First published on ZNet on July 26, 2012.
“The Greatest Country on Earth”
With news of the latest mass civilian gun killing in the United States – 12 dead and 70 wounded (the casualty count would likely have been higher if the gunman’s automatic rifle hadn’t jammed) at an early showing of the latest Batman movie “Dark Knight” in Aurora, Colorado – the dominant corporate media’s reporters, pundits, and talking heads ask their standard and tired question: WY? Why did this occur? Why did the killer do it? What’s it all about? How could this happen here, of all places?
Barack Obama travels to the stricken locale to voice the usual big brotherly (post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech, and now post-Aurora) pabulum, with an audacious dose of nationalist self-congratulation thrown in at the end for good measure:
“To the entire community of Aurora, the country is thinking of you…God bless you. God bless all who helped to respond to this tragedy. And I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country, but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth (emphasis added).”
The president’s comments on Aurora have been praised by pundits for their “apolitical” tone. Translation: Obama (who claimed to support a federal ban on assault weapons in 2008) honored the breathtaking political influence of the gun lobby by staying away from the contentious issue of gun control and saying nothing about the dreadful impact that ever more sophisticated and deadly firearms have on American life. As Rob Waters noted recently on the Web site of Forbes magazine:
“You have to hand it to [the National Rife Association] though, for their effectiveness—the group has succeeded in blocking virtually any effort to tighten gun control laws and in cowing politicians with national aspirations so they’re afraid to talk about gun control. Such timidity led to the expiration of a federal ban on assault weapons in 2004 after it was in effect for ten years. Several attempts to renew have been made and they’ve never even gotten to the floor of the House for a vote.”
“Good Morning, Shooters!”
A key assumption behind the ritual media question and the ritual presidential statement is that the most recent American episode of heavily armed mass-homicidal violence is somehow mysterious. How can we remotely begin to understand and avert at least “some” of the bloody madness and mayhem in “the greatest country on Earth?”
Please. The violence may be senseless and evil, but there’s nothing mysterious about it. Let’s be honest: America produces psycho gun-killers with impressive predictability. It’s amazing there aren’t more episodes like the Aurora slaughter. This is a savagely unequal society that worships socio-pathological wealth, violence and celebrity while regularly pushing millions into despair, rage, powerlessness, and humiliation. It lacks a coherent and substantive mental health policy but provides remarkable access to astonishing means of destruction. A purportedly bright but shy former graduate student who used to spend hours staring at the ceiling above his bed and who told the police that he was “The Joker” (the fictional villain in earlier Batman films and comics), the Aurora killer James Holmes managed to easily obtain two Glock automatic handguns, a shotgun, and a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle along with an arsenal of small explosives material and 6,000 rounds of ammunition.
According to a recent Associated Press report: “A Maine man was arrested when he told authorities that he was on his way to shoot a former employer a day after watching ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ ….Timothy Courtois of Biddeford, Maine, had been stopped for speeding, and a police search of his car found an AK-47 assault weapon, four handguns, ammunition and news clippings about the mass shooting that left 12 people dead….”
The weapons that Holmes and Courtois were able to obtain are capable of shooting off 50 to 60 rounds a minute. What possible serious self-defense (or other) justification is there for people to be able to possess that kind of firepower? For letting homicidal lunatics rack up body counts on the scale that such exterminist technology allows?
The super-opulent mega lobbying and policy group The National Rifle Association (NRA) owns the Congress and the nation’s political discourse around gun violence. It says that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
A Tweet sent out by the NRA to 6,000 of its followers members on the same morning as Holmes’ rampage read as follows: “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”
NRA members will of course tell you that if a dangerous psychotic like James Holmes wants to kill, he will find a way to do it. “That may be true,” Waters notes, “but the AR-15 Holmes was using enabled him to kill with almost unparalleled efficiency and speed (until it jammed).” Perhaps one day a crazed survivor of mass gun violence will makes their way into an NRA convention with an assault rifle or two and mow down hundreds of the gun lobby’s members after posting a Facebook note saying, “so tell me: could I really have done that with a knife or with a standard non-automatic pistol or rifle?”
Reminding us that “access to guns turns violence deadly and boosts the chances of lethal accidents,” Waters provides some chilling statistics gathered by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
• From 2000 through 2009, more than 298,000 people died from gunshots in the U.S., nearly 30,000 per year. “If you exclude natural causes of death and consider only deaths caused by injury, it is the second-leading cause of death over that time span; only car accidents (417,000) killed more people.”
•Two-thirds of the 179,000 homicides committed during the 2000s involved the use of a firearm.
• “If a gun is used during a domestic violence assault, there’s a 23-fold increased likelihood that the victim will die. Women who are victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm.”
