America Obeys the Law of the Conservation of Violence

Why the plague of mass shootings in the only country where they're routine will never stop.

It was only a few weeks ago, when the saber-rattling with North Korea reached unnerving levels, that the rhetoric on the right amounted a brutal moral calculus in favor of mass slaughter. “Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans,” Ralph Peters wrote in the New York Post. “The fundamental reason our government exists is to protect our people and our territory.”

That editorial was called, rather inelegantly, “The moral answer to North Korea threats: Take them out.” And if Peters’ message were true, commonsense gun safety legislation would not be such a protracted fight. Because the protection of our people is not what American society values most.

As usual, right-wing oratory amounts to a call for more violence, always more violence. Yesterday, the nation woke up to reports of at least 58 deaths and more than 500 injuries, at a country music concert in Las Vegas. And instead of finding the idea of mass violence against Americans so intolerable that we must commit genocide to stop it, prominent members of the right-wing demanded that we tolerate it. Bill O’Reilly, a disgraced blowhard and serial sexual abuser, says that massacres are simply the price we must pay to live freely in this wonderful country of ours. Doubtless many millions of people agree with his appalling callousness, their jaws set grimly as they nod along at this grotesque caricature of liberty.

Mass shootings, then, are no longer a tragedy. They’re too common now. They’ve taken on the cast of a purifying ritual of American-ness. The fact that they only happen here and virtually nowhere else on earth only feeds into the narrative of American exceptionalism. Our history is a blood opera, and our outlier status only enhances our prestige.

The sacrosanct principle here is what we might call the law of the conservation of violence. To break a cycle, to call for peace or for commonsense measures to prevent people from, is to look weak. It is to be unmanly. It is to betray our founding principles for the fool’s paradise of safety. And seeking safety from mass murder through any means besides arming yourself is cowardly. This is intrinsic to the American psyche.

Our insatiable lust for violence shows up everywhere. On Friday, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council voted to prohibit the death penalty for the “crimes” of gay sex, adultery, and blasphemy, and the U.S. and a dozen mostly illiberal countries opposed it. Granted, the resolution was toothless, but our government couldn’t muster the moral courage to stand up against putting people to death for charges they would never face here — unless the Roy Moores of the world get their way and we become Gilead.

No doubt, our plague of gun violence brings out the worst in some liberals, too. But, as Salon points out, Bill O’Reilly wan’t so generous toward the perpetrator of what was until Sunday night the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. After Pulse, in June 2016, O’Reilly admitted that, “At home, we need tighter regulation of individual weapons of mass destruction.”

That’s because that shooter’s name was Omar Mateen.

In other words, underlying the phenomenon of mass killing is, as ever, the special birthright of white male-ness. By virtue of his race, the Las Vegas shooter, a 64-year-old white man, avoids any interaction with the matrix of hysteria that would greet him if he were a person of color, an immigrant, or a Muslim. He’s a “lone wolf.” His family is given credence to be publicly stupefied and worried for their safety. No one is calling for the deportation of people of Anglo-Saxon descent, or walls around their communities, or for lists to be drawn up preventing them from visiting America on tourist visas. Useless politicians tweet rote messages about thoughts and prayers, pointless incantations that have been proven over and over again not to work. But now that Stephen Paddock is dead and his identity is known, our cultural interrogation stops. Or, in the case of incensed right-wing media, when someone points out that white men are statistically dangerous, they bring up … Sept. 11.

Beyond this glaring racial double standard, what the O’Reillys of the world fail to mention is that, while there are hundreds of victims, and tens of thousands of people personally touched by what happened — and those people will never forget this, ever — this is about more than bullets piercing skulls and organs. It is about the desire to sow fear in public spaces, to remind everyone at all times that this can happen anywhere, anytime. Mass carnage is almost secondary. The real point is the vicarious identification with the sense of power surging through the shooter as he fires off round after round at strangers, filling the nation with a sense of awe and terror.

You want to go to a music festival, a movie theater, a dance club? Then you must be prepared, psychologically and with a gun of your own, because the “price of freedom” is a life of low-grade paranoia occasionally punctuated by all-consuming panic. The prize is that you might be able to shoot a bad guy, to commit the most praise-worthy extrajudicial killing there is. You can be the ultimate folk hero, the person who keeps calm and takes down a shooter in the middle of complete pandemonium (miraculously, and without killing someone else, that is). Why apprehend the suspect and have a trial? More violence is the answer.


We will never find resolution on this question of guns, long since evolved from muskets and fowling pieces to instruments of mass murder. At least, we will never find it until we pass some sort of event horizon of American politics, a wholesale electoral transformation of the country from one governed by fear and the worship of brutish masculinity.

That is because guns have transformed in more than just the technological way. They’re a totem of freedom itself, regarded the way some San Franciscans regard street parking spaces. Even if you yourself don’t drive, the cost of losing one for the possible inconvenience of neighbors who do is intolerable. So it is with guns. Any kind of progressive program to reduce the number of weapons in circulation would be seen as a personal attack on half the country — even though gun ownership is falling. It would practically invite armed insurrection. And the NRA, without a Black president to demonize, has shifted its tactics to spooking the nation into arming itself against a violent left, egged on by that new bugaboo, the “mainstream media.”

In reality, the NRA is essentially just a trade association getting hip deep into the culture war to help gun manufacturers sell more products to hoarders. And it works. People fret about the increase in homicides in San Francisco in 2017, yet in mere minutes, one shooter exceeded even that elevated total — and nothing will change. Not even an attack on a member of Congress (for the second time in seven years) could make a dent in this national psychosis. We might be stuck with this insanity forever. The white male who feels dispossessed and adrift will always have just enough of our sympathy to guarantee it happens again.

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