Tuesday, December 7, 1993

Letter from America

Written in 1993 for Pan magazine (Northern Cyprus)

A great surprise for Americans who travel is to realize that much of the rest of the world sees the United States not as George Washington’s peaceful, “shining city on a hill” but as a place where acts of senseless, murderous violence are committed daily by urban schoolchildren. One recent earthquake in the sleeping American consciousness has been a sense that the rest of the world might be right.

Consider a few eloquent statistics. In 1991, over 12,000 Americans were killed with handguns. (In Great Britain that year, only 55 people died the same way.) By the following year, the U.S. figure had risen by 33%—in 1992, 16,000 Americans were killed with firearms. This works out to about 40 deaths a day. Americans may worship the automobile, but there are more gun shops than gas stations in the United States.

I always wonder what Cypriots (on both sides) must think when they hear such figures. Everyone on this island has been affected by violence for three generations now; most men are required to do some military service, and know how to use a gun; yet guns aren’t allowed except for hunting purposes. You must think us all mad, over in the United States.

Few societies as violent as America have such an enormous capacity for self-deception. (Colombians, for example, do not proclaim to the rest of the world that they live in a model society.) It is ironic at best that President Clinton has recently been very hard-pressed to explain the deaths of seventeen U.S. soldiers in combat in Somalia—while that many citizens are murdered in Washington every two weeks.

Less and less, though, are such deaths taken for granted. The media is full of complex explanations: it’s television’s fault; it’s the fault of parents; it’s the fault of the schools. (A recent study reveals, by the way, that about 40% of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate—can’t even read a railway timetable.) Can it be everybody’s fault? Hollywood’s? Whose?

For many decades the conservative right has argued that the fault lay in lax, liberal punishment for murderers; fry a few more criminals on Death Row (the argument ran), publicize the fact that the Death Penalty is here to stay, then sit back and watch the crime rate drop. But the statistics are eloquent: ever since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment, there has been an astonishing rise in the murder rates. Whose fault?

It’s partly the fault of the Constitution, which—as every schoolchild knows—guarantees each American “the right to bear arms.” Taken out of context, this sounds a lot like James Bond’s license to kill; in fact the actual phrase goes on to talk about an armed militia (as many readers will recall, there was a revolutionary war with Britain going on at the time). More importantly, the gentlemen who wrote the laws simply couldn’t have forseen that their five-word phrase would be used one day to justify AK-47s and .44 Magnums on the streets of New Amsterdam.

So the Constitution is our 18th century culprit. Our modern one is the National Rifle Association, which sounds like a gun club for weekend duck-hunters but is in fact a tremendously powerful lobbying institution. Until quite recently few political candidates dared to antagonize them; Reagan and Bush and Perot shamelessly cultivated the NRA’s support, in outright defiance of policemen across the country pleading for tougher gun laws. But in November’s state and local elections nationwide, for the first time some candidates actually won by standing up to the gun lobby. As Attorney General Janet Reno put it, “If only this nation would rise up and tell the NRA to get lost.”

And though it seems almost heresy in a society which worships violent entertainment, Congress has at last passed the Brady Bill, named after President Reagan’s former press secretary—paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet that went astray thirteen years ago. The bill seems almost timid in its demands: a five-day waiting period and a background check before someone can buy a gun. The NRA has screamed for years that such a bill would reduce their personal freedom, and Congressmen, scared of losing both NRA votes and massive financial support, have mostly lined up to kowtow.

President Reagan, who survived the assassination attempt uncrippled, was guilty of the most vulgar, vote-seeking charade of all: opposing his crippled press secretary’s crusade for strict gun control for “ideological reasons.” (Reagan’s favorite schtick was to address an NRA crowd as “Fellow members . . . ” Lousy actor, shameless politician.)

A quick glance at NRA literature confirms that their masturbatory fantasy is a) for years they have protected the rest of us from Soviet invasions, and b) to protect yourself in a criminal society you’d better be much more armed than the enemy. (Another recent study shows beyond any doubt that a gun at home is far more likely to cause the death of a household member than ever be used in self-defense.) But these NRA folks—and many weekend duck-hunters are not members—are people with an acute need for enemies. Now they have a successful one: the Brady Bill.

It seems incredible in retrospect that the bill, which the President signed into law on November 30, could’ve met resistance for so long. Several states (California, Virginia, Maryland, and Florida) which already have computerized "background checks" or waiting-periods—meaning you can’t walk in off the street to a gun shop and walk out with a gun—have in the last five years blocked about 50,000 firearm purchases by people who at the time were forbidden from buying them as a result of prior felonies, certain misdemeanors, or mental incompetence.

No one has argued that there isn’t still a very grave problem in the huge number of guns already on the street. The real problem, everyone agrees, goes much deeper. American popular culture has for a long time revered guns and revered power as a symbol of freedom and the ability to stand up to authority, from the mid-19th century nickel-novels about Daniel Boone to the screen violence of the John Ford western to today’s high-tech Schwarzenegger and Stallone bloodbaths. But so what? Japanese samurai movies and comic books are even bloodier still, and have deeper roots in a longer tradition of violence and art, yet you rarely see Tokyo housewives arming themselves with automatic weapons.

No, tempting as Hollywood looks as a culprit, I suspect it simply follows, not leads—Rambo is more violent than Red River was because it has to be, to satisfy its market audience.

My small theory is this: that a yen for violence both real and imaginary grows alongside a frustrated need for power, and the United States has for two decades now watched its role in the world shrink, economically and militarily. Sure, every American knows we’re the last superpower, but what does a victory in the Gulf War matter when we see TV images of petty Somali warlords bringing down U.S. helicopters? Or when we’re told we’re in a Depression because Chinese and Mexicans can make better sneakers and brooms? Increasingly, Americans are aware that the rest of the world doesn’t pay us as much attention, as much love, as much respect as it used to, and never will again—a terrifying idea.

This is virtually a global version of what’s happened to the abandoned poor in America’s large cities—several blocks from the White House you can find some of the nation’s worst areas, so close to the center of power it’s almost poetic. These people, rendered powerless by a system that hasn’t yet found a solution to their problems, react not with sorrow but with anger, and have chosen to achieve power the easiest way: with intramural violence, directed largely at each other.

The United States is becoming an increasingly Balkanized country—and we all know how the Balkans return and return to old ways and accustomed bloodshed. The saddest question is not just if those problems can be solved, but if a society can ever retreat from a climate of violence that has come to seem normal . . . like another day’s bad weather.

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