Friday, October 16, 2015

America's Culture of Violence

"America puts killers on the cover of Time magazine, giving them as much notoriety as our favorite movie stars. From Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since their inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes. They just created two new ones when they plastered those dip-shits Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris' pictures on the front of every newspaper. Don't be surprised if every kid who gets pushed around has two new idols."

Marilyn Manson, being interviewed by Michael Moore
(Dog Eat Dog Films, taken from Business Insider)
So wrote Marilyn Manson in a 1999 Rolling Stone article, responding to dishonest attempts to blame the Columbine massacre on his music. In the 16 intervening years, regrettably, little has changed in this area. Chris Harper-Mercer, the perpetrator of the shooting in Oregon on October 1, commented of Vester Flanagan,
I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are... A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.
 Flanagan, as a reminder, was the perpetrator of yet another shooting earlier this year.

The response to the Umpqua shooting has largely been a call for increased gun control. Understandable, and important. But not the only thing we should be examining.

Bobby Jindal, a man still laboring under the delusion that he may be the next president, blamed the shooting on a culture of violence, giving the familiar examples of video games, TV shows, and music. But if he wants to see the real ways in which our culture desensitizes us to violence, perhaps he should look to his fellow presidential hopeful Ted Cruz. A few weeks ago, Cruz stated that "we may have to help introduce [the Ayatollah of Iran] to the 72 virgins," meaning, of course, kill him. Or perhaps Ben Carson, who's polling second to Donald Trump, and has tacitly endorsed allowing war crimes.

When Chris Harper-Mercer was thirteen, the United States invaded a country that posed no threat to it. By conservative estimates, one hundred thousand civilians would die as a result. Even in the recent Democratic Party debate, the worst any candidate could say about the Iraq War was that it was a "blunder." Perhaps some of them wanted to condemn it more strongly. But by the rules of "decency," one can't accuse their political opponents of committing major war crimes.

"Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example," wrote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Timothy McVeigh would later use that quote in explaining his actions. Somehow, those who are concerned with the pretend violence in video games and music are less concerned with the all too real violence that has been normalized in society.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that mass murderers achieve such a level of celebrity. Once society has accepted and even glorified violence on the part of the state, it's easy to see how at least some degree of fascination or admiration for the violence of private citizens may follow. Given the frequency of mass shootings, each shooter can't expect much more than the metaphorical fifteen minutes of fame. But they'll certainly get more media attention than they would for volunteering at a homeless shelter or donating to charity.

Rolling Stone's cover featuring Tsarnaev
(Taken from The New Yorker)
In a society with such an untenable double standard in regards to violence, it's not surprising that the media ends up glorifying mass murderers, perhaps without even realizing they're doing so. Take Rolling Stone's controversial cover with Dzokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two Boston Marathon bombers. The subtitle refers to him as a monster, but a person who hadn't followed the news closely could, upon a brief glance, be forgiven for thinking he was some up-and-coming star. By helping to set off a bomb, Tsarnaev earned the right to appear on the same magazine cover that innumerable celebrities, and even the current president, have been featured on. Is there not some degree of glamour to that?

It's understandable that, as a sort of morbid curiosity, people want to understand the thinking and the personal history of killers and other criminals. But there's a difference between investigating those facts and lavishing attention onto the killer, transforming them into some sort of celebrity. Perhaps the line between "good attention" and "bad attention" could be a bit clearer to society if only it had a more consistent stance on violence. As it is, it's hard to see how people who cheer for war and capital punishment can be taken seriously when they turn around and warn about the pernicious effects of violence in the media. Nor is it surprising when the same media that deliberately glorifies "approved" forms of violence ends up doing the same even with the kinds we supposedly shun.

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