Riin's Rants

Violence: It's the American Way

Our culture is of two minds about violence. We are outraged by school shootings and other senseless acts of violence and look for a root cause. What can we blame? Movies? Television? Video games? Movies, television and video games are full of violence. This is true. But our culture accepted violence long before these media even existed. Our culture accepts violence as inevitable and right. People enjoy violence, or they wouldn't watch violent movies and TV shows and play violent video games.

Our country was founded on a frontier mentality. Take what you want. It was culturally acceptable to kill other people just because they had resources you wanted (usually land), you had more powerful weapons than they did, and they were of another race so it was easy to pretend they were less than human. Today isn't so different. Now the resource is oil instead of land, and the wars we fight for it are in foreign lands rather than on American soil, but the rest is pretty much the same. We think we have a right to the oil in other countries even though other people own it, just like we thought we had a right to the land in this country even though it belonged to other people. Rather than accept that we can't always have what we want, our culture says we will take whatever we want. We're bigger than you. Therefore you will give us what we want or we will kill you.

On a smaller scale, people think they have the right to hit other people in many circumstances. 65% of Americans approve of spanking children, and half of American parents actually spank their children at times, according to an ABC News poll. Compare that to Europe, where several countries have outlawed spanking, smacking and any other physical violence towards children.

What does spanking teach children? It's ok to hit someone as long as you're bigger than they are and they made you mad. Is that the lesson we want to be teaching our children? They're learning it very well. They beat up other kids on the playground. They hit or otherwise abuse their pets. They grow up and teach the lesson to their children, i.e., hit them. They get into fights in bars. Men beat their wives and girlfriends (not all domestic violence is male on female, but that is far and away the most common permutation).

A lot of people think of spanking as no big deal. "I was spanked, and I turned out ok" is the common refrain. If they think hitting someone is acceptable behavior, then I think they really didn't turn out ok. The stories of child abuse I read in the newspaper are far too common. A mother slaps her daughter's face so hard the girl's retina detaches, leaving her blind in that eye. A man spanks his girlfriend's toddler so hard, the child spins around and is propelled head first into the kitchen cabinet, resulting in a fractured skull and brain injuries. I could go on and on, but I start to feel ill.

I suspect a lot of people who spank their children figure, "Well, I just spank my children, I don't beat them! I'm not a child abuser!" But it's just a matter of degree, isn't it? As the examples above show, a slap on the face or a spanking can cause very serious and lasting damage. In anger, it's far too easy to misjudge one's strength. It's far better to just make it an ironclad rule to internalize for a lifetime: never hit anyone ever. Period.

Of course once someone has a gun, they're "bigger" than everyone else, regardless of everyone's body size. In 1998 in the US, 30,708 people were killed with guns. Subtract out the 17,424 suicides (of course, if someone chooses some other means of suicide, they are less likely to succeed. If they use a gun, it's nearly always fatal), and that leaves 13,284 people fatally shot by someone else. For every fatality, there are two non-fatal firearm injuries. 13,284 murders, accidental deaths and other deaths where the intent was unknown. Compare that to Canada, where in 1996, 106 people were murdered with guns. In the same year, 30 people were murdered in Great Britain with guns. Only 15 in Japan. In New Zealand it was 2. (Brady Campaign.) People argue about whether our high rate of gun violence is due to the easy availability of guns or to the overall pervasiveness of violence in our society, but it's a false dichotomy. Guns are easily available precisely because we accept violence in our society. People demand that guns continue to be easily available because they want to buy them. They wouldn't want to buy them if they didn't expect to use them at some point. People have been conditioned to live in fear, and so a lot of people have fantasies of using a gun in self defense or being some sort of vigilante, but they seem to be waiting to have a justification to use the gun. Killing another human being is a perfectly acceptable option to them, and they seem to look forward to it with some anticipation.

I won't deny that I have had fantasies of violence when certain people have made me angry. At times I have had fantasies of chasing certain individuals with a hefty spear toward a deep pit full of hungry alligators. I believe fire was also somehow involved. But I don't think I have ever hit anyone during my entire life. I simply don't believe I have that right. Just because someone made me angry? No. I would certainly never want to kill anyone. I suppose if I were attacked I would need to defend myself, but my primary goal would be to escape. I don't need to be a "hero." If someone attacked me, I might need to hurt them physically in order to escape, and I would be justified in doing that if there were no other option, but I would not be justified in killing them.

I have always been a pacifist. Many people have ridiculed me for this. People have derided my beliefs as naive. When I was growing up, my mother, in her Cold War hysteria, said, "Well, what would you do if the Russians marched in here and took over?" What would I do? I don't know. But something seemed fishy about the whole proposition.

When I went to college I took an ethics course. One of the things I learned while reading for the class was that the Soviet policy was they would not use their nuclear weapons first. They would only use them in defense if they were attacked. The US policy was that we would use them first! I was outraged!

If both sides agreed not to use them first, then there would be no war. But our policy was one of aggression! We were thugs! I was so upset I started crying and I couldn't stop. My mother came in my room to see what was the matter. I told her. Was she also outraged?

She told me to be quiet. I was making too much noise. I was keeping my father awake. I guess she wasn't outraged.

Before we had a Department of Defense, we had a War Department. I think that was a much more accurate name. The current incarnation does very little defending and a great deal of, well, offending. If they just did defense, they wouldn't be in all those other countries; they would be here in the US, ready to defend us should anyone attack, right? Why are they in all those other countries then? It's surely not for defense!

A war here, a war there, all fought in countries that have resources we want. We'll fight until we install a puppet government that gives us what we want: a sweet deal. Cheap oil.

So how much did we pay for the cheap oil? How much did the wars cost? How many tax dollars? How many lives? Not really so cheap, is it? You can't put a cost on the lives, but what about the tax dollars? What if you shifted the cost so the actual cost of the wars was charged at the gas pump, so only people who drive would have to pay for the wars? How much would gas cost then? More people might stop driving. They might demand better mass transit, or they might start riding bikes. Aside from finding war for "cheap" oil morally reprehensible, I resent paying for it when I don't even drive.

Not everyone approves of war, of course. Many people protest. But every time we go to war, the president's approval ratings go way up. People like war. People who protest the war are accused of being unpatriotic. And I guess in a way, it's true. Killing people is the American Way.

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Copyright © 2004 Riin Gill | February 7, 2004