of tragedies, because our responses to them are becoming rote and commonplace, a thought that should be nearly as disturbing as the original act of violence itself.
This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t talk about guns. Count me on the side of those who believe we should talk about guns loudly and forcefully.
But let’s for a moment leave the gun-control debate to others. There are two factors at play in these quintessentially American horrors and only one of them has to do with firearms. That’s the how. But we need to address the why.
I think most Americans – left, right and center – can at least agree that there is something disquieting happening at the core of American public culture these days. It’s something that often pops up as public displays of anger and vitriol that many times flirts with paranoid delusion. Maybe it’s always been there and we just never were exposed to it on a mass scale before the Twitterverse. Regardless, we live in a culture where violent rampages against strangers, though never condoned, are now simply not beyond the pale of American daily life. We call such acts unacceptable, and then by our continuing inability to address how to stop them, we quietly accept them.
Yeah so, humans are occasionally capable of unspeakable violence. News flash. Still, the nature of these incidents and their commonality suggest that this is an American thing, a revelation that puts an ugly stain on that old trope of American exceptionalism.
A political culture held hostage by the NRA is only one way into this thorny existential dilemma. In the history of inhabiting the North American continent, violence, particularly at the end of a gun, is deeply ingrained in the American DNA. But instead of facing up to that violent impulse, Americans tend to romanticize and glorify the more Wild West aspects of American life, and translate those aspects into the way we act day to day.
We’ve come to believe that competition in a free-enterprise system has to be ruthless to be effective, that individual effort and initiative is the primary factor in who succeeds and who fails, that respect is only truly earned with menace. “The Lord helps him who helps himself”; “Speak softly and carry a big stick”; “Trust the Lord and keep your powder dry” – these are the songs in the American hymnal that we’ve all internalized.
Lurid revenge fantasies of one man against the system – it’s always a man, it seems – find a warm, hospitable place in the American psyche. Even arguments in favor of the Second Amendment suggest that vigilante violence lurks just beneath the veneer of American life, ready to be revived at the first sign of government tyranny.
Pop culture is dotted with myths and stories, the first assumption of which is that nobody has your back, least of all institutions such as government, education or big business. Reality shows celebrate dog-eat-dog justifications to win. The most critically praised TV show of the era, “Breaking Bad,” is, at its heart, about a decent man pushed into the illegal drug economy by a system that didn’t value his talents.
Add to that legacy deep economic insecurities, unprecedented wealth inequality, political figures not above scapegoating an indistinct “them” – immigrants, politicians, hedge-fund traders – as the source of your problems and what we have is a culture that acts as an incubation chamber for angry, alienated people to give in to the impulse to “go out in a blaze of glory,” to point to one particularly odious and fundamentally American cliché.
Like most Americans, I don’t want to ever get “used to” the kinds of devastating events like the one that took place Friday in Connecticut. But the alternative is painful, difficult, costly and requires millions of small and large acts of courage over generations – to face squarely the American propensity to violence and its spiritual component, the absence of empathy and respect for others.
There is something frightening unfolding in our larger culture. More and more people are beginning to feel that they’re being exploited and/or abandoned, yet they don’t have a way to know by what or by whom.
We keep calling these kinds of tragedies “senseless,” and therein lies the dynamic that perpetuates them. We are sense-making animals. We better start applying some sense to random violence and our cultural responsibility for it, or these things will continue to shatter our otherwise quiet routine mornings … again and again and again.