Friday, 13 November 2009

Letter from America # 17

America Ys Guns

The recent shootings at Fort Hood army base in Texas have shocked the nation, and given rise to hours and pages of agonized media coverage. There is speculation about the shooter’s motives, his Muslim identity, and whether the crime should be classified as terrorism (as if this makes any difference to the families of the victims). As usual, the right-wing media has used the incident to engage in virulent Islamophobia. As usual, the media coverage misses the point.

Nidal Hasan’s Islamic beliefs may be relevant, as there are reports that he was increasingly influenced by radical Islam in the months leading to his rampage. There are, however, also reports that his communications with a ‘radical Imam’ were for the purpose of legitimate research. His actions may have been equally the result of his horror at the Iraq War, his fear of being sent to a war zone, his suffering from Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, and his day-to-day experience in his job as a military psychologist listening to the horror-stories told by returning veterans. His being influenced by radical interpretations of Islam might be the trigger, but probably not the underlying cause, of his actions.

Also irrelevant is the debate that usually follows such events about the Second Amendment, which supposedly guarantees the right to bear arms. (It actually calls for a ‘well-regulated militia’, not for every right-wing gun-nut to be allowed to tote an AK-47.) Liberals usually call for more gun control after the latest shooting, and it’s understandable that the left should wish to oppose right wing militias such as the Minuteman, who exercise their Second Amendment rights by intimidating immigrants along the Mexican border. But, as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, gun ownership is just as high in Canada as in the US, but Canada does not experience the same kind of gun-crime problems. Here in central Michigan, every second family seems to own a rifle for hunting during the deer season in the autumn. It does not make our area a hotbed of gun violence.

But of course, the usual gun-control vs gun-rights debate did not take place after the Fort Hood shooting, as the shooter belonged to the biggest, most heavily armed group of killers on the planet – the US armed forces. Any discussion of ending killing by taking the guns out of the hands of potential killers would of course come into head-on collision with official America’s love affair with the military.

The military in the US is bigger and more visible than in the UK – a larger proportion of the population is in the armed services, has been posted to Iraq, or has been killed or wounded there or in Afghanistan. Nobody is more than a few degrees of separation from an Iraq veteran (I have taught two of them in my classes). The understandable desire of people to support veterans is twisted and exploited into an orgy of militarism and patriotism, as we are constantly invited by bumper stickers or ads on TV to ‘support our troops’. Harley-Davison saw fit to ‘salute those who defend freedom’ with a youtube ad featuring scantily-clad women draping themselves over motorbikes. Presumably, the US forces in Iraq are fighting to defend soft porn and greenhouse gas emissions. We are not, however, invited to empathize with the troops beyond a superficial call to ‘honor their sacrifice’. We are not invited to ask why veterans are more likely to be unemployed, mentally ill, to commit suicide, or to go to prison.

The other question not being asked is why so many shooting sprees are committed by people linked to the far right. If Hasan’s crime was motivated by Islamism, then he’s in a minority – American ultra-conservatism and neo-fascism are behind more acts of violence in the USA than radical Islam. Before 9/11, the biggest act of domestic terrorism was Tim McVeigh’s bombing of the Federal Building at Oklahoma City. McVeigh was a military veteran, motivated by a peculiarly American brand of right-wing politics that stresses racism, suspicion of the federal government (except when it’s fighting wars), and worship of the gun. More recently, the last year has seen the murder of George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who performed abortions; the assault on a Unitarian church in Tennessee by a shooter who hated its members’ ‘liberal views’; and the killing of a security guard at the national Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC by a neo-Nazi. All these stories were well reported at the time, but all seemed to disappear from media discussion of gun-crime, as they do not fit the stereotype of mass-shootings being committed by (a) Muslim terrorists or (b) lone gunmen who ‘go postal’ for crazed, personal reasons. I’m not saying these killings were linked in an organizational sense, but they share a common ideology.

This ideology cannot be dismissed as the belief system of a few extremists – it shades into that of the more mainstream right. Before his murder, Dr Tiller was repeatedly labeled ‘Tiller the Baby-Killer’ by Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Fair and Balanced’ Fox News. His murderer was linked to the anti-abortion group ‘Operation Rescue.’ Right-wing protestors against healthcare reform have turned up outside meetings held by Democratic members of Congress, and even one of Obama’s speeches, openly carrying assault rifles. At election rallies held by McCain and Palin last year, members of the audience were heard shouting ‘traitor’ and ‘kill him’ at the mention of Obama.

I’m not saying the USA is about to face a fascist coup, or that the Republican Party are in league with neo-Nazis. My point is that there is – to use the old cliché – a ‘violence inherent in the system’ of the US. Fort Hood was, after all, named after a Civil War general in the armies of the slave-owning South. When a country has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, when it has military bases in over 100 foreign countries, when it occupies two countries, and funds the Israeli occupation of a third, when it has the world’s biggest arms industry, when it imprisons more young Black men than it sends to college, when it was built on the dispossession of one people and the enslavement of a second – when, in short, American capitalism polices the globe and its own people with naked violence – it is not surprising when that violence sometimes emerges in unexpected and shocking ways. As Malcolm X put it, commentating on the assassination of JFK – the chickens have come home to roost.