America Loves Violence but Cannot Deal With the Consequences, Essay Example
This essay will examine the question of why violence continues to be something that Americans seem to love, yet struggle to understand properly, particularly in terms of its consequences, and attempt to evaluate the truth of this assertion. Violence, especially firearms violence, permeates American life and culture like no other in the west. The right to bear arms, enshrined in the Constitution, continues to polarise opinion, with gun control a contentious issue. The use of firearms tends to find justifications in the USA which people in the UK, for example, would struggle to see as logical. Firearms violence occurs in almost all Hollywood films, and on countless television programmes. There is a large level of tolerance for its portrayal in many different forms in a variety of media. Yet it is an issue which Americans seem to struggle to comprehend, failing to fully appreciate the consequences of such lethal violence for both perpetrator and victim. Often seen as an ‘easy solution’ to problems, gun violence is actually a messy, dirty and horrible process. This paper will look to find evidence to back up the assertion given in the title, that Americans love yet fail to fully understand violence, by focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s essay, ‘The Power of Context: Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime’, and other sources.
Gladwell’s essay centres on the shooting of four African American youths by a subway passenger, Bernhard Goetz. The youths were reported as being rowdy in their behavior before they confronted Goetz and asked for five dollars. Goetz shot each of them. At the scene, Goetz asserted that he did not know why he had done it, and then left the train. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder, and on the news of his acquittal, according to Gladwell, “there was a raucous, impromptu street party.” (Gladwell, 2000, p. 134) Gladwell then details the shoddy and shocking state of the New York subway at that time, with its graffiti covered cars, lack of basic maintenance and all-round atmosphere of violent decay. It takes as its theme, the Power of Context, and how the context which frames events often changes their relative meaning. He goes on to detail how crime rates in New York City fell dramatically in the 1990s. What is interesting about the initial reaction to the shooting is that at least one by-stander, a woman, seemed to assume that Goetz was on a killing spree. The shooter’s friendly questions about their welfare had little effect on how they felt. This is interesting because it puts the attitude of many who have never witnessed gun violence first hand into microcosm. The reaction to the use of deadly force is one of pure fear, she lies on the floor, wanting “Goetz to think she was dead” (Gladwell, 2000, p. 133); there is no immediate rationalisation of what is happening as being ‘just’. The context for her was all about another madmen going on a rampage, rather than an avenging angel. While this incident forms the focus for the essay, Gladwell uses it to put the wider issue of crime in the USA, and New York City in particular. He looks at how incidents such as that involving Goetz and the four youths began to seem strange and alien.
As Gladwell details, it was not a violent and armed reaction to the state of the New York subway system which gained results in terms of reducing crime rates, it was an approach which focused on small details. By cleaning tram cars and cracking down on fare dodging, crime was seriously reduced. This was not the result of armed police chasing suspects or of cities going into lockdown, as happened recently in Boston, but was the result of seemingly insignificant issues being addressed with care and skill. The rebuilding of the subway system into something which looked efficient, clean and intolerant of low level crime clearly played a major role in the reduction of crime. This would seem to be counterintuitive to many Americans, with the media continually helping to promulgate a narrative that only harsh and tough measures, like those taken by Goetz and his gun, can control crime. Perhaps this is a hangover from the days of the frontier, when violence was often the only means open to relatively powerless individuals to right wrongs. Crime also declined to due to other factors, and was on the decline in the United States generally during this era. As Blumstein (Blumstein, 2000, pp. 29-30) has detailed in Chapter Two of ‘The Crime Drop in America’, by 1998, the homicide rate in the USA had dropped to 6.3 per 100,000 of the population, its lowest rate since 1967. The robbery rate of 165.2 per 100,000 of the population was also lower than at any stage since 1969.
