The Deep Mystery of American Murders

The mystery of why America suffers so many murders both in small numbers and large continues to defy an easy answer. But the diverse explanations may themselves be a clue, since the United States has a certain mix of factors that can explain a lot, writes Michael Minch.

By Michael Minch

Can anything be said in the wake of the most recent murderous eruption, this time in Aurora, Colorado? On one hand, many people jump forward quickly with new laments, calls for greater gun control, appeals against such control, and frankly, everything we’ve heard so many times before.

Others, on the other hand, are offended by the very idea that we would try to answer the question of why such violence occurs. To suggest that explanations might exist, seems, for them, a move toward affixing blame somewhere close to their own values, interests, and lifestyles. They are people who tell us that murderers alone are to blame for murders. Period. This view is a preemptive strike against calls for, and criteria of, accountability and moral maturity.

President Barack Obama hugs Stephanie Davies, who helped keep her friend, Allie Young, left, alive after she was shot at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012. Obama visited shooting victims and their families on July 22, 2012. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

I believe there are six variables that exist in unique combination in the United States that collectively make gun violence the national disgrace it has become. These variables are closely related, but distinct. Together, they form a deadly cocktail of death and grief.

We have a freakishly high rate of ownership (still more guns than people) compared to all societies not engaged in explicit sub-state war. Guns are also bizarrely easy to acquire in the U.S. The majority of Americans want better (and yes, this means “more”) gun control. NRA “leaders,” the radical zealots and rhetoricians who pull us deeper into a culture of death, are out of step with the country.

The bumper sticker reads, of course, “Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people.” But the other one reads with equal truth and clarity, “As a matter of fact, guns do kill people.” I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a psychopath coming at me with a bat or knife, than a gun. I’d even prefer facing a sidearm with a small clip instead of a military assault weapon. This commonsense may be coming more common, the NRA-inflicted radicals notwithstanding.

Second, we not only live in a society with many guns and easy access to them; but we are embedded in a culture that tells us, daily, that guns have a glorious history of serving as problem-solving tools, and that violence is often needed to solve our problems.

The United States is infamous for its violence. We have prosecuted, joined and promoted many wars in our short history, we lead the world in arms manufacture and trade, we spend nearly as much on our military than does the rest of the world combined, and we have approximately 1,000 military installations outside the U.S. around the globe. It is embedded into our collective consciousness that guns solve problems, and that we Americans are a pragmatic, problem solving, “can do!” people.

Third, and much related to the variable above, we valorize violence. Violence not only solves problems, so our teachers, textbooks, memorials, and politicians tells us, we engage in particular forms of glorification of violence (it is one thing to use a tool, it is another to glory in its use).

I invoke the Hebrew and biblical concept of “glory” which at its core means “presence.” We make violence present to ourselves in various ways, where that presence is not one of lament, necessity, risk or regret; but is characterized by celebration, even fun. Much has been written about this, little unpacking of the point is necessary. Video games. Movies. Television. Stories of heroism and sacrifice in our national myths.

Chris Hedges has reminded us powerfully that War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Political theorists and actors have known since antiquity that a powerful way to forge unity in a tribe or society is to identify, and monger fear about, a common enemy. This simply makes us feel better about ourselves.

And back to video games, it is no surprise that the young people sitting behind consoles in the U.S. with joysticks in their hands, guiding drones in their murderous missions, are operating equipment designed to look and feel just like the toys they grew up playing. Blurring the line between virtually killing people and actually killing them is just one way our taxes have gone to work.

Fourth, we are (and perhaps increasingly so) a culture of anomie. Christopher Lasch wrote about our culture of “diminishing expectations,” and Walker Percy told us, upon publishing The Thanatos Syndrome, that precisely because we can walk into any bookstore and find shelves of “life-affirming” books, we should know that there is very much death around us.

