Seeking an explanation for tragic violence, we often turn to history and ask ourselves how we got to this point. Writing the historical narrative for the forces that led to the horrific elementary school massacre of 28 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook has already begun. Commentators correctly place Sandy Hook in a recent line of similar incidents (Aurora, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech…) — all testimony for America’s lack of dialogue on gun control and commitment to mental health services. The narrative holds that American culture is becoming increasingly violent.
In the last decade, children in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and Gaza have also died at the hands of America’s culture of violence. Yet, there is no national outpouring of grief and outrage in America for these children. There is a disconnect in the American psyche between what causes our own children to die and what causes other children abroad to die.
A recent study by Harvard’s School of Public Health revealed that where there are more guns, there are more incidents of homicide. Yet, there is little regulation of arms in America and token regulation of American arms in the world. Most people in America can purchase a gun without having to undergo training, meet health requirements, obtain liability insurance, or participate in a system of renewals and inspections. It is easier to own a gun license than a driver’s license. There are not adequate monitors to prevent weapons from flowing freely in American homes, cities, states, and regions. The weapons control us. We do not know when or where we will be gunned down; even our children learning their ABCs here in America are fair game.
On an international scale, America exports its culture of under-regulated violence. CIA drone attacks in Pakistan between 2004-2012 killed 176 children, just as innocent as those at Sandy Hook. The recent assault on Gaza killed 33 children with the full endorsement (and military aid) of President Obama. People around the world never know when they will be the next targets of American attacks. Children in Pakistan and Yemen hear American drones buzzing overhead on a regular basis, wondering when one will land on their school.
There is no effective system of regulation of American violence on an international scale. US arms sales disproportionately make up most of the global market where America has led the race for eight years running, while spending as much on defense as the next 17 countries combined (most of whom are American allies). And violence seems to only increase the sales and proliferation of more weapons, with US arms sales tripling to a record $66 billion in 2011. As the war on Iraq showed, not even the United Nations can hold America’s culture of violence in check. Not even America can protect itself from its massive exportation of weapons. Was there any assurance that the weapons funneled into Libya during its civil war by way of Qatar did not arm anti-American fundamentalists who would attack our embassy? Was there any assurance that US weapons given to Al-Qaeda to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan would not be used against us?
This is not just a problem of regulating a violent culture; this is also a problem of inadequate mental health support systems. While the underlying mental health issues of the Sandy Hook suspected shooters is unknown, the statistics about access to support systems is clear. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that only 7.1 percent of adults receive mental health services, and this usually does not include the poor. Simply put, it is easier for Americans to access guns than mental health services. And even in rare cases where state laws require a mental health evaluation, this does not imply treatment for ongoing conditions. Is it at all surprising that guns are becoming an increasingly preferred form of therapy by default?
When it comes to perpetuating violence globally, Americans show that we are suffering from a mental illness. The recent track record of American sponsored violence in Gaza and Pakistan evidences that we do not know how to differentiate between people who are human beings and people we presume are not. Obama justified Israel’s attack on Gaza by saying that no people in the world would tolerate missiles coming down overhead. Apparently the Pakistanis living under skies filled with drones are not fully human. America suffers from a mental illness in which it has delusions that parts of humanity are, in the terminology of Noam Chomsky, “unpeople.” How sick are we when perhaps the greatest therapist for America came recently in the form of Bradley Manning, who dared to tell the sick patient that he was sick? And how indicative of our illness that Manning faces the death penalty or life imprisonment for allegedly leaking a video of American soldiers joking while killing Iraqi civilians, including children.
Unless we rewrite our narrative of Sandy Hook to be global, the narrative itself is of a violent nature. America is in a state of cognitive dissonance, holding conflicting notions about which innocent life merits human value. At present, Americans ease their discomfort by selective compassion, or lowering the importance of one of the conflicting factors. We must reach an equilibrium to circumvent adding more children, here or abroad, to the historical timeline of massacres.