• “Having a gun facilitates suicide… In the first week after the purchase of a handgun, the suicide rate among firearm purchasers was 57 times as high as the adjusted rate in the general population.”
• U.S. gun ownership is climbing. Americans purchased 10.8 million firearms in 2011, up 14 percent increase from 2010, a record-breaking year for gun makers and dealers.
“Beacon to the World of the Way Life Should Be” More Violent Than Other Wealthy Nations
Those are just a few interesting facts from the shining “city on a hill” that U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) called 10 years ago “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.” There’s more. Of the 34 officially “developed” nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the countries with the five highest homicide rates are, in order: Mexico, Chile, Estonia, the United States (fourth highest), and Turkey. The very wealthy U.S. ranks among the top five for homicide, along with some of the OECD’s poorest nations. As the United Nations statistician and health economist Howard Steven Friedman notes, the U.S. is “a major outlier in the general observation that wealthier countries tend to have lower homicide rates.” And why does the planet’s guiding light of right living have a much higher homicide rate than other wealthy nations? By Friedman’s calculation:
“There are a multitude of explanations, from economic disparities, to inequalities in education and careers opportunities, to America’s history of violence and racial issues. One important factor driving America’s homicide rate is gun ownership since firearms are used in the majority of American homicides. America’s gun ownership rates are vastly higher than that of other wealthy countries. In fact, only one OECD country has a rate that is even half as much of America’s gun ownership rate. At the same time as America has such a high gun ownership rate and homicide rate, it also has an incarceration rate that is about seven times higher than the median rate for OECD countries and is one of the only wealthy countries in the world to conduct executions. ….In summary, America’s homicide rates, incarceration rates and gun ownership rates are all much higher than other wealthy countries. While the data associated with crime is imperfect, these facts all point to the idea that America is more violent than many other wealthy countries.” 
Guns certainly enhance the propensity of people to kill people and increase the kill rate of people who become violent and homicidal. In that sense it is safe to say that, yes, guns kill people. So do bombs, missiles, grenades, artillery shells, depleted uranium, flamethrowers, chemical weapons, and the deadly germs that proliferate when a nation’s public health infrastructure is devastated by a criminal superpower invasion.
Perhaps the movie and video industries will someday feel compelled to coin the slogan: “movies and video games don’t kill people, people kill people.” How many people were blown to bits and otherwise symbolically relieved of existence in the latest spectacular, hyper-violent, proto-fascistic Batman movie that provided the venue for Holmes’ real-life paramilitary assault. Certainly no more than the number of civilians and insurgents the U.S. military has slaughtered in its post-9/11 war of/on terror in places like Fallujah (Iraq) and Bola Boluk (Afghanistan). And probably no more than the number of imaginary enemies some future mass murderer can slaughter while playing one of the bloody video games that help prepare young future military personnel to blow up officially evil Arab, Persian, Pashtun, African, Asian and/or Latin American others without the slightest hint of emotional discomfort. Some of the games are produced by the U.S. military itself. As the British urban studies professor Stephen Graham notes in his book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism:
“Perhaps the most powerful series of civilian-military crossovers at the heart of the new military urbanism are being forged through cultures of virtual and electronic entertainment and corporate news. Here, to tempt the nimble-fingered recruits best able to control the latest high-tech drones and weaponry, the U.S. military produces some of the most popular urban warfare video games. Highly successful games like the US Army’s America’s Army or US Marines’ Full Spectrum Warrior allow players to slay terrorists in fictionalized and Orientalized cities in frameworks based directly on those of the US military’s own training systems. To close the circle between virtual entertainment and remote killing, control panels for the latest US weapons systems – such as the latest control stations for the pilots of armed Predator drones, manufactured by…Raytheon – now imitate the consoles of PlayStations, which are, after all, very familiar to recruits.” 
