During the first weekend of August, in a period of thirteen hours, two white men with assault rifles killed thirty-one people in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The first one posted a “manifesto” on a social network echoing the Donald Trump’s words to the effect that Latinos were “invading” the U.S. Trump has also referred to Latin Americans “infecting” and the source of diseases, criminality and terrorism.
Despite the new wave of outrage over the massacre, and Trump’s statement that “there is no room in the US for hatred” and that “white nationalism is a disastrous ideology that must be eradicated,” the truth is that if after twenty first-grade children and six adults were killed in 2012, and no legislation was passed to stop the unrestricted sale of firearms that has been the main cause of this epidemic of massacres, most Americans are not overwhelmed with hope.
In contrast, it took New Zealand, a former British colony and English-speaking country, six days to revoke the right to buy and own assault rifles, after the Christchurch massacre last March, in which 51 people died, for the same xenophobic and racist reasons. How long will it take the US to establish similar laws?
The argument put forth by the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party is that any legislation would undermine the second amendment to the US Constitution, which reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This amendment responds to the well-founded fear that the US could be invaded by a foreign nation, as happened at the hands of England in 1812. Since then, the young nation’s armed forces grew to become the largest and most lethal military apparatus in history.
In reality, the Second Amendment responded as much to the lack of a formal army that could defend the new nation, as to the right the colonists of the thirteen colonies to continue occupying and snatching territory from Native Americans, who tried unsuccessfully to repel them. In other words, the hundreds of Native American nations that occupied the rest of the continent were denied the right the U.S. adopted to protect itself from a foreign invasion.
Is this amendment justified in this present of unquestionable United States military and economic supremacy? How many will have to die so that the weapons manufacturers profits are not affected?
The US has built its undeniable prominence as a modern society over the lands and bodies of millions of Native Americans, Spaniards and Mexicans, when it occupied by force the territories west of the Mississippi. The Louisiana Purchase was as illegal as it was imperialistic. France had appropriated territories that had been, on their turn, invaded by Spain. The right to bear arms was a policy of invasion and genocide, to obtain with no compensation for their legal and ancestral residents, what were to become the remaining thirty-five mainland states. Farmers and cattle herders moved west fought Indians and Mexicans, and occupied their lands. Then they requested the right to become a state and the Federal Government readily acquiesced by sending the army to defend the settlers from the rightful owners of the west. It is no coincidence that up until the middle of the last century, the epitome of the American hero was the cowboy followed by the World War II GI soldier, the Green Beret in the Vietnam era, and presently the Navy Seal.
The American obsession with the armed hero is a common thread throughout its history that became ingrained in the collective psyche through the media. TV immortalized the rugged individualists Lone Ranger and Maverick, the original band of brothers from Bonanza to The Magnificent Seven. In the most reminisced westerns and war movies from the 1940s up to Platoon, from Saving Private Ryan to The Hurt Locker, the hero is one or several white, armed men who defy evil primarily personified by foreigners, whether Mexican, Vietnamese, German or Arab.
Since the 1970s, superheroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Captain America and other action comic book characters, are predominantly prototypes of the hero that battle villains and save the US and the world, that “ingenuously” are portrayed as one and the same thing. (Notice how often in television, the movies and the news, Americans make reference to “the world” when describing an interest, a consequence or the importance of a strictly local or US national issue).
Superheroes, with the exception of Black Panther, tend to be or are portrayed by Americans. But even Black Panther, the name of a 1960’s African-American movement, is a Hollywood version of the African.
In the growing female hero movie genre, most if not all heroines (Batgirl, Supergirl, Elektra, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Katniss Evergreen from The Hunger Games), are American women use martial arts and weapons to overcome adversity usually comprised of “foreigners”.
It is almost impossible for the average American, especially for the white, poor and uneducated male, not to identify with a hero whose greatest virtue is courage and whose heroism can only be achieved through action against adversity. The primary tools are weapons, peppered with ingenuity as long as its not too “cerebral”, too “intellectual”. His raison d’être is to defeat his society’s enemy: the foreigner, the villain who wants to destroy the system, to impose his brand of totalitarianism on the world’s exceptional example and champion of democracy, the American nation. Even the patriotic exclamation of USA! USA! USA! in sporting and political events, is a kind of war cry, the verbalization of the gorilla striking his chest to convey his strength and power, or the Maori warrior’s or rugby player’s threat to the adversary.
