Ten people were killed and seven wounded recently in a mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. Such shootings are more than another tragic expression of unchecked violence in the United States, they are symptomatic of a society engulfed in fear, militarism, a survival-of-the-fittest ethos, and a growing disdain for human life. Sadly, this shooting is not an isolated incident. Over 270 mass shootings have taken place in the US this year alone, proving once again that the economic, political, and social conditions that underlie such violence are not being addressed.
State repression, unbridled self-interest, an empty consumerist ethos, and war-like values have become the organizing principles of American society producing an indifference to the common good, compassion, a concern for others, and equality. As the public collapses into the individualized values of a banal consumer culture and the lure of private obsessions, American society flirts with forms of irrationality that are at the heart of every-day aggression and the withering of public life. American society is driven by unrestrained market values in which economic actions and financial exchanges are divorced from social costs, further undermining any sense of social responsibility.
In addition, a wasteful giant military-industrial-surveillance complex fueled by the war on terror along with America’s endless consumption of violence as entertainment and its celebration of a pervasive gun culture normalizes the everyday violence waged against black youth, immigrants, children fed into the school to prison pipeline, and others considered disposable. American politicians now attempt to govern the effects of systemic violence while ignoring its underlying causes. Under such circumstances, a society saturated in violence gains credence when its political leaders have given up on the notion of the common good, social justice, and equality, all of which appear to have become relics of history in the United States.
In the face of mass shootings, the public relations disimagination machine goes into overdrive claiming that guns are not the problem, and that the causes of such violence can be largely attributed to the mentally ill. When in actuality, as two Vanderbilt University researchers, Dr. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish, publishing in the American Journal of Public Health observed that “Fewer than 6 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”
It may not be an exaggeration to claim that the American government has blood on its hands because of the refusal of Congress to rein-in a gun lobby that produces a growing militarism that sanctions a love affair with the unbridled corporate institutions, financial interests, and mass produced cultures of violence. The Oregon community college shooting is the 41st school shooting this year while there have been 142 incidents of violence on school properties since 2012. Yet, the violence continues unchecked, all the while legitimated by the cowardly acts of politicians who refuse to enact legislation to curb the proliferation of guns and support legislation as elementary as background checks–which 88 percent of the American people support.
Americans are obsessed with violence. They not only own nearly 300 million firearms, but also have a love affair with powerful weaponry such as 9MM Glock semi-automatic pistols and AR15 assault rifles. Collective anger, frustration, fear, and resentment increasingly characterizes a society in which people are out of work, young people cannot imagine a decent future, everyday behaviours are criminalized, inequality in wealth and income are soaring, and the police are viewed as occupying armies. This is not only a recipe for both random violence and mass shootings; it makes such acts appear routine and commonplace.
President Obama is right in stating that the violence we see in the United States is “a political choice we make that allows this to happen.” While taking aim at the gun lobby, especially the National Rifle Association, what Obama fails to address is that extreme violence is systemic in American society and has become the foundation of politics and must be understood within a broader historical, economic, cultural, and political context. To be precise, politics has become an extension of violence driven by a culture of fear, cruelty, and hatred legitimated by the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby and other related militaristic interests. Moreover, violence is now treated as a sport, a pleasure-producing industry, a source of major profits for the defense industries, and a corrosive influence upon American democracy. And as such it is an expression of a deeper political and ethical corruption in American society.
As the United States moves from a welfare state to a warfare state, state violence becomes normalized. America’s moral compass and its highest democratic ideals have begun to wither, and the institutions that were once designed to help people now serve to largely supress them. Gun laws matter, social responsibility matters, a government responsive to its people matters. At the same time gun lobbyists should not matter, money controlling politics should not matter, the mad proliferation of mad violence in the popular culture should not matter, and the ongoing militarization of American society should not matter either.
Gun violence in America is inextricably tied to economic violence and the violence reproduced by politicians who would rather support the military-industrial-gun complex than address the most basic needs and social problems faced by the American people. When violence becomes an organizing principle of society, the fabric of a democracy begins to unravel suggesting that America is at war with itself. When politicians refuse out of narrow self and financial interests to confront the conditions that create such violence, they have blood on their hands.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.