“The Extinction and Suffering of Countless Human Beings “
Mass slaughter is certainly nothing new inside, and on the part of the United States. The region of the country where Holmes’s Cineplex slaughter occurred became part of “western civilization” through a genocidal settlement process that included the maniacal mass gunning down of innocent Native American women and children and the buffalo that had sustained indigenous culture prior to the arrival of those who ruled though the rifle, pistol, machine gun, and cannon. An emblematic episode in that settlement occurred with the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, an atrocity committed 175 miles (a three hour drive) from Aurora:
“At eight o’clock in the evening of November 28, 1864, under a starry winter sky [U.S. territorial officer J.M.] Chivington and seven hundred territorial troops advanced from Fort Lyon in the Colorado territory, riding in columns of fours. The next morning they attacked the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle – a village that had just made a truce with the white soldiers. But Chivington’s only purpose was to kill Indians and that is what he did. He began by pounding the lodes with the fragmenting shells from four mountain howitzers. And then his men streamed in, many drunk or hungover from the night’s drinking, slashing and shooting indiscriminately. At the time of the attack, there were some six hundred Cheyennes in the camp. Of these, no more than thirty-five were warriors. Most o the men were out hunting buffalo….Children were shot point blank. Babies were bayoneted. Saddest of all was the sight of the Indians huddling around a large American flag that had been draped over Black Kettle’s tipi. They gathered and flew white flags and the women opened their shirts so there could be no mistaking their sex, and waited patiently for the soldiers to see that the Indians were friendly and stop the killing. Instead they were cut down. When the smoke had cleared and the screaming had stopped, three hundred Cheyennnes lay dead. All were scalped, and many were mutilated. One man had cut out a woman’s private parts and exhibited them on a stick.” 
There were scores of similar ghastly episodes going back to the original English invasion of what would become British colonial North America and the United States. The Chivington attack was just one of the many antecedents of My Lai to occur during The Winning of the West, to use the title of a two-volume social-Darwinian history written by “progressive” hero Theodore Roosevelt, who chronicled the glorious victory of what he saw as the superior “English-speaking races” over the terrible Indian “savages” who inhabited what he called “the world’s waste spaces.” The U.S. is a psycho-killer among nations, historically speaking. Besides the savage racist elimination of native peoples’ and civilizations from “frontier” territory claimed by white “settlers,” the record includes the military theft of much of the American Southwest and California from Mexico during the 1846-1848 Mexican War – the first in which a U.S. army invaded another country and occupied its capital (in one psychotic 1847 episode, the Comanche-killing Texas Rangers executed 80 Mexico City residents in reprisal for the death of one of their own); the U.S. butchering of 600,000 Filipino natives (labeled “niggers,” “Apaches,” and “barbarians” by their “’turkey-shooting” executioners) between 1899 and 1902 (4,300 Americans were lost); the bloody U.S.- re-imposition of de facto slavery and colonial rule on Haiti during and after World War One (justified by “the Negro race’s” inherent unsuitability for democracy, according to Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Woodrow Wilson); the mass-murderous U.S. atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, justified by Washington as necessary to defeat Japan when the White House and high American military command knew very well that Japan was exhausted and seeking surrender. Upon learning of Hiroshima’s incineration, U.S. President psychotically ejaculated that “This is the greatest thing in history.” He forgot to add that atomic bombs don’t kill people, people kill people.
“From the end of World War Two through the present,” John Pilger noted in 2007, the U.S. Empire caused “the extinction and suffering of countless human beings. The United States attempted to overthrow fifty governments, many of them democracies, and to crush thirty popular movements fighting tyrannical regimes. In the process, twenty-five countries were bombed, causing the loss of several million lives and the despair of millions more” The officially non-existent victims of American benevolence since 1945 include:
* 3 million mostly peasant Indochinese (chiefly Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians) killed in a massive, multi-pronged U.S. assault between 1962 and 1975 (58,000 U.S. soldiers died in this one-sided attack, encouraging U.S. president Jimmy Carter to claim that “the destruction was mutual” during the so-called Vietnam War).
* Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans killed and maimed by authoritarian governments (including “Third World fascist” regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) and paramilitaries funded, supported, and equipped by the U.S.
* 300 Iranian civilian air passengers (including 90 children) blown out of the sky (on Iranian Air Flight 655) by the U.S. Navy in Iranian air space from Iranian territorial waters by the U.S. warship Vincennes on July 3, 1988. (The commander of the Vincennes William C. Rogers III was subsequently rewarded with a Combat Action ribbon and the prestigious Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct.” Scott Lustig, the U.S. air-warfare coordinator who directed the attack received the Navy Commendation Medal. The medal citation noted his ability to “quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure.” The U.S. later settled the incident for $61.1 million in the International Court of Justice).
* More than 125.000 million Iraqis killed, mostly from bombing, so that the U.S. could punish the renegade behavior of its former client Saddam Hussein in the so-called Persian Gulf War of 1991 – an operation that cost the lives of less than 200 U.S. troops. (The body count included many thousands of surrendered troops slaughtered while in full retreat from Kuwait on the infamous “Highway of Death” in the night of February 26-27, 1991, A reporter described the highway scene as “ a blazing Hell” and “a gruesome testament,” noting that “To the east and west across the sand lay the bodies of those fleeing”).
* More than 1 million Iraqis killed by a U.S-imposed weapon of mass destruction called “economic sanctions” between 1991 and March 2003.
