A Shift of Mind

Rethinking the way we live.

Violence: an American Archetype

Exploring mass murders in America

By Mel Schwartz and Jesse Schwartz

If James Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., shooter, had been a foreigner or, worse still, a Muslim, our nation would react with fury and vengeance. America would do what it does frequently and with great alacrity: we would once again declare war on our enemy. Yet, when the enemy is one of us, we respond with statements of incredulity, shock, and of course compassion for the victims’ families and friends. We appear to accept these recurring acts of wanton violence as a necessary evil of living in our open society. More to the point, the majority of our nation defends gun ownership with a religious and zealous fervor. Let’s examine what’s going on here.

The U.S. is easily the most violent high-income society on Earth.[i] There are approximately 9,500 murders by guns,[ii] twenty mass murders per year,[iii] and we rank 88th out of 158 in terms of peacefulness, according to the Global Peace Index.[iv] How is it that we muster all of our resources to conquer a foreign threat but we paradoxically surrender to our internal enemy without so much as a whimper? 

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The collective chauvinistic spirit of America defends our national interests and shores with immense vigor. This is part of the psyche of our culture, an eighteenth century remnant of the need to protect our nascent nation from legitimate threats. Yet there is another, more antiquated archetype that we remain wed to: the individualistic chauvinism born in the gunslinger, frontier spirit of the Wild West. In that not-so-bygone era, a cross exchange would be grounds to un-holster your weapon and blow away your enemy. This motif, and the root of our chauvinism from the micro perspective, survives in the stand your ground laws recently exposed by the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

As a nation, why do we remain mired in the core tenet of arming our citizenry? Constitutional arguments around the right to bear arms are, at this point, ridiculous. The Founding Fathers simply could not conceive of the carnage we have witnessed year in, year out since Columbine. They would undoubtedly revisit the second amendment’s wording if they had foreseen the destructive capabilities of a Smith & Wesson M&P .223 with a hundred-round clip, the assault rifle Holmes unleashed on his fellow citizens. Our society has come to the reasonable conclusion that the first amendment, allowing for free speech, cannot be unlimited. There are simply too many deleterious consequences stemming from the exercise of such limitless power—and the overwhelming majority of Americans recognize that. Why then do we cling to the unfettered barbarism allowed for by the second amendment? 

This is due to a cultural attachment to our weapons that we haven’t yet outgrown, much like a young boy refusing to release his grip on his toy revolver. It’s curious as to why we have evolved over the centuries in so many other ways but still retain a childlike fixation with violence, which is evinced on the macro level by our state of perpetual warfare—if this seems like an exaggeration, try considering when we haven’t been at war over the last seventy years—and its micro manifestation through individual gun ownership.

This phenomenon was recently depicted by Congressman Louie Gohmert, the Texas Republican who was quoted as saying, “It does make me wonder, you know, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying? That could have stopped this guy more quickly.”[v]

There we have it. The distortion of his thinking is breathtaking. We are so habituated to violence that we propose more guns as a solution to the havoc wreaked by guns, notwithstanding that Holmes was covered from head to toe in defensive swat gear.[vi] The fact that we have become inured to this violence speaks to the psychological dysfunction. When a system—individual, family, or culture —adapts to and normalizes grossly abhorrent activities, that system is terribly impaired. This condition is known as normosis, whereby we make normal that which is indeed aberrant.[vii] As a society, we find ourselves in just this circumstance.

Mr. Gohmert’s line of reasoning is not only misguided, it is outright dangerous—numerous studies indicate the statistically significant association between gun availability and homicide rates.[viii][ix][x][xi][xii] If his postulation were extended to international affairs, Mr. Gohmert would in effect be calling for all nations—pacific and belligerent alike—to be armed with nuclear weapons. This unpalatable situation exposes the dubious logic behind the “arm everyone” crowd, and the congressman’s thinking is influenced by the very problem itself.

The archetype of violence—to which we are indeed addicted—and our ensuing relationship with guns has come to rule our national and cultural psyche. Further evidence of this is embodied by Congress’ decision to refuse the passage of legislation barring individuals on the terrorist watch list from obtaining guns.[xiii][xiv] This so-called “terror gap” or “terror loophole” is so irrational it appears deranged. If the United States were an individual, it would be in therapy for anger management issues and a dysfunctional attachment to violence. It’s time to break this collective, unconscious addiction. Our unrestrained affinity with the archetype of violence truly impoverishes our nation in tragic ways, yet it is amenable to change if we first come to recognize its existence.

Mel Schwartz is a psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book A Shift of Mind: Rethinking the Way We Live. Jesse Schwartz is a freelance writer based in NY.

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[i] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20571454

[ii] http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/23/opinion/webster-aurora-shooter/inde...

[iii] http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-01-11-fox11_st_N.htm

[iv] http://www.visionofhumanity.org/gpi-data/#/2012/HOMI/

[v] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/21/opinion/the-shootings-in-colora...

[vi]http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2012/07/the_aurora_shooting_bulletproof_vests_swat_gear_and_body_armor_refute_the_nra_.html

[vii] Nicolescu, Basarab. Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice. New York: Hampton Press, 2008. p. 167

[viii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11130511

[ix] http://www.vpc.org/press/1006gundeath.htm

[x] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20571454

[xi] http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/guns...

[xii] http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/gunviolence?s=1

[xiii] http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:SN00034:@@@X

[xiv] http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:HR01506:@@@X

Mel Schwartz, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist and marriage counselor who works toward creating resilient relationships and fostering authentic communication. His website is Melschwartz.com.

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