America has a violence problem.
Starting 45 years ago, Richard Slotkin wrote a series of books on the place of violence in American myth and culture. He argued that Americans “regenerate” the nation through violence. Warfare with Native Americans and Europeans and the enslavement of Africans were the initial forms of violence. Violence was a central character of frontier life. Generational wars and ceremonial violence (often through sport) were subsequent forms. By the 20th century, violence was being tamed as entertainment through sport and film. Slotkin explains that all of this violence–real or mythologized–was central to America’s vision of itself and its origins. American values required fight and sacrifice. The resulting violence determined American national and international power as well as the masculinity of those who participated (nation-making historically was seen as an exclusively male endeavor). In short, violence defined America.
In more recent times, critiques of violence have challenged and softened many of its expressions. Sports have changed their rules and style of play to protect against concussions and violent hits generally. Fighting has become uncommon in major professional ice hockey. Boxing has become a niche sport in America. Aggressive play is not rewarded in the ways it was in the past. Violence in film remains glorified in some contexts (The Passion of the Christ or most any big-budget action flick), but is just as often used for the purposes of social critique (Saving Private Ryan or 12 Years a Slave)–or a combination of the two (the filmographies of Quintin Tarantino or Clint Eastwood). Domestic violence does not have the broad social acceptance that it did even a generation ago. Even with recent increases, violent crime is much below the rates of the early 1990s.
Despite these critiques of violence in society, many types of violence are readily apparent in American life. Terrorism (foreign and domestic) has had a hold of the national consciousness for 25 years. Mass shootings appear with alarming frequency in our society. Gang and drug violence challenges life in many areas of the country. Racial violence indicates the ongoing race problem in America. Immigrants are often greeted with violence upon entering this country–a condition many of them are immigrating to escape. Military actions and officials are fetishized in popular culture and at sporting events to evoke emotional responses regarding the value of violence. In this way and others, violence remains at the core of substantial elements of our lives and entertainment.
Gun ownership and use constitute a clear focal point around the ways Americans tie national identity to violence. Wayne LaPierre as spokesman for the NRA equates gun ownership with freedom. If Americans did not largely agree on the importance of violence in American culture, the NRA would have lost support and the U.S. would have followed other democracies regarding gun control. If violence was not married to cultural notions of what makes America, Christian churches would not be so quick to embrace gun possession as a response to violence and possibly give Jesus’s instruction to Peter in Matthew 26:52 more attention.
These movements to question violence on one hand while continuing to embrace violence as regenerative on the other remain in conflict in America. Americans agree with the need for gun ownership as protection from tyranny while also believing that gun control should be expanded. Americans link freedom with violence while bemoaning the consequences of that violence. Americans cannot decide if they agree with Thrasymachus in The Republic that violence is an act of power or with Ammon Hennacy that it is the weapon of the weak. The failure of Americans to devise a strategy of action has resulted in a continuation of the violence they bemoan, especially against vulnerable populations.
This divide and inaction evoke the national divide generally. Americans are conflicted about human nature, the power of people to grown and develop, and the purpose of political society. Human relationships are frayed to a point where people cannot rhetorically meet to explore answers to these questions in a trans-partisan way. Without greater communication, contradictory actions or complete inaction will remain the civil and social response. Violence will thrive in that environment.
The purpose of this post is not to pose policy solutions for gun control nor advocate for non-violence in all situations. The intent is that this post challenges readers to reconsider the place of violence in American culture and identity. Americans must come to recognize the addictive power of violence in their national myths. In many ways, violence directs our politics, economics, theologies, and cultural representations. Americans need to be conscious of this condition in order to debate and determine the proper role for violence in their 21st-century society.