* More than 2 million Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and other predominantly Muslim and Arab people killed in criminal U.S. wars of occupation, revenge, and petroleum-control since 9/11/2011.
The psychotic, mass-homicidal legacy of the original white North American conquest lives on in a time when deer and pheasant hunters wearing NRA patches feel the need to brandish corporate-manufactured semi-automatic rifles and the Pentagon names its attack helicopters after native tribes the world’s first “gunfighter nation” vanquished in accord with its God-given “Manifest Destiny.” As the corporate profits system that arose in the business-ruled wake of that conquest pushes the natural environment past the “tipping point” towards extinction in the not-so-distant future (Colorado and other parts of the Great American West that “the English speaking races won” [Teddy Roosevelt] are experiencing epic droughts, dust and sandstorms, windstorms, and deadly wildfire epidemics that trace directly to the catastrophic climate change capitalism psychotically produces), our shining electronic telescreens are regularly aglow with strangely compelling but twisted, de-sensitizing images of death and destruction, often depicting grinning, Joker-like bastards blowing away large numbers of helpless others. Any sense of common humanity is regularly assaulted in the nation’s reigning corporate-crafted culture of death and narcissism, where psycho-killers can order up private arsenals online between spectacularly violent movies and video games – electronic contests in which people are targets and their elimination is points scored.
Barack Obama, he of the secret presidential “kill list,” has kept the national psycho-killer legacy alive, with (among other things) an unaccountable drone war that kills anonymously above petroleum-rich colonial hinterlands. Listen to his words in Fort Meyers, Florida on the same day that the Aurora slaughter occurred:
“Now, even as we learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless. It’s beyond reason. But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living. The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved. They were mothers; they were husbands; sons and daughters; friends and neighbors. They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled.”
Perhaps the president would like to reflect and report on what forces “beyond reason” have led him to join George W. Bush and other previous U.S. presidents in “senselessly” terrorizing and exterminating “fellow human beings,” killing hopes and futures on a mass scale in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, and Afghanistan. I am reminded of the comments of a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009, the day that Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize: “Peace prize? He’s a killer Obama,” the man added, “has only brought war to our country.” The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of 100 gathered around the bodies of 12 people, one family from a single home. The 12 were killed by U.S. Special Forces during a late night raid. “Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?” another village resident asked. “He claims to want to bring security to us but he brings only death. Death to him.” Al Jazeera went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where a U.S. bombing butchered dozens of civilians last spring. “He doesn’t deserve the award,” a young woman said. “He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home”
The Illusion of Caring
Why James Holmes and his victims in Aurora? Why such terrible bloodshed against innocents in the U.S., of all places? How could this happen here, in “the greatest country on Earth?” What could we possibly do to reduce “some” of this terrible violence that “mars” and mocks our greatness? Beyond the hypocrisy of these queries when they come from those who regularly order mass-murderous assaults from Washington, these are violently ignorant and stupid questions that reflect a deep and in fact violent lack of knowledge and understanding of U.S. history past and present when asked by purportedly educated journalists and pundits.
A related assumption behind the mandatory journalistic query “why” is that the media’s owners and top managers really care. They don’t. They profit from spectacular and grisly news stories like the Aurora slaughter. And like other members of “the 1%” (really the .001% in many cases), they do not mind the deepening of popular divisions and fears or the extension of the reach of the new mass incarceration/mass surveillance garrison state that feeds on terrible incidents the masters do not have to worry about in their gated communities and sheltered compounds, protected by interwoven layers of public and private security. Their opulent, corrupt, longer, and parasitic lives continue, exempted from serious investigation and criminal prosecution while the death and destruction they produce and profit from deepens, at home, abroad, and on-screen.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Rob Waters, “Gun Violence: The Public Health Issue Politicians Want to Ignore, ” Forbes, July 23, 2012, 7:51 AM http://www.forbes.com/sites/robwaters/2012/07/24/gun-violence-the-public-health-issue-politicians-want-to-ignore/
 Waters, “Gun Violence.”
 Howard Steven Friedman, “The World’s Deadliest Wealthy Countries,” OpenSalon (April 4, 2012) at http://open.salon.com/blog/howard_steven_friedman/2012/04/04/worlds_deadliest_wealthy_countries
 Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso, 2011), xxv-xxvi.
 S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon (New York: Scribner, 2010), 230-231.
 Gwynne, Empire, 143.
 John Pilger, Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (New York: Nation Books, 2007), 4-5.
 Aljazeera English, “Afghans Anger at Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize,” YouTube (December 10, 2009) qt www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBHrnQTinGY&feature=related
 For a remarkable account and critique of elite immunity in the U.S., see Glenn Greenwald, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011).