Had I seen the image of Barack Obama, weeping over American gun deaths, seven years ago, I know I would have been deeply moved. It would have reinforced my view of him then as an empathetic, bright, and progressive politician. And I did then, and do now, find America’s violence – all of it, not just the small fraction of it seen in street killings – an appalling assault on the human spirit.
But the image comes seven years later, following a period of Obama’s proving himself an utterly cold and dry-eyed killer. Actually, apart from seven years packed with regular killing and support of others doing killing in at least half a dozen lands, he is reliably reported to have once said at a high-level meeting, without tears or the least change in demeanour, “I’m pretty good at killing.”
I don’t know whether the recent tears were artificially induced, as by an irritant placed on a fingertip to be touched to his face at the right moment of his performance, or squeezed out from heretofore unknown political acting talent. Perhaps they just reflect a kind of strangely compartmentalised brain.
This last possibility would make him more bizarre than I had come to regard him. I had come pretty much to accept him as just one more of the garden-variety psychopaths who have held the American presidency for decades. There were even rumours, stemming from gaps in his resume, that he was CIA, an organisation that employs a lot of psychopaths and has now deeply penetrated America’s elected government, having itself produced several presidents – George Bush père for sure – and other high office holders. The practice is equivalent to the Mafia’s having a “made man” on the bench of a high court.
After seven years of mass murder, dirty tricks destroying countless lives and destabilising many peaceful lands, thousands of extrajudicial killings conducted by young thugs from basement computer-games rooms at CIA, and unblinking acceptance of such brutal savageries as we have seen from Israel or Saudi Arabia or Turkey, his tears truly mean nothing, except perhaps somewhere in the back of his own dark and terrible mind.
Only a few days before my writing this, I read of Israel spraying a huge swath of land inside the boundary of Gaza with a deadly herbicide. So these miserable people – these people who cannot even import cement to repair Israel’s savage destruction of homes and schools and public sanitation in 2014 – are now also to live with reduced arable land plus the virtual certainty of heavy future birth defects, much as the Vietnamese still experience from America’s hellish saturation of their land with Agent Orange about half a century ago.
That Nazi-like behaviour solicited no teary scenes from Obama, just as Israel’s slaughter of more than 500 children and 1,700 adults in 2014 solicited not a tear from Obama, not so much as an awkward throat-clearing.
I don’t know what caused him to cry in his little performance about guns in America, but if you tell me it was because a decent human was overwhelmed momentarily by America’s hideously murderous society, I will not even bother to answer.
As remarkably few in other lands appear to grasp, America is a massively brutal society. This is true both at home and abroad, and I should know because I grew up there. I also know it will not change within the lifetimes of any readers, the overwhelming size and nature of the situation being beyond what many outside observers can imagine.
Certainly the insipid measures Obama has taken will not make a dint in the toll. Strangers to American society simply cannot imagine how many guns are floating around there. A recent Small Arms Survey estimated 270 million small arms, but there are a remarkable number of military-grade weapons in private hands as a result of exposure to a vast armed services with its galaxy of local military bases, major national guard organisations and facilities in every state, and the past heavy arming of police and numerous agencies such as the TSA. The kind of police who beat up drug suspects and take their money are also the kind of police who illicitly trade in guns, and America has large numbers of them among its rag-tag collection of a million or so.
America swims in guns, and there is a vast market just in private sales and stolen guns. There will always be a market under such conditions no matter what regulations Washington may impose. And increasingly, the individual states have permitted what was in my day in Chicago a serious felony, the concealed carrying of guns. Some also allow citizens to carry them openly in holsters.
Remember, there is not just the matter of thousands of murders and countless maimings each year. There is, as was revealed by The Guardian for the first time ever, 1,134 people killed by their own police in 2015. It all charges the atmosphere of the United States with a kind of regular, low-grade terror. And America’s prisons have an international reputation for brutality. They include such barbaric innovations as super-max prisons (in which prisoners live out entire lives in total isolation), private profit-motivated prisons, and a prison population whose total size dwarfs that of all other advanced countries.
I read in British newspapers, discussing Obama’s efforts, expressions from readers such as “it’s about time” or “those awful Republicans,” and I know they reflect views of people who just really do not understand America.
America is a country which has killed at least 6 million people over the last half century abroad, virtually all the killing to no purpose other than America’s trying to have its own way in places as distant as Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and still others. If you think violence officially sanctioned on such a scale has no effect on the country responsible for it, you are extremely naïve.
