Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Irony of the NRA’s Response to Sandy Hook – and to America’s ‘Culture of Violence’

In response to the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, called for every school in the country to be protected by an armed guard.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” he said in summary on December 21, “is a good guy with a gun.”  A “National School Shield” program, to be funded by the federal government, was one aspect of his multipronged proposal for greater school safety.  Other aspects were the greater tracking of individuals with mental illness and the renewed critical attention to violent media, particularly video games, which he claimed engender a “culture of violence” in the United States.

Many have already criticized LaPierre’s comments as being tone-deaf to the desire of many to have a broad-based national conversation about mass killings or blaming any cause for the tragic shooting except guns.  I generally agree with both these responses.  But I also acknowledge the need to look for multiple explanations and to draw together research and expertise from a variety of fields in order to formulate the best social and policy solutions to violence in its myriad forms.  Having researched and written about media violence for most of my scholarly career, I know it goes without saying that violence in the United States, particularly as it helps us to understand and prevent school shootings and rampage killings, is a complex topic warranting a wide-ranging policy debate.  

To pick up a ready example from LaPierre’s remarks on Friday, it should immediately be noted that media violence is not equivalent to a “culture of violence.”  Every society or nation can be said to have a “culture of violence.”  To say so is to state the obvious.  The ancient Aztecs had a culture of violence; so do modern-day South Africans.  Or the Japanese.  Or the Spanish.  Speaking of an American (or any) culture of violence is a means, not an end: the point of such a statement should be to go on and explore a propensity toward violent action or conflict-resolution and to better understand specific norms and beliefs about the legitimacy of violence and how those have emerged historically and are enacted today. 

Following the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary, speaking generically about a “culture of violence,” particularly one caused by media, has the unfortunate effect of muddying the waters of any policy debate related to the myriad forms and episodes of violence in a given society.  Rather than recognizing that mental illness, school safety, media, and, yes, guns themselves variously shape and sustain norms of violence – and have long helped to define the history and guiding myths of America – LaPierre trotted out the “media” as bogeyman and somehow the basis of that overreaching and destructive culture.  We can debate the extent to which media might be understood to contribute to an American “culture of violence,” but to exclude other social actors, institutions, and beliefs is irresponsible and simplistic. 

Any culture of violence we might identify, in the U.S. or elsewhere, isn’t produced simply by contemporary makers of blood-drenched media entertainment.  Such a culture is grounded in the long-held stories we tell ourselves about our founding as a nation and our past triumphs over adversaries and evil.  The American way of violence, in other words, has deep historical roots.  Some of these roots, reaching to Christian tradition and Biblical calls for justifiable retribution, hold that the violent sacrifice of some individual lives is legitimate because that bloodletting is necessary for the larger community or country to regenerate and advance.  In the classic Hollywood Western, for example, the hero (reluctantly) deploys violent and retributive justice to vanquish evildoers who have provoked and threatened civilization.  Likewise, the physical justice dispensed in crime-ridden cities, by police and vigilantes alike, illustrates how the violent forces of social order mounted against the violent threat of chaos can be easily celebrated as effective – and legitimized. 

LaPierre’s proposal for “good guys” with guns to stand at the ready at school to protect our children from evil “bad guys” with guns was therefore hardly novel: instead, it was a call back to the mythical American frontier or, more specifically, the besieged frontier fort or settlement.  A twenty-first century school in this way becomes the site of our last stand against armed bad guys, with children as the innocents who are being threatened and whose defense justifies any manner of violent response.   To those with a certain vision of America, it was a canny pitch for the deployment today of nostalgic, gun-toting frontier justice.  At the same time, and here’s the real irony, it was a call for institutionalizing good guys with guns – many of whom who have indisputably made an enormous difference in the history of the United States but who at the same time have, also indisputably, been at the center of very American culture of violence that LaPierre claims to decry.

Identifying such irony in itself only goes so far, of course.  The more important lesson to be taken from LaPierre’s proposal is that other powerful American stories – say, of building consensus from a shared belief in the exceptional society we aspire to – need to be embraced at this moment as the basis for creating safer schools and less conflict and bloodshed.  If training and posting guards with guns ultimately relies on a culture of violent solutions to violent problems, in other words, aren’t there less or non-violent alternatives?  Is the threat of violence or superior physical force really the way we want to solve the problem of violent conflict or provocation?  Recall such escalation is the logic of first-shooter video games and hyperviolent cartoons. 

Isn’t it better ultimately to identify and treat the bad guys earlier, to make it harder for them to get guns, and maybe to make the guns they get (legally or not) less lethal?  That would seem an approach driven by a logic not of deploying more and greater violence but of taking compound, collective, and enlightened actions to address and prevent what is emerging as a deep-seated problem.  That’s the kind of approach that we could both adopt to protect our children in schools but also be proud to teach them there.