A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It may not be a coincidence that the rise in the killings of unarmed civilians thrives at a time when America remains engaged in a multitude of wars, some visible, some not so visible.
There are multiple archives which record gun violence in America diligently and report that every day ninety-six Americans die of gunshot wounds. While mourning and praying and even seething over our impotence at bringing about any change in our gun control laws, we focus on tangible factors such as the power of the NRA in politics, or the dominance of the Second Amendment as ideology; rarely do we examine the foundation of these ideologies which are the bedrock of the American nation.
On February 22, 2018, eight days after the horrendous Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, The Washington Post published an article on Israel, commending the lack of school shootings there in the midst of a gun-infested and violence-prone culture. The article focused on the internal security system (how difficult it is for an outsider to walk into a school) and gun control laws (private gun ownership has a number of restrictions), while completely ignoring Israel’s record of killing Palestinian children.
The blind spot regarding Palestine—the approach of disentangling domestic and security issues—is prevalent among the American media and the American public not only when it comes to Israel. This mindset dominates also when we discuss the tragedy of school shootings by looking at such factors as the ease of gun ownership, the pervasiveness of gun culture, and the power of the NRA, while being oblivious to the existence of American empire, the basic structure that promotes militarization and romanticizes guns as a tool for the greater good rather than as an option chosen by an aggressor. Gun culture and the power of the NRA do illuminate to some extent the plethora of firearms that are so easy to obtain that a person on the terrorist watch list can easily purchase one. This line of causality, however, ignores the broader question of why gun culture thrives and why the message of the NRA resonates in the midst of children being violently murdered in America.
The answer lies in recognizing that the logic and benefits of empire, built on militarization, have been internalized by most Americans. This is the missing piece of the puzzle that ties our external policy of attack, control, and conquest with the internal philosophy of the fear of being attacked and gun worship as our salvation.
While we lament the lives unnecessarily and brutally cut short because of the whims of some deranged person, we fail to look at parallel scenarios where many children and innocent people are being murdered with our current weapon of choice, drones, which are removed from sight and not so messy for public relations, so that we can easily label the resulting deaths as collateral damage.
We live in a culture obsessed with war, where the military is worshiped as a heroic entity, regardless of its actual role in executing the policies that spur wars. When the truth about the profit-making or self- serving nature of war policy becomes too obvious to ignore, such as in the Vietnam War or to some extent in the Iraq War, we label the war as a tragedy or a mistake, never as a criminal endeavor, in order to protect the image of both soldiers and statesmen.
At most, the participants in war can be projected as aggrieved or perplexed or even foolish, but they remain our heroes. Their very existence is built on the militarization of our culture and our obsession with retaining power through violent might. This distinct characteristic manifests in internal culture in the form of redefining liberty as gun ownership.
When we bring forth examples of comparable cultures like Britain, Canada, or Australia, where they have sensible gun laws or are able to quickly change their gun laws into rational ones, one of the key aspects missing from such discussions is that none of these countries are beholden to empire and therefore do not need to elevate guns or violence or militarization as something noble and sacrosanct. In all of the heated discussions about school killings, this is the one feature that cannot honestly be addressed because there exists a boundary in our perception between what is acceptable for us and our people and what is allowed for others whom we regard as less than human.
But if there is a conscious boundary where we separate the domestic and foreign manifestations of violence, such a boundary is easily permeable in reality, to say the least. As soon as we accept torture, drone killings, and other atrocities as our weapons of choice, we normalize violence and power everywhere. It may not be a coincidence that the rise in the killings of unarmed civilians thrives at a time when America remains engaged in a multitude of wars, some visible, some not so visible. It becomes far too easy to redeploy the same mindset of dehumanizing the enemy toward unintended groups of people, whether they are minorities or schoolchildren.
American citizenship has always been sustained by multiple paradoxes, which allow us to prefer limited government while maintaining a powerful military presence all over the world, to claim being a nation of immigrants while adopting and enforcing racially and politically motivated policies of immigration, and to assert our faith in privacy while consenting to government scrutiny over all aspects of life.
The paradox of being an empire while professing to be in the vanguard of democratic values has always posed a conflict, but we have established this paradox as part of American exceptionalism. The financial benefits of the empire for the health of the domestic economy can hardly be denied. But perhaps it is time to consider whether there are momentous impacts on our culture and psyche when we continuously accept and prioritize violence as a mode of life.
While rising up and demanding gun control laws or challenging the power of the NRA are praiseworthy steps in active citizenship, so is the recognition of the connection between the republic and the empire, and the long overdue acknowledgment that the vice of gun worship is not limited to our schools, churches, movie theaters, and traffic stops, but is a reality dominating the entire human landscape of poor and helpless people living in countries which we control and dominate.
Mehnaaz Momen is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M International University. Her latest book is Political Satire, Postmodern Reality, and the Trump Presidency: Who Are We Laughing At?.
First published in Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.