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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 18, April 20, 2013

Violence in American Society

Monday 22 April 2013, by Ashok Celly


In his book, The End of the American Century, David S. Mason draws the reader’s attention to some shcoking facts of American life. “The United States is the most violent country in the industrialised world. According to reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in 2004 there were 1,367,009 violent crimes in this country. Of these more than 16,000 were homicides. In that year, there was one violent crime every twentythree seconds and one murder every thirtythree minutes. Much of the violence in the United States happens among people who know each other, especially within the home. The Justice Department reports more than 500,000 incidents of ‘intimate partner’ violence every year—most of this against women.”

This is bad enough. What makes it worse is that the Americans as a nation are not greatly perturbed by all this. In fact, there is a tendency to dismiss it as an inevitable consequence of urbanisation. They forget that their next door neighbour, Canada, is equally urbanised but is for more peaceful and crime-free than the United States. A point made so well by Michael Moore’s film, Bowling for Columbine.

Some observers of the American scene account for violence in terms of class or race conflict, that is, rich versus poor, White versus Black. David Mason broadly takes that line. There may be some element of truth in this. But it is hardly an adequate explanation. For instance, how would that account for intimate partner violence—violence against women or children within the home Mason himself talks about?

Perhaps the causes of violence in American society are deeper, and one needs to go into the history of the United States. The history of the United States has been a history of interminable conflict with the enemy. The enemy of course has kept on changing. First, it was the Red Indians, then the Blacks. The Blacks were succeeded by the Japanese and the Japanese by the Russians of the now defunct evil empire fame. As a result of their turbulent history, they cannot imagine life without the enemy—the enemy to be battled with and decimated. From the Red Indians to the Reds (read Bolshies), it is the some story. It would appear that if the Americans had no enemy, they would invent one! (From the enemy without to the enemy within is one small step.) The extraordinary power that a wily Senator, called Joseph McCarthy, once exercised on the American psyche and the witch-hunt he unleashed can only be explained by their fear of or obsession with the enemy, for it is that McCarthy played on. Gore Vidal, the eminent author, describes the American penchant for conjuring enemies in his inimitable manner: “I have occasionally referred to our ‘enemy of the month’ club: Each month we are confornted by a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us.”

To deal with the enemy one needs to resort to violence, to be precise use the gun. Hence violence has become an integral part of their life. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Americans have a subliminal fascination for violence. As Lewis Lapham, one of America’s most perceptive cultural commentators, puts it, “Within the American scheme of things, the romance of violence is as traditional as the singing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. The winning of the American West was largely accomplished by greedy and ignorant men ....governed by their basest instincts.”

Certain features of American life indeed make sense only when they are viewed from “the romance of violence” perspective: the ubiquity and mystique of the gun (you can buy from a Walmart store like a bar of chocolate); the average American seems to trust his gun more than his government (incidentally the most powerful government in the world) when it comes to protecting his family and his property; and last, but not the least, the excessive exposure of American kids to violence in TV serials and Hollywood movies. (The Aurora theatre shootout has definitely something to do with the influence of reel life. Perhaps the killer cast himself in the role of the protagonist of the film.) Brad Pitt, the Hollywood actor’s remark is most revealing in this context. Only the other day he said: “America is a country founded on guns. It is in our DNA. It is very strange but I feel better having a gun.” American culture appears to be one grand ode to violence. Isn’t it tragic that even after the horrendous Connecticut massacre which resulted in the deaths of 20 innocent children, there seems to be no sign of an agreement even on a ban on assault weapons?

Surely, there are other factors which have contributed to the climate of violence in the United States. Social Darwinism, with its motto “survival of the fittest”, seems to have great appeal for the American middle class, especially for its conservative sections. It could well be a legacy of the Wild West days or perhaps because it seems to provide a ‘philosophical’ justification for the spirit of competition and enterprise so dear to the middle class. Whatever the reason, such a worldview is bound to promote macho values and can hardly be conducive to peace and harmony.

Also, to view human existence as a perpetual rat race, as capitalism does, is likely to produce a state best described in Keats’s immortal phrase “the weariness, the fever and the fret” though not necessarily in that order. It pits one individual against another and despises all talk of cooperation as sissy or regressive. There is lot more to life than work, and work itself can cease to be fun if it is viewed only as an instrument of amassing money or going up the professional ladder. I suppose it was Walter Kerr, the eminent theatre critic, who remarked that the American male had lost the capacity for play. In any case, it is sheer perversity to think greed is God. If greed is God, then anything goes. And thousands of young men and women will go the Rajat Gupta way and worse.

Strange though it may sound, a nation as young and dynamic as America seems to have become a prisoner of history. The Americans need to realise that conflict and violence are not eternal truths. The world may not be a garden of Eden, but it is not a Hobbesian state of nature either where “every man’s hand is against his neighbour”. Why should a rising nation like China, for instance, be seen as a threat to America? The American paranoia may at bottom be a consequence of their somewhat juvenile obsession to be Numero Uno forever and forever. If only they could shed their Numero Uno complex, quite a lot of their problems and those of the world will disappear.

The author, now a freelancer, retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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