So why does the reliance on violence as a potential solution for almost all crime problems continue to persist in the United States today? Clearly, Gladeview’s points about the Power of Context are worth looking at. Early context in America was formed by the experience of the frontier. Here, a myth about self-reliance grew from an early context of struggle in the dirt. While most pioneers lived lives of hard graft in unappealing circumstances, a minority turned to violence to solve their problems. It was these individuals who were lionised and mythologized by their communities, and they were often very violent people. The idea of the violent yet noble outlaw also became common. As Hobsbawm (1969) stated in his seminal work ‘Bandits’, “Banditry is freedom, but in a peasant society few can be free.” (Hobsbawm, 1969, p. 34) Americans on the frontier told themselves that they were free, even though the context of their lives palpably demonstrated that they were not; certainly not in economic terms anyway. The enduring appeal of the stories of the men of violence was that they had taken control of their lives and could shape them as they saw fit. In many ways, Goetz was a symptom of this context. Certainly, the reaction of many people to Goetz’s shooting was one of celebration, evidence of the special place that individual retributive violence conducted with firearms has in the USA. Firearm use continued to rise, even as the rate of crime more generally fell. “There is widespread recognition of the role of weaponry in young people’s hands,” Blumstein and Wallman (1992) noted, “over the last 15 years, the weapons involved in settling juvenile’s disputes have changed dramatically, from fists and knives to handguns – and more recently to semiautomatic pistols with their much greater lethality.” (Blumstein and Wallman, 1992, p.30)
Americans seem to struggle to understand the Power of Context in relation to violence. There is a tendency to lionise and make heroes of men of violence, from the days of the earliest frontier, to the days of the James gang and their 19th century gunmen peers, and onward through the Prohibition and organised crime eras of the 20th century. Men like the Untouchables, who took on Al Capone, are seen as real men who can sort things out. In actual fact, it is usually the acts of men such as William Bratton taking the time to check subway tokens that issues are resolved. The context of American lives is determined by a tendentious news media which squawks about terrorism and other violent crime almost constantly. Against this context, it should not surprise us that many Americans adopt unrealistic and dangerously positive notions about the use of lethal violence. The Power of Context is key here. Just like the decaying subway car where Goetz shot his assailants, there is a context in America that violence solves problems. Even on the stage of foreign policy, America contextualises foreign nations by using the potential justification that there is for invading. The subtle exponents of diplomacy and other kinds of consensus policies are often dismissed as soft, by a media which wants its heroes to be more like Bernhard Goetz. As Galdwell states, “The tabloids dubbed Goetz the “Subway Vigilante” and the ‘Death Wish Shooter.’ On radio call in shows and in the streets he was treated as a hero.” (Gladwell, 2000, p. 134)
The context of most Americans’ lives also betrays a basic misunderstanding of how lethal violence really operates. As an Office of Juvenile Justice Report entitled ‘Reduce Youth Involvement With Guns, Drugs, and Gangs’ stated, “Young people seldom understand the full impact of their behavior. This lack of awareness of consequences coupled with a tendency to respond with violence can be a lethal combination.” (OJJPD report, Section 3, 1993) There is also the high levels of violence which take place behind closed doors in a family context to consider. “Brothers and sisters beat, stab and shoot each other…” as Strauus, Gelles and Steinmetz state, “and even grandparents are battered by their own children.” (Strauus, Gelles and Steinmetz, 2000, p.4) This all combines to create a powerful context for many Americans where violence is normalised in certain situations, and becomes acceptable. As Richardson and Scott state: “Evidence of America’s preoccupation with violent activity is pervasive and can be found, for example, in virtually all of the entertainment industry.” (Richardson and Scott, 2002, p. 175)
When this attitude is transferred to the wider society, and combined with a general lack of awareness of the consequences of lethal violence, tragedies occur. The acceptance of the use of force to solve issues of crime also fails to acknowledge the complexity of what crime actually is. As Gladwell himself states, “Crime, on the other hand, isn’t a single discrete tiling, but a word used to describe an almost impossibly varied and complicated set of behaviors.” (Gladwell, 2000, p. 138) So a simplistic worldview coupled with a lack of awareness of the actual damage that guns can cause has led to the current situation, where violence is favored as a solution but is barely understood.
In conclusion, therefore, it can be seen that the overall context of American life has created a situation where there is a basic disconnect between the reality of firearms violence and how it is perceived generally. While the use of guns seems to dominate the US media and political debates, in actual fact, few Americans have any experience of gun violence. As Aaron Blake, of the Washington Post, states (Blake, 2013), “Couple the fact that gun violence won’t touch most Americans with the fact that millions of Americans who own guns believe they would see an immediate and personal impact if gun control measures pass (i.e. not being able to buy certain guns or ammunition magazines), and you begin to understand why we stand where we stand on guns.” Unable to distance themselves from this context, change will not come until another ‘tipping point’ is reached. Taking America to that tipping point will require imaginative and bold decision making though, as exemplified in the past by the likes of William Britton. The assertion in the title of this paper, that Americans struggle to understand violence properly, especially its consequences, can therefore be regarded as true.
Blumstein, Alfred and Wallman, Joel, The Crime Drop in America, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point, Little, Brown and Co, 2000
Hobsbawm, Eric, Bandits, Abacus History, 1969
Richardson, Jeanita W. and Scott, Kim A., ‘Rap Music and Its Violent Progeny: America’s
Culture of Violence in Context’, published in The Journal of Negro Education Vol. 71, No. 3, Juvenile Justice: Children of Color in the United States, 2002
Strauss, Murray A., Gelles, Richard J. and Steinmetz, Suzanne K., Behind Closed Doors : Violence in the American Family, Transaction, 1980.
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report, retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/action/sec3.htm, 04/24 /2013
Blake, Aaron, ‘Putting Gun Violence in Context’, The Washington Post, 02/15/2013, retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/02/15/putting-gun-violence-in-context-in-1-amazing-chart/
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