Why are we so violent?

Is it because of pop culture, mass media? Turn on any major network television station during primetime hours and after the reality TV garbage there’s violence on nearly every channel. Cop shows, hospital shows, ESPs chasing down criminals before they act violently – all primetime fodder for our society. This is not an opinion, this is a fact. Turn on FX and watch American Horror Story, a program I confess to watching but a program that is perhaps the single most violent, gruesome, gory program I’ve ever seen on TV. The Walking Dead, a program where well-armed survivors roam a world dominated by flesh eating zombies, blasting through the zombies with everything from arrows, machetes, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, and what seems like a never ending supply of ammunition. The special effects are amazing: The shotgun slugs blast through weak and tender zombie skeleton like a baseball to a watermelon.

Or wait, is America violent because it’s part of who we are, it’s our history, our heritage? We have a right to bear arms don’t we? Don’t we have the right to take up arms against our government if we, The People, decide that’s what needs to happen? It’s revolution baby! Well-formed militias are our constitutional right. Our entire history is story after story of violence. Be it the explorers who landed on these shores, the colonists who ultimately took up arms and violently rebelled, or the north and the south waging horrific violence there’s a long heritage of firearms and violence in America. Today we use remote control airplanes to bomb anyone who is a threat to our national interests, with extreme precision, or so they tell us, and we turn a mostly blind eye to their collateral damage.

And we love it. We love the violence. We pay to watch it. But forget about television shows and movies, we love stories of World War II atrocities followed up America’s heroics, as we marched, as we drove, as we shot our way through Europe, freeing and liberating the poor people who couldn’t have done it without us. We convince ourselves that America’s heroics are solely responsible for the defeat of the Axis Powers and that Russia and the Eastern Front wasn’t a major factor. America, the heros, the honorable. And we love stories in the news of mobsters who live by their code, of gangsters who remain loyal, who because of omerta must uphold their way of life. We excuse violence if it’s honorable, or so we tell ourselves.

Or are we violent because we’re becoming, as data suggests, a more godless society?

Is it because we’re becoming, as some will inquire, void of family values? (How does one quantify this? Violence is not a direct corollary.)

Have we lost our way so much that the kind of violence we witnessed in Connecticut is, tragically, to be expected? Are we becoming even more desensitized?

Fact: Violent crime is down in America, pretty sharply too.

I was in Paris a couple weeks ago when I heard the news that New York City passed a day without a single report of a person being shot, stabbed or subject to other sorts of violent crime for the first time in recent memory. The irony being that I was an American in France, a very non-violent society.

Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, made this graph of “deaths due to assault” in the United States and other developed countries. While we are the clear outlier violence has dropped to its lowest point since what looks like roughly 1963.

As Healy writes,

America the ViolentThe most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other OECD countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico, not shown here), and (2) the degree of change—and recently, decline—there has been in the U.S. time series considered by itself.

Healy tweeted an interesting thought last night,

Assault Death Rates is one of the few topics where many Americans will rush to compare the USA to South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, or El Salvador.

Meanwhile 2nd Amendment advocates are stocking up on guns and ammunition in the wake of the election fearing an Obama administration crackdown. Some worry if they don’t do it now they won’t be able to get the weapons they want, or rather, they need. Their basis for this is almost nonexistent, especially given that the first four years of Obama’s presidency saw him signing legislation that allowed loaded firearms in some national parks and Amtrak trains. With that one exception both parties, both candidates, but especially democrats, have been largely mum on gun rights, barely touching it during the debates and gun control was the most unpopular issue during the campaign. But if gun rights advocates have mostly baselessly feared Obama over the last 4 years, the recent shootings will certainly change that. Not since George W. Bush let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004 has there been any serious public policy discussion on gun control.

Fact: gun stocks are sharply up

Fact: gun ownership is up

Fact: violent crime is down

This issue is already very complicated, and it stokes the passions of everyone. The roots of our society’s violent tendencies, people often argue, span a broad range of issues often starting with mental illness, a lack of social services, to a national identification system, to nuanced legislation on what kinds of guns people can buy, to family values, to a morally vapid America that’s increasing consumed with itself, with social media, with its own narcissism and self-importance, to an increasingly godless culture where fewer and fewer people go to their church, their synagogue, or their mosques. The public dialogue also includes opinions about immigration, about drug policy, about prisons overflowing with non-violent criminals while violent repeat offenders are parolled and allowed to walk the streets, yet pot dealers do twenty years hard time. The discussion includes zero-sum solutions ranging from arming everyone to arming no one.

One day after the senseless tragedy in Newtown Connecticut the conversation is already heating up, and one thing is certain, America is about to have the most intense and prolonged discussion on gun control that she’s ever seen.

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