I guess it’s somewhat comforting that Congressman Paul Gosar was censured for posting an animated cartoon online showing a character attempting to kill Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and swinging two swords at President Biden. I mean, that’s one small victory for civility, anyway, although it rings just a bit hollow when his fellow Republicans (with two exceptions) refused to condemn the cartoon, and when minority leader McCarthy warned that his party will exact revenge when they gain the upper hand (likely in next year’s elections). Gosar claimed that the cartoon wasn’t meant to threaten, wasn’t even meant to suggest anything violent. No, of course not. Just our imaginations. That’s why he retweeted the cartoon immediately after the censure.
Meanwhile, in a stunning development, the jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges. I hadn’t watched the broadcast of the proceedings, but I read updates describing Rittenhouse’s supposed meltdown on the stand, and his protestations that he did nothing wrong. Also read that the trial judge was given to theatrics, seemed to favor the defense, and refused to let the men Rittenhouse killed be called “victims.” My understanding all along had been that Rittenhouse, underage at the time, illegally carried an AR-15 across state lines and appointed himself a vigilante during the demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin last summer that did include incidents of setting fires and looting. The circumstances of the shootings have been hotly debated, but the bottom line is that Rittenhouse had no business carrying a rifle into a chaotic, confrontational situation. He had no authority, and his initial story about being on scene in the capacity of a medic was patently, provably false. In any case, the upshot is that two unarmed men are dead at his hands. When asked why he chose the AR-15, he said it “looked cool.” Nevertheless, despite his unforgivable actions, he’s a free man now.
As if these events aren’t disturbing enough, the trial is proceeding for the three Atlanta men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old. The men say they “thought he might” be responsible for a string of break-ins in the neighborhood, so they grabbed their guns, jumped in a truck, and pursued him to make a citizen’s arrest. They chased Arbery down, one man brandished his shotgun at close range, and when Arbery tried to take it away, the man shot and killed Arbery. The men had no proof that Arbery had done anything, no concrete reason to pursue and accost him, but they believed they had the right to do so, and acted accordingly. All three men are claiming they’re not guilty because they acted in self-defense. My prediction is that they, too, will be acquitted.
But there’s more. About three weeks ago, conservative activist and radio show host Charlie Kirk led a right-wing rally in Boise. During the event, a member of the audience got up to ask, “When do we get to use the guns?” in reference to the Dems’ “theft” of the 2020 Presidential election. The man was adamant that he was completely serious as he asked how many elections “they” have to see stolen before they can “kill these people.” Kirk denounced the remark, but only for the reason that he thinks such talk is poor strategy, because it gives “these people” (Dems/liberals) grounds to go after conservatives and take away their freedoms.
The tragedy at the Astroworld Festival in Houston two weeks ago, which left nine dead and scores injured, is yet another paean to violence. Rapper Travis Scott is known for whipping his audicnces into frenzies wherever he appears, and has actually been brought up on charges for his outrageous conduct. At his last appearance in Houston, there was a near-riot. But city officials saw dollar signs, and booked the concert, anyway. Attendees had destroyed a VIP entrance during the afternoon before the concert, and the crowd had begun to become unruly several hours before Scott was due to appear. Before he’d been onstage 20 minutes, safety forces had declared a mass casualty event. Scott waved away members of his entourage who approached him to try to get him to stop his performance. At one point, he remarked over the microphone that he could see an ambulance in the crowd. Shortly thereafter, he shouted that he wanted to “feel the ground shake,” and he wanted to see some “raging.” People were crushed and stomped on. Only after eight people were dead and the medical tents were overflowing (a 9-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital and eventually died) was the concert finally stopped. What kind of a psychopath sees an ambulance and then calls for raging?
And of course, the January 6th invasion of the U.S. Capitol was just a tourist gathering attended by patriots.
This whole roster of violence and death, which encompasses just a few of the events of the last 15 months, comes in the wake of TFG’s relentless campaign to assert that he won last year’s election. And that campaign follows five years, first during the 2016 race and then during his presidency, of exhortations to commit violence in one form or another, in one scenario or another. From praising and endorsing a Montana Congressional candidate who body-slammed a reporter, to telling the extremist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” to urging his followers to “knock the crap out of” protesters, TFG was a walking instigator. And his party has embraced his mindset, to the point at which almost one-third of Republicans believe that violence is the answer to “saving” the country.
Guns.com says that, as of about a year ago, there were 434 million guns in this country, of which 20 million were AR-15s. Such numbers are mind boggling. How many gun owners have training in how to use their weapons? How many store their guns safely? How many consider it perfectly acceptable to assume vigilante roles, especially if their targets are people of color and/or politically different? How did we get here?
As anyone of a certain age can testify, shoot-’em-up cowboy shows were nightly offerings in the ’50s and ’60s. Then came the cop shows, a small segment of which prevails to this day. But I don’t buy the excuse that TV violence produces violent adults; when I was growing up, we knew that TV was pretend, that we weren’t to act in real life the way we saw people on the screen act. Violence wasn’t widespread in our everyday existences; it would have been utterly unheard-of for any public person to promote physical confrontation, and anyone doing so would have been banished from any possibility of an elected role. Yet here we are, more than half a century later, and we’re numb to the mayhem that is reported endlessly. We’ve reached a bizarre place in which such news stories barely even register. Yes, TFG was a poster boy for inciting turmoil and havoc, accompanied by all manner of harm to people, but how did he get such traction? How was he able to normalize slugfests and shootings?
There’s no pat answer to these questions. The extreme individualism that began in the 1980s is surely part of it. There’s a through-line from the idea that each person is more important than the collective whole, that there is no end to “freedom,” to the concept of going to any lengths to assert such freedom. Inevitably, violence is one result.
The level of fear generated by the media, mostly of the right-wing persuasion, is another factor. Fear that, “they’ll take away your guns,” fear that, “the immigrants will take your jobs,” fear that, “they’ll stop you from practicing your religion,” fear that, “the Covid vaccine contains microchips to track you.” People go around in a state of near-panic, and again, violence becomes the answer, because self-defense is the default mode. Enemies are lurking behind every bush, and “the other” are pouring into the country at alarming rates.
Perhaps the prevalence of extreme video games figures in, as well, especially when parents let computers be their nannies. Such games, especially in the virtual reality forms, seem to be more intimate than TV shows, and if parents don’t closely monitor what their children are watching, and diligently reinforce the difference between virtual worlds and the real one, it’s likely that children could become desensitized to scenes of characters being zapped, impaled, and otherwise killed.
Add to this noxious mix the militarization of the police, and violence is ratcheted up yet further. When people are given guns, badges, surplus military equipment, and, for all intents and purposes, lack of any threat of prosecution or accountability, is it any wonder police shootings are becoming more common all the time? The almost unchecked rise of militias has paralleled this militarization of law enforcement. I’m not asserting a connection, but both trends are bad news to ordinary citizens.
Swathes of major cities have been more or less ceded to gangs, becoming centers of violence. Money and drugs are the fuel there, and it seems as if there’s no way to take the cities back.
I have no answers. I do think, however, that the forces that are actually in charge of the country — namely, the corporations and their minions, plus the military — are quite satisfied to sit back in their enclaves and let the rest of us fight it out. As long as there remains a critical mass of consumers and enough bodies in the workforce, it’s fine with the powers that be that there are brawls in stadium parking lots, murders in alleys, and stand-your-ground “patriots” defending themselves against black people jogging down the sidewalks. We have to be smarter than this. Otherwise, we’ll all up living a Mad Max movie.