There are probably a server farm’s worth of bytes floating around out there now about the incident in Hollywood a week ago (for reference, see any news or gossip outlet). The bottom-line fact of the matter is that a famous, wealthy man perpetrated violence on another man as the whole world looked on, and thus far, has pretty much gotten a pass, for all practical purposes. That is, the backers of all of the various projects this man currently has on the books are waiting for the verdict of the opinion polls before they decide whether to pull their support. The irony in all this is that the perpetrator works for and benefits from an industry that not only graphically portrays violence, but celebrates and glorifies it.
Meanwhile, out here in the hinterlands, violence continues apace. In several upscale Cleveland suburbs, there have been drive-by “splat” gun shootings of random pedestrians lately, with no injuries yet, fortunately. The shooters are kids from upper middle class families, bored and acting out because they can. They have access to vehicles, they have money to spend on the guns. And they think it’s fun. Reports have come in from all over the country about similar incidents, sometimes involving paintball guns and BB guns; apparently, it’s a thing on social media. It’s the privileged version of the gang violence that plagues inner cities, except the spoiled ’burb kids don’t have any kind of rationale for what they’re doing.
Earlier this year, there was a series of reports nationwide about the increase in carjacking incidents, many of them being carried out by teenagers, some of them no older than 14, usually brandishing guns. The purpose generally appears to be nothing other than joyriding. Because they can.
What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here? In terms of public behavior, it wasn’t that long ago that a potential Democratic Presidential nominee tanked his career by “screaming” during a rally. As it turned out, that scream wasn’t at all what it was made out to be. But the explanation came after the fact, and changed nothing; the nationwide shock emanating from an instant captured on video was enough. Fast-forward 18 years, and smacking and F-bombing on live TV are still surprising, but ultimately, won’t equate to career suicide. The downward spiral has reached warp speed, seemingly inexplicably.
My take is that the factors behind this pivot to normalizing violence are threefold: it’s an extrapolation of the “me” mindset that took hold in the ’80s; violence is no longer automatically seen as bad; and leaders of this country espouse mayhem in all forms.
First, the miasma of narcissism that seems to have overtaken so much of the population. It stands to reason that if I, me, mine are supremely important, it doesn’t matter how I get what I want. If I want to be two lanes over on the expressway, and there isn’t a clear opening to merge, well, I can just shove my way in, cutting other people off, because, hey, I want to be over there. If the other drivers won’t give way, that’s their fault. Or if I show up at 6 AM on Black Friday to grab one of the hot toys for my kid, and somebody else is holding the last one in the store, I’m justified in snatching the toy and/or bashing the other customer. Same reasoning applies to a convenience store hold-up: the clerk was holding onto the cash I wanted, so, BOOM! Problem solved. Because, why should I not get the money if I want it? Or, why shouldn’t I pull out my handy AR-15 and slaughter classmates/mall shoppers/church goers/party attendees if I think I have some grudge against them?
The second factor requires reams of analysis, but the short version is that vigilantes have been elevated to mythic status among large segments of our citizenry. Militias with “righteous” causes have proliferated everywhere. Watch a couple hours of primetime TV, and you see that it’s cool to “get” those who wrong you, legal processes be damned. Back in the day, good guys had badges and only pulled their guns when absolutely necessary. Now, war-zone-type shoot-outs on city streets are shown as common fare. We don’t even think about the real-life toll and the carnage that would be the results. Nope, we’re not horrified, we’re cool with it, because that’s how things work anymore.
Then there are the people in charge of the country. TFG is the most notable culprit, of course. He bragged about grabbing women and about being able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. He led, “Lock her up!” chants, and urged supporters to punch people who dissed him, promising to pay their legal fees. And, of course, there was 1/6/21, the culmination of over two months of inciting mob action.
But TFG was certainly not the first to advocate brutality, even in our modern era. There was John McCain with his singsong, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran!” Obama played “get tough” with hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and bragged about it: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.” Such heartlessness beggars description. The drone program wasn’t headline news, but it wasn’t hidden, either. And of course, there was the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal, Bush II with his daddy complex that had to be resolved at the cost of Shock and Awe, preceding the full-scale invasion of a nation which posed no threat to the U.S. We saw a city being pounded in an air attack, nonchalantly reported by TV anchors as if they were watching fireworks. Of course, Cheney and Rummy had their own agendas, but the point is that untold destruction was wreaked upon Iraq, with thousands of civilians killed, for no reason. Apocalyptic violence, which today usually warrants a, “So, what?” response from a public that has become comfortably numb to it.
The other night, I was heading out of a store just before closing time, and a 20-something guy came rushing in toward me. For just a split second, I pulled up short, because what if…? After all, there was a shooting a few years ago at the Cracker Barrel right around the corner. But then the guy hurried on into the store, and I relaxed and told myself I was being paranoid. At least, I’d like to think I was.