We Americans are increasingly desperate, depressed, distracted and drifting. We handle our malaise through various forms of sedation, entertainment and violence turned both inward and outward.  In a word, we are less happy and less able to cope than most other peoples who live above desperate poverty.

Columbia University’s 2012 World Happiness Report ranks the U.S. as the planet’s 23rd happiest country (since we tell ourselves that happiness is purchasable, and we’re the world’s richest country, our unhappiness reveals the lie of consumerism=happiness).

Fifth, we are a culture of fear. We are fear-based creatures as surely as we are carbon-based. Read Genesis 3, the primordial Legend of our Fall, and notice how animated by fear our first parents were. Notice the central role given to our fear in the construction of Hobbes’s social contract in his seminal Leviathan. 

In its current iteration, the Republican Party is most fundamentally, the Party of Fear. In the GOP, fear comes before and runs deeper than commitment to fiscal sanity, easily demonstrable by the strident call for spending cuts everywhere except “defense.” Fear generates disillusionment, dismay, and destruction. It births resentment, anger, bigotry, tribalism, xenophobia, greed, and various centrifugal and centripetal forms of ugliness.

In this time of economic insecurity, and loss of hope in authorities and institutions, those on the Right constantly tell us how fearful we should be, and their calls to fear are too often obeyed.

Last, in our society, as in all others, are found many persons who suffer from mental, psychological, and emotional deficit. Here, as elsewhere, many live lives marked by pathology, dis-ease, dis-integration, and various kinds of mental, emotional and spiritual loss.  Many are dysfunctionally lacking wholeness and health.

These variables are closely related, and in certain combinations, bring direct violence into our lives through the agency of guns. Millions of mentally ill persons do not conduct random violence as we saw in Aurora. Other societies have loose gun laws and high levels of gun ownership. We can go through the variables and find other places where some of them are pronounced. But they all seem substantively or robustly present in the U.S., and uniquely so.

This is, tragically, what is never said in the wake of a Columbine, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech, Tucson or Aurora, let alone in regard to the ordinary violence that plagues us, especially in our urban centers, daily. These spasms of murderous violence are the tip of an iceberg.

But what gives rise to the spasm is structure and system, what peace and conflict scholars call structural or indirect violence. These variables are structural and systemic. Of course an individual shooter is to blame (in some ways, depending on his mental health). But there is plenty of blame to go around.

When a shooter enters a theater and kills, he must be held accountable, but let’s not pretend we have nothing to do with it as a culture.             

Michael Minch teaches Peace Studies at Utah Valley University.

8 comments for “The Deep Mystery of American Murders

  1. Kenny Fowler
    August 2, 2012 at 19:15

    Guns in America are cheap, plentiful and mostly legal. We love our guns and by god nobody is takin’ mine. This country was made by and is still run by the people with the most weapons. The problem arises when you have so many guns in circulation that anyone and everyone can get one. Killing each other is a byproduct of too many guns. Can we kill each other without guns, sure we can but it’s very hard and takes a much bigger commitment than pulling a trigger.

  2. F. G. Sanford
    July 31, 2012 at 20:34

    “The mystery of why America suffers so many murders – both in small numbers and large – continues to defy an easy answer.”

    On the contrary, the answer is simple an as plain as the nose on our collective face. Try living in Europe for a decade or two. You’ll be astounded at the difference. It is almost impossible to live as an “anonymous” individual there. Neighborhoods are stable, people grow up, live their lives and die within a few square kilometers. There are few places where people can remain strangers. There is no prison-industrial complex where people go to get a Master’s Degree in criminal behavior. There are a few exceptions. There is one cultural tradition there that cultivates anonymity. Children are passed from family to family in order to foster loyalty to the cult rather than loyalty to the family or wider society. Names are routinely changed. That sect is constantly involved in criminal activity. But even then, not to the extent of the violent American variety. They have a social support network. In America, it is easy to be a Wayne Williams or a David Berkowitz or a Ted Kaczynski or a Tim McVey. It’s easy to be nineteen hijackers who don’t cause any eyebrows to be raised. So, when Tea Party initiatives close neighborhood schools to cut taxes and corporate interests close entire manufacturing districts with outsourcing, remember the diaspora they create. They create anonymous refugees, some of whom go crazy. But everybody is surprised when they do. And the news always interviews somebody that says, “He was so quiet. He always kept to himself. I never really got to know him”. Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. When I went to college, everybody had to take at least one social science course. Did they eliminate that requirement, or are today’s social commentators just a bunch of morons? Seriously.