Much of the killing was savage beyond description, employing fire bombs, napalm, white phosphorus, Agent Orange, carpet bombing, and that truly hideous invention, cluster bombs.
America also remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons, twice, on civilian targets of no military significance, and this after Japan had made strong feelers for its surrender. No, for America only unconditional surrender was acceptable. And a series of 12 atomic bombs for 12 cities was scheduled. Some sensible minds questioned the lunacy, considering that Japan had been almost flattened by a ferocious campaign of fire-bombing, so that not one primary or even secondary military target was left standing.
The fact that only two atomic bombs were used had nothing to do with America’s humanity. In later years, detailed plans for massive atomic attacks on Russia and China were drawn up, the last of which so far as I am aware was in 1961, being earnestly advocated to President Kennedy by the insane men then running the Pentagon. Nuclear weapons also were seriously discussed as options during the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.
America is, far and away, the world’s largest arms dealer, literally dwarfing the trade in death machines of any other country, and it sells its arms to tyrants and madmen across the planet enabling players like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, or Egypt to hugely expand the total number of deaths for which America is responsible.
America also spends as much on its military as all the world’s militaries combined. It is an obscene amount of money dedicated to killing and oppression.
American advisors are in the business of advising kings and tyrants how they can control people and efficiently kill them if needed. America had an outfit called The Army School of the Americas which became infamous for its teaching military personnel sent from Latin America in the fine points of killing and torture. Today it’s been reborn as the bland-sounding Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
In a country like contemporary America, with its often poor employment prospects for young adults, the military is a major employer. It has an elaborate enticement system to attract young people. General military training anywhere consists of just two central matters: how to be doggedly obedient and how to kill people. So every year in America, many thousands of such young people are dumped back into the general population. Many of them then go on to become police because military service is a favourite entry qualification. Many of them remain unemployed. Some even homeless.
There are not just the regular armed forces involved in saturating the country with military values and attitudes, there are also the huge national guards and reserves and high school and college ROTCs. It is a massive effort, blanketing a supposedly democratic society with undemocratic and violent ideas. You might view it as kind of a national immunisation programme, immunisation against democratic and human values, conducted year-in, year-out. So the young generation of Americans is constantly immersed in the concepts of blind obedience and killing. And all this is further reinforced by the vast numbers of Americans dependent upon work at its many regional military bases and other facilities.
Just a portion of this avalanche of annual spending on murder might have created countless new opportunities in America with new and better schools, better medical facilities, improved housing, and intervention into troubled families. No, instead, everything is just allowed to rip, and on the streets of Chicago and other cities, week-in and week-out, the toll of young blacks resembles minor battle scenes with as many as twenty-five shot (not all killed) on a single week-end.
That brings us to yet another aspect of American violence and passion for guns. America remains in many respects just as divided a society on racial lines as it was a century ago. The unspoken reason for many Americans keeping guns is the same one that caused Southern plantation owners to sleep each night with a knife and a pistol under the pillow. It rarely is openly discussed, but it is there like a great unnerving presence in a thousand dark places.
There is yet one more dimension to American violence. About half a dozen years ago, a study, led by a Harvard Medical School researcher, found evidence of mental problems in 26.4 percent of people in the United States, versus, for example, 8.2 percent of people in Italy. The researchers were concerned with matters such as lack of access to treatment and under-treatment, but for those concerned about a safe and decent world, I think the salient finding is simply America’s high percentage. The world is being led by a nation where more than one-quarter of the people have genuine mental problems.
I’m afraid America’s movie industry has created sugary fantasies about America which still influence the views of many abroad. There really are no Jimmy Stewart types, with tears in the eyes and benign expressions, running America.
And in case you missed it, even in as sugary a confection as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” sobbed over by millions every Christmas season, some raw truth creeps in.
Jimmy Stewart’s run-in with Bert the cop ends with Stewart running madly away in the snow and good old Bert pulling out his pistol and firing several times, trying to hit Stewart in the back and putting at risk pedestrians up and down the charming street. That’s the truest scene in the film.
And that is America. Fine-tuning and tears are about as fitting for the state of America as they would be on the Russian Front in World War II, the most horrendous conflict in all of human history in which 27 million Soviets and millions of Germans perished. -counterpunch
*John Chuckman lives in Canada.