'Violence is as American as cherry pie." —H.R. Schiffman, author.
As we thrill to shimmering fireworks in the night skies reminiscent of "And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air," it is tempting to look at the dark side of this and ask, who are we as a society? According to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, our murder rate is four to five times greater than most other industrialized countries. The agonizing memories of Sandy Hook, Columbine, Aurora and Boston and others increasingly darken our dreams.
At the top of the violence pyramid sits our government's insistence on maintaining and "modernizing" our huge, out-of-sight-expensive nuclear weapons stockpile. In an interview with Harvard Magazine, Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard Elaine Scarry said, "It's widely acknowledged that nuclear weapons are incredibly susceptible to accidental use or to seizure by a non-state actor or terrorist. But what has been insufficiently recognized is the biggest danger of all: the belief that there is some 'legitimate' possession of these weapons, that we are safe as long as there's government oversight of them. In fact, they are utterly incompatible with governance."
She suggests that we have to choose between nuclear weapons and democracy.
As political philosopher Todd May, professor of Humanities at Clemson University puts it, "We are steeped in violence." It is at every level of our society, from rap music that denigrates women to nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, and even to the cascades of brilliant light that mimic the bombs and missiles we are capable of employing. Americans consider many forms of violence to be entertainment.
What's the deal? Why are we as a society like this?
Dr. May posits three reasons: our deep competitive individualism, both a virtue and a curse. We are wary of others and reject the social solidarity characteristic of countries like Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand, for example. He cites the decline in our ability to control world events, and takes the tragic "debacle" of Iraq as a dark example. The third reason is economic. "We no longer feel obligations to those with whom we share the country," he said.
What is the way out of this darkness? May advises us to always recognize the humanity of all others and gradually "take on the mantle of nonviolence."
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.