Gun Violence Robs Us Of Our Humanity --And Primes Us For Authoritarianism
Day after day, the sad spectacle repeats. Americans under the sway of disinformation and fanaticism defend their right to place themselves and their families in harm's way in the midst of a deadly pandemic by refusing masks and vaccines. Distrust of science, polarization, and authoritarian cult dynamics have led many to this self-defeating behavior, but so has something larger: a deadened sense of respect for humanity.
The value of life has been cheapened in America, and the dignity of personhood has been debased, leading many to disinvest in care for our national collective and to follow false prophets. This tragic situation has largely escaped comment in discussions of our current crisis of democracy.
This is the first of a series of essays that map a brutal terrain where harm to some is tolerated so that the freedoms and privilege of others can continue and desensitization to violence and loss leads not just to more cruelty to others but to self-injury.
We start with gun violence and the acceptance of mass death and trauma in the name of American “freedom.” Future posts will examine racism, focusing on the devastating mix of public displays of the non-being of some Americans (police brutality, hate crimes) and the containment of others (mass detention of migrants, mass incarceration). We will also look at the desolation created by neoliberalism and its survivalist ethos.
For decades, we have shot each other, Americans causing fellow Americans more harm than any foreign enemy. More than 1.5 million died from gunshots in the last 50 years, vs. 1.2 million in all the wars in the country's history. The rituals of the military surround the latter deaths and honor them as service to the country, but there is no ceremony to contain and explain the emotional and other messiness of victims of our endless mass shootings (incidents in which four or more people are shot).
"We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow...," said President Joe Biden at a memorial service for victims of coronavirus. The same could be said of the daily tragedy of gun violence. But going numb is also a survival strategy for those who have seen much violence or have lost multiple loved ones. “The first time, she cried,” said Jackson Ricker, the boyfriend of Miranda Schilter, 17, who witnessed the November 2015 shooting in Colorado Springs - her second such incident in a few weeks. “She’s a veteran now.”
So are the business owners, human resource managers, and grief counselors who deal with the effects of gun violence. Mowing down our workforce, many in the prime of their lives, and creating legions of distraught Americans, has a price tag. Gun violence costs taxpayers, families, employers, survivors, and communities $280 billion annually, according to a recent Everytown study.
A healthy democracy requires a strong civic culture and a public sphere conducive to social trust and altruism. Instead, we have generations raised with fear, suspicion of others, and uncertainty - states of being perfect for authoritarian politics, which play on conspiracy theories and seek to rob populations of optimism and hope. With more than 1,800 killed or injured in mass shootings so far this year, the sight of bodies riddled with bullets has become normalized. The traumatizing practice of lockdown drills in schools lets children know they too are fair game.
Fear of violence can, paradoxically, create the conditions for more violence. Gun sales have risen dramatically due to a more polarized political climate. 40% of firearms purchases in 2020 were to first-time buyers, including to women and non-whites who fear for their safety. This likely means more deaths of an accidental and intentional nature. More children who find an improperly stored weapon at home, or take Mommy's handgun out of her purse. More adult and teen suicides, and more hate crimes.
The terror-filled psychological climate created by mass death in America has always been propitious to the embrace of fundamentalist and cult ideologies that seem to bring order to chaos by providing an explanation for everything that happens --including random mayhem at the yoga studio or a concert. When a savior appears, promising to use guns for good, to avenge American injustices ("I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue..."; "I alone can fix it"), he can seem like a prophet. The likelihood of Trump's presidency ending in an armed action by his followers was high.
Exploit the hurt, make others feel as debased as possible, then rouse them to anger: this is the strongman formula. Such leaders know that it can be easier to try to control the world through violence than to stay still and grieve, and easier to find a scapegoat than look within. That's what happened a century ago, when Fascism in Italy and Germany arose among veterans who were ravaged by World War One and formed far-right militias rather than transition to civilian society.
We have no recent comparable conflagration. Yet our history of continuous mass death and unaddressed loss, rising threats from armed militias and extremist groups, and hundreds of millions of guns in civilian hands all prime us for a political order backed up by extrajudicial violence.
Gun control is not only a public health, economic, and social issue, but an urgent matter of democracy protection. When violence is accorded a patriotic value, as for those who stormed the Capitol, when mass death of your fellow citizens is considered an acceptable price to pay for possession of lethal weapons, and when people are convinced to act in ways that jeopardize their well-being, the value of life itself has been cheapened. Then the conditions are right for authoritarian rule.