Delusions of Grandeur

I started writing something about gun violence in the U.S. back in July, just after Aurora. It was going to be a BOP Times column...and I kept working on the piece over the months, then Sandy Hook happened. And I got let go from the paper. But still, I was fiddling around with the piece. I thought about making it my first post as a regular contributor at the feminist blog The Hand Mirror but somehow it didn’t seem to fit — and I have some other stuff in the hopper. So … it’s here, just because:

Delusions of Grandeur

The Sandy Hook shooting in the U.S. last month brought Columbine back to me. The “Batman” massacre in Aurora, Colorado, did too. I was a staff editor at The Denver Post when Colorado came under fire from its own residents. Actually, I was sitting in a philosophy class (studying by day, working by night) when the buzz started. “Something’s going on.” Sounds of people running along corridors. Loud talking. “What’s happened?” As always, nothing was clear at first, but I raced into work and, didn’t leave for days – OK that’s not literally true, it just felt that way.  That was the 20th of April, 1999, when teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School. Then themselves.

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain. Creative Commons licensed.

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain. Creative Commons licensed.

The Denver Post keeps a special archive of its Columbine coverage on the Internet, and, after the Aurora shooting, I found myself looking back through those pages. Change just a few of the key details, and most of the headlines written back then could also have been written on 20 July 2012 or 14 December: “Bloodbath leaves 15 dead, 28 hurt” (the correct toll came a few days later), “Colorado, world mourn deaths at Columbine High”,  “A diary of devastation”, “Survivors and families likely to feel both euphoria and guilt”. And so it goes on…and on…and on.

And then this one: “Gun control battle looms”. There was a lot of excited talk after Columbine and after Sandy Hook that something would be done, this time was different, this time the nation was shocked enough. (Not so much after Aurora. The U.S. was in election mode, and neither of the candidates wanted to go near gun control.)

At the same time, and perhaps perversely to some of us, the Batman shootings and Sandy Hook prompted a rise in gun buying. The inside of U.S. movie theatres and primary schools, it seems, are now places where you need to be armed. Would you like some ammo with that popcorn? Sally, don’t forget your Kevlar backpack.

The Brady Campaign, which lobbies for tighter gun controls, has a counter on its Web site that tallies America’s shootings by the year and the day. When I checked it just after the Aurora shootings in July, the count had already topped 55,000 with 37 so far that day (and it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon in Colorado). As I wrote this early NZ time on 4 Jan, the number of people shot in the U.S. so far this year was at 703. No, not all of those were fatal – but according to Brady, 33 people in the U.S. die a day in gun violence, making it the most homicidal developed nation. (Brady’s counter uses – PDF link – average annual estimates. Slate has a real-time crowd-sourcing project together with @gundeaths on Twitter to actually count deaths since Sandy Hook, and the results are almost as scary: As of 4 Jan, 18 people have been killed a day since 14 December.)

There are some interesting gender differences of course. Primarily, that the overwhelming majority of victims according to the Slate/@gundeaths count are men (as are the perpetrators): 353 so far this year, compared with 49 women. Then there are the stats on domestic violence situations, too, showing that 73 percent of female murder victims are killed in the home (vs. 45 percent of male murder victims), and that more than half female gun deaths are suicides. In the end, though, it’s apparently not that Americans are more violent than the rest of us (wars nothwithstanding), but that they have so many more guns.

The apparently limitless power of the gun lobby to keep it that way is one of those mysterious things about America that a lot of non-Americans (and a lot of Americans, for that matter) find hard to understand. But in a country that has moved so far to the right – think reproductive rights and Guántanamo and climate change denial and killing by drone and …  – gun control is hardly an outlier. Yes, it’s about the power of corporate money to keep politicians in line, but there’s lots of other stuff going on, too. One of them is its superiority complex.

After he visited survivors and families of the victims in Aurora, President Obama spoke to the American people, asking them to reflect on “how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country”. He then concluded by hoping they would also reflect on “all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth”.

These must have been intended as words of comfort, but it’s still a strange thing to say in the face of yet another mass slaughter in the country where shooting sprees have become a tradition. But it’s also something American politicians of every stripe say over and over again, in any context whatsoever, about any issue at all: America is the greatest nation on Earth. (In his election victory speech, Obama suggested the rest of us need reminding about just how great America is: “And together with your help and God’s grace we will continue our journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth.” I do wish they wouldn’t!)

Having lived there myself for well over a decade, I became convinced that believing yourself the greatest is not just the greatest obstacle to change, but a terrible danger to you and everyone around you. Though I guess that’s pretty obvious when you think about it: How can there be room for improvement if you’re already the best? How can there be room for doubt? How can you ever say you were wrong?

Among the things we can be thankful for, including not having local 24-hour cable news channels, is being free of such dangerous delusions of grandeur. Sure, we tell ourselves a few whoppers – being egalitarian and not racist, being 100% Pure, and that weird thing we have about the All Blacks as virtual deities – but our being “the greatest nation on earth” is not one of them. Nor is it likely to be, since we’d be laughed off the stage. At best, we sometimes try to make ourselves out to be the plucky little nation that could. Which gives us some space to at least occasionally talk about where we went wrong and what we could do better.

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