  3. delia ruhe
    July 31, 2012 at 20:17

    I posted this elsewhere last week, and it didn’t get too many enlightened comments or suggestions. But it has similarities with this article, so I’ll post it here:

    I find it important that so many (relatively speaking) people (usually white men or boys) choose or plan to use guns when they (temporarily or permanently) lose their grip on reason. In other words, there’s more at stake here than sensible gun control.

    Americans need to be disarmed in their heads. And that’s not getting the NRA off the hook, since it’s the NRA that keeps Americans’ minds locked and loaded, even when they don’t own any guns. It’s bad enough that Washington has declared war on much of the planet, droning the skies and unloading hellfire missiles on wedding parties and funerals — what a superb role model for inspiring troubled adolescent fantasies!

    But when the population is encouraged to embrace the national myth of America as a heroic gun totin’ cowboy, and the NRA exploits that myth to corrupt the meaning of the Second Amendment — and when Americans look upon these horrific massacres as an opportunity to congratulate themselves on how strong and brave and empathetic they are in the face of tragedy — then all the conditions are right for repeated massacres.

    The only thing America needs more than rational gun laws is therapy.

  4. Michael Cosper
    July 31, 2012 at 17:41

    My daughter was murdered with a knife in Dallas in 1992, a gun in her hand might have made a big difference. Being reduced to carrying a claw hammer in your car for protection is not a very promising scenario.Guns are not going away in this country just as drugs are not going away.

  5. Bill Jones
    July 31, 2012 at 15:20

    “We have a freakishly high rate of ownership (still more guns than people) compared to all societies not engaged in explicit sub-state war.”

    Except for Switzerland, of course, where gun ownership is more widespread than the US, which is why you use a meaningless statistic.

    • bobzz
      August 1, 2012 at 10:45

      But that statistic is not meaningless in the combination of other factors that Minch mentioned.

      • hogorina
        August 2, 2012 at 12:48

        Patriotism is useless without a weapon. This country rebelled against mother England not on a payer book but gunshot and powder. Hardened criminals that control America should receive a round or two when making open war on innocent and loyal tax payers. S a last resort, the guillotine should come into play.

  6. JonnyJames
    July 31, 2012 at 15:04

    Great article that discusses more than just the usual soundbite knee-jerk reactions to guns.

    A couple of things could be added: the USA boasts the most unequal distribution of income and wealth in the G20 and even compared to many developing nations. When I took developmental economics course years ago, there was a phrase “Brazilification of the economy”. This phrase can no longer be used because according to the IBRD (World Bank) Brazil now has a more equal distribution of income and wealth than the USA (GINI coefficient etc.)

    When we have large populations mired in poverty, while chained to a dream they can never realize and surrounded by vulgar displays of wealth, it can not be good for (in EU jargon) “social cohesion”.

    As for Republicans being the party of fear: that is simply not true. The D faction uses fear mongering. The discourse has not changed at all, if anything has been ramped up with the situation in Syria and Iran. These two ciountries pose no threat at all to the US or Israel.

    Even if Iran had a warhead, they do not have the means to deliver it. Former Shit Bet, CIA, Mossad (in addition to the US NIE) have said that Iran has no nuclear program. Yet the White House and media cartel indicate they do. This is blatant lying and fear-mongering. To suggest that fearmongering and treason are only associated with one faction of the duopoly is not supported by facts and deeds, only perception and rhetoric.

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