How can the average American male, who knows next to nothing about the rest of the world, discover, come to terms, accept that his country is not as exceptional as he’s been led to believe, nor that all conflicts are or should be resolved with weapons (Send in the marines!), or that the achievements of its exemplary democracy carry the burden of slavery and genocide of Indians, Mexicans, blacks, thus to some extent canceling its proclaimed ideal house on the hill?
For a broad sector of the American society, the rest of the world is an amorphous space, of unknown size and difficult to locate, usually inhabited by people who do not speak English, who have strange customs, who historically have been associated in history books and the media with totalitarian regimes or underdevelopment, destabilized by internal or world wars or, worse yet, who treat with insulting condescension those who have saved their skins in at least two world wars.
For those schooled in the halls of provincialism, where true identity is neither understood nor questioned, the world beyond the mainland’s frontiers, like everything unknown, is the source of suspicion, of potential adversity, of inevitable conflict. In that “other” world, beyond the American world, the survival of the strongest, of the nation, of the “American way of life” (curiously the term culture is recurrently used to distinguish the various racial groups), depends on the right to bear arms to defend “us” against them, the “others”, the strangers, the invaders.
Those others are almost always non-nationals, outsiders, intruders, from the “aliens” of Independence Day, to invaders who want to subjugate the US (and the world) just like we have seen in so many action movies. Many of the bad guys are personified by European villains that Bruce Willis repeatedly defeats, as well as the wide range of foreigners that Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon or Keanu Reeves always vanquish. Even when the wars are between two foreign nations, as in “300” and its sequel, the heroes are played by Caucasian American actors representing Greeks, supposed forgers of Western Civilization, and who, even in defeat, are victorious over the dark, alien, middle-eastern villains played by foreign actors (even Eva Green, the treasonous Greek, who joins the barbarous Persians, is British).
In the aftermath of 255 mass shootings up to August, 2019, the Democratic Party, complicit in the polarization of class and race of American society, has had no choice but to assume the defense of the “soul” of the nation, stolen by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and most of the Republican Party on a daily basis (I unsuccessfully wonder in amusement if they can see themselves when they stand in front of the mirrors). Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, have taken on the task of calling out the unbridled capitalism that has created the biggest social inequality in the richest country on the planet in the modern era. Others, such as Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Beto O’Rourke, denounce the insensitivity of the system maximized by the Republican Party, appealing to what historian Jon Ellis Meacham has called “the better angels” of American society.
The United States’ greatest challenge perhaps lies in the fact that those who support Trump, who refuse to stop the indiscriminate sale of weapons, who favor a system that, paradoxically, precariously reduces their chances of rising out of poverty and achieving the American Dream, represent almost half of the nation. And their willful ignorance of the undeniable fact that the nation was built with the country’s creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship on a global scale as well as with the tools of slavery, inequality, intolerance, xenophobia, bigotry and the recurrently unchallenged privilege of profits over the common good. As a result, those most incapable of understanding the country and the world they live in impose themselves politically and culturally on the rest of the nation.
As with every addiction, in this case to weapons and intolerance of those who are different, the first step towards overcoming and conquering the condition is to accept the fact that it is a disease and that it is not someone else’s. From that moment on, once can begin to take steps, slow ones, initially mostly erratic, with stumbling blocks and relapses, in order to advance towards overcoming the conduct that unchecked will destroy the carrier and many of his fellow citizens.
History is relentless in its designs and revelations. John Adams said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our desires, our inclinations, or the opinions of our passion, cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The big question confronting the US, and its effect on us in our unincorporated territory, is: What will prevail, the principles that make up the Constitution and its promise of an empire of the law or the practices of those who have used it to impose their right to their privileges over the common good?
I’m a boomer. I just celebrated “Abbey Road’s” fiftieth anniversary. As time becomes a dwindling commodity, I strengthen my conviction that betting on ideals serves our humanity much better than the realities that favor the privileged nurtured by the status quo. I firmly believe we can be better, and that together we can make a difference by challenging those who seek to impose the burden of their poorly conceived and penurious values on our collective needs and individual rights. Despots and tyrants have always won major battles but, in the end, the always loose the war. I choose to wager on our capacity to forge a more just, equitable and peaceful society, where “Gunsmoke” is only a television reference of a past that has no place in our future.
Copyright 2019 by José E. Muratti Toro, Utopías descifradas. All photos are in the public domain except for the NRA logo which is used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.