On December 14, 2012, twenty children and seven adults were murdered in a Newtown, Connecticut school, and a nation was stunned, a President wept before cameras. In 2010, 700 Chicago school children were shot, 66 of whom died. No national outrage occurred, and only their families and friends wept for them. It has been observed that those Chicago children were black and brown, poor and not white and upper middle class.
What I find remarkable in all the words spoken and written about this December event is the presumption that such an act was exceptional or unexpected. It was a single event, so in that limited sense it was exceptional; and the parents of Newtown apparently believed themselves–and their children– immune from violence. But in a larger sense, aren’t such events both predictable and expected?
Across the last 70 years, we have made war on communism, war on poverty, war on crime, war on cancer, war on drugs and most recently war on terror. (This says nothing of those verbal, physical and legal assaults on blacks, on women, on gays, on dissent, on music popular among the young, on art itself.) These were not and are not wars against specific nation states whose behavior threatens our lives and liberties, but ‘wars’ against circumstances. We fight wars to end conditions unacceptable to us; circumstances we change or accept until we can change them. Wars, by Constitutional mandate, we enter only by Congressional demand; circumstantial conflicts we stumble into as executive orders.
The business of America is no longer commerce but warfare.
Communism, whatever it has come to mean, was at best a belief system, at worst the excuse for national tyrannies and ethnic subjugations, murder on a mass scale . The nation states which proclaimed themselves ‘communist’ were, of course, dictatorships under different banners, but it wasn’t the dictatorships we abhorred; it was the belief system.
Poverty, to an American, is not a fixed and heritable condition, but a circumstance. And while it is surely not government’s role to mandate it or encourage it or sustain it, how does one wage war against poverty without criminalizing the poor? Twenty children are murdered, but no one seems disturbed that 17 million American children lack sufficient daily food.
Drugs may be unwanted by some, but are they unneeded by all? May what we dismiss as immoral weakness begin as anguished despair? Through the years of the ‘war’ on drugs, we have largely ignored causes, sent other nations into civil war, criminal governments and chaos, corrupted our police and courts, built and populated the largest prison complex in the industrialized world. (The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate and total prison population in the world. As of 2007, more than 2.3 million people were incarcerated, nearly one in every 100 adults. The current rate is about seven times the 1980 figure.) We have drained tax payers with their upkeep.
The distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ distribution of drugs remains a codex of laws and a white lab coat; the dealer on the corner surreptitiously exchanging cash for hits is illegal while the physician in his office dispensing drugs on a systematic scale for insurance reimbursement is legal. We ’war’ against drugs to the tune of 15 billion dollars annually (2010) while becoming a nation of pharmaceutical addicts to the tune of 259.1 billions more dollars (2010).
In September, 2001, 3000 New Yorkers were killed in an act of premeditated horror. Our response was not to seek and punish those responsible (that had to wait 10 years), but to create the largest bureaucracy in our history devoted to ‘protecting’ our lives at the cost of our liberties. Homeland Security, an alien term, was imposed to safeguard us as we were encouraged to go shopping.
Since that event, the ‘war’ on terror has cost the lives of 6,370 American service men and women with 49,132 seriously wounded veterans (December 21, 2012, DoD). The numbers of Afghanis and Iraqis killed remain unknown but estimates begin at 900,000. While some companies have profited hugely from the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the US has established military bases in both geopolitically pivotal countries, the costs will be felt and paid by the people long after both conflicts fade from the public memory. (For example, the last verified Civil War veteran died in 1956; the last American veteran of World War I died in 2011.)
Fear of ‘the other’ has moved from the X-Files to the home, from extraterrestrials to ‘commies’ to lunatic jihadists massing outside our doors and on our borders. None of this occurs in response to facts or informed public debate, but by Presidential edict with the complicity of a dysfunctional and venal Congress. Fear becomes the primal mood and overriding preoccupation of people.
And why should it not? The Patriot Act dismissed the Constitution as irrelevant to Homeland Security. The National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), Section 1021 (b) (2) explicitly endorses the military’s ’right’ to enter the home of a citizen, to search that home without a warrant, to seize that citizen, incarcerate him or her without cause, without trial, without access to any form of recognized due process, to torture that citizen as a part of his incarceration without consequence. The President may kill American citizens by assassination or drone without explanation or consequence. One case has been acknowledged of an intentional drone killing of an American behaving in a way unacceptable to government.
Violence becomes pervasive, institutional and sanctioned.
The 4th Amendment to the Constitution (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”) is now void. The 5th Amendment (“No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law…”) and the 6th Amendment (“…[T]he accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…”) are struck off in the name of expediency.
20 children were murdered in Newtown on December 14, and that is sad and wrong. 66 Chicago children were murdered in 2010, and that is outrageous and wrong. Yet we have created the circumstances, the culture, in which such acts are predictable as fear, indifference, violence, torture and killing become justified and commonplace in the name of our many ’wars’, none of which we are ‘winning’. To continue these ’wars’ we lie to ourselves about their causes, and we approve our leaders’ lying to us about their necessity and their outcomes.
Perhaps the most heartening result of the recent election was not the winners and losers but the electors. People in several states stood in line to vote. They stood because their legislatures had conspired to deprive them of their vote. They stood not to elect some particular candidate, I suspect, but to cast a vote against candidates and their lies, against the violent results and demeaning innuendos of lies. They stood sometimes for 8 ½ hours, waiting. Their votes rejected the deceits and fears, reaffirmed the primacy of the ballot box, and those stoic voters shamed, were they capable of shame, the very leaders who crowed.
When did we become spectators to our own fates instead of citizens, like those voters, engaged in defining our destinies? When did we come to believe that our behavior could only be improved by more laws? (Have we not each said, “There oughta be a law…“?)
When did we come to believe that our own good depended on violence to others?
After all the wringing speeches and fiery rhetoric have faded about these 20 deaths, will we alter our behavior? Will an increased bureaucracy flourish to monitor that behavior? Will we be told, yet again, that for our protection and safety we must abandon some other cherished–but relative– right?
When did a lie become less offensive than an insult?
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.
. . .
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
. . .
September 1, 1939