If the vices of any nation were those of America, that nation would be a pariah among us. Were it France, for example, that had over eleven thousand of its citizens murdered in 2014 by people using firearms, we might view it as one of the world’s trouble spots. Had Germany isolationist camps where factional extreme right-wing militia groups were treated with aloof detachment by the federal government, we’d wonder what kind of lunacy was being stored up for the future. If the United Kingdom had 20 school shootings this year alone, seven of which involved deaths, we’d be labelled a sick and troubled country incapable of protecting our most vulnerable.
Perceptions of America tend to be different, however, because Americans keep reminding us how blessed they are. It’s there in bumper-sticker form in the very heart of their anthem. They live in ‘the Heav’n rescued land’ as if their very existence was commissioned by God. Yet that heaven rescued land is also the spiritual home of world consumerism, so it’s not at all surprising that America projects its brand identity so well. It means the iconography of its culture is particularly strong. Sing that America is the ‘land of the free’ enough times and you might indeed convince yourself that freedom is a 26 year old gunman entering a writing class and executing nine innocents in cold blood on an October morning. Bravery, by extension, is the bravery of doing nothing about it. Only the truly brave and free can dismiss it as another reason why every American should carry a 9mm automatic firing dumdum rounds.
You don’t have to be American to be complicit in perpetuating this dreadful illusion. A diet of American film and television has helped form the bulk of contemporary culture. Simply questioning the American dream doesn’t sit well with our psychology. Merely writing that ‘guns are bad’ fits uncomfortably with the undeniable pleasure I took earlier today listening to Adam Savage talk about the design of the Blade Runner gun. American culture and gun culture, its inextricable and darker sibling, both run into deep parts of my unconscious mind. I assume I’m not alone.
As a ten year old, I loved my spud gun and I could have bored you silly explaining why James Bond preferred his Beretta but reluctantly agreed to carry the shorter-nosed Walther PPK. As an teenager, I first saw the Dirty Harry movies and enjoyed the catchphrases which only seemed memorable because Clint Eastwood whispered them over the barrel of a Magnum .44. I was of that first generation to discover computer games and learned in the virtual gun club called ‘Doom‘ when to use a shotgun and when to use a pistol. The Matrix movies introduced the world to ‘bullet time’ but it was a game called ‘Max Payne’ that taught me how fun it was to have time slow down as I shot the bad guys. I admit all this knowing that my gun fetishism is very mild whilst also acknowledging that it’s a fetishism shared by nearly all of us. Every time you feel a thrill when some action hero blows away the bad guy, you are quietly acknowledging that you too are not immune to the appeal of American gun culture.
What that should teach us is that if guns in reality are anything as compulsive as the guns of our fantasy, then they are a powerful drug. It’s no wonder that America is addicted. Asking America to give up its guns is tantamount to asking the rest of us to give up our addiction to Hollywood action movies. It wouldn’t be easy.
Viewed as an addiction, America’s problems seem as obvious as the intensity of the debate is understandable. Very few addicts give up their drug of choice without a struggle. Yet the deep often wilful stupidity of a country unwilling to recognise its addiction is deeper and far more wilful than most of us can imagine. People routinely give things up when laws change, whether that’s smoking, plastic bags, or filament light bulbs. Yet none of those things identified us as people. To Americans, however, the gun is the hand-sized expression of their very democracy. America was formed in an act of self defence and, like many victims of violence, there remains a post-traumatic disorder that manifests itself as gun ownership. Guns define America even more than the Hollywood movies, sugary drinks, hotdogs, or astronauts.
Of course, real America rarely lives up to the illusion. Americans tend to dismiss reality or force it to fit into their mythology. Every hobo becomes a hero of a Steinbeck novel. When Donald Trump questions the birth certificate of the President, people dismiss him as though he were the Hollywood cliché of the rich industrialist who dreams big but thinks little. When Presidential candidates describe their faith in creationism, they are simply being ‘Good Americans’. They might be laughable to modern urbanite America but they speak to the ‘Bible belt’ where sin, the Devil, and damnation are lived as though they’re real. In these places you can still find Pentecostal churches where sweat-stained preachers handle rattlesnakes believing it ordained by the Gospel.
This is the delusion that informs the gun debate in America, a country that can be as fundamentalist as many nations where fundamentalism is rightly considered a problem. When tragedy strikes, Americans sing their anthem loudest. When trouble stirs, they retreat into the familiar tropes of the settlers: military training manoeuvres are the prequel to marshal law; the government is poisoning the water supply; gun control is a dastardly plot by the English.
The most dangerous fundamentalism to America might well be their own fundamentalism: those patriots that believe ‘in God we trust’ and treat every word of the constitution as though it was the product of something greater than the mortal hands that wrote it. Yet as easy as it is to scorn the NRA, the politicians, and the religious extremes in America, they are not alone in suffering the same potent delusion about America. America’s lack of humility means that it shows no willingness to change or to mature into a thoughtful democracy. American pride hurts it as much as it empowers it.
It’s why America’s President stands impotently protesting his impotence. ‘We’ve become numb to this’, said Obama today, clearly incapable of saying what many of us think. Because to say that America is sick and needs remedial help is to descry the very thing he’s supposed to symbolise. It would be ‘unpatriotic’ for even a good man with noble intentions to question the values written into the Constitution even if some of those values are archaic and harmful. It’s that very notion of the ‘great nation’ that prevents America from becoming a great nation.
David Waywell writes and draws The Spine blog.