Liberty, Idolatry, and the Culture of Violence

Satire has been a salve for many Americans in the past week. Witness The Onion’s rapidly re-tweeted article, “Jesus, This Week,” which suggested that “Maybe next time we have a week, they can try not to pack it completely to the fucking brim with explosions, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies, weeping, and the utter uselessness of our political system”—a sentiment aptly attributed to “basically every person in America who isn’t comatose or a complete sociopath.”

Satire at its best calls out bizarre textures of reality, thereby making absurdity more manageable. Satire is salve: thus Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most trusted television news sources for my under-40 demographic.

But in the face of this past week, is silence, satire or something else the suitable response? This week our culture has outdone itself at every level. It has laid bare the textures of violence that permeate much of our society. The choice now is whether we as a society acknowledge the reality that violence, anomie and isolation permeate our public discourse and our civic lives. The alternative is the status quo: to continue to defray these events as aberrations, and to trumpet the reigning idolatry of individual rights without corporate responsibilities.

Allow me to review just a few “highlights” available to anyone with an internet connection. On April 15, two bombers in Boston made the fateful and awful decision to terrorize the Marathon, killing and wounding innocent people and leading to a city-stopping manhunt that ended on Friday, April 19 in a suburban backyard shootout, leaving one suspect dead while the second suspect hid, bleeding, in someone’s grounded boat. Meanwhile, news has trickled out that the now deceased suspect, a boxer, was previously brought to court and charged with domestic violence.

The suspects obviously had more at hand than knuckles and domestic disputes. Did they have military-grade assault weapons? It is as yet unclear. Either way, the Senate this week paved the way for such vagrants to access military-grade weapons without so much as a background check—a decision that went against the majority will of the United States and many members of the NRA itself. So, between the bombing and the shootouts, the Senate managed to make clear that the second amendment is truly an American idol, and our representatives are more willing to take a stand for profit than for public safety.

Granted, guns and bombs are by no means the most common causes of death in the United States. Cancer and heart disease kill tens of thousands of people per year; our societal response is to try to eradicate them. Apparently guns are not like cancer or heart disease.

Automobile accidents kill a vast number of people on American highways; we set standards for people to get drivers’ licenses. Poor eyesight, forms of mental illness, multiple violations, deep criminal record or failure of a driving test will mean that a person can’t legally drive. Then, we still set speed limits for public safety, because the right to drive is balanced by the responsibility not to be a liability to society. Shoot, apparently guns are not like cars, either.

What are guns like? Well, I first fired a gun in 1999, while visiting a boyfriend’s Alaska home during spring break of college. The next month, disgruntled and deranged teenage shooters with assault weapons killed 13 people and then themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, less than ten miles from where I grew up. This past Saturday, April 20, was the anniversary of that event. It was a grim bookend to a gruesome week.

Such uncanny timing is its own satire. How are we so blind?

The issue of gun safety and mental health crested into my consciousness in other direct, painful ways. My father was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War before he became a commercial airline pilot who, after 9/11, was deeply vexed about having guns in cockpits. But in May 2007, when I was pregnant, he purchased a handgun and fatally shot himself.

And last December, like many parents around the United States, I learned how to talk to my kindergartener about the massacre at Newtown. Liberty is in my bones, and so is tragedy.  I am aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of assault, murder, and injustice. But I am not an impartial observer when it comes to guns or acts of violence that terrorize regardless of whether they are perpetuated by legally-defined “terrorists.”

What I know is that we are saturated by a culture of violence. And who bears responsibility for that? The past week exposed several culprits: Most immediately, of course, the suspected brothers Tsarnaev. To be sure, the FBI and Boston police did remarkable, important, commendable work; and it even makes a kind of sense (though a slippery one) that Suspect #2 is not being read his Miranda rights just yet.

But the Tsarnaevs are the easy targets. Our own cultural idols are harder to identify.

When it comes to guns, the idolatry of rights is unfettered from social responsibilities. Sure, the second amendment matters. Sure, individuals go rogue. I will be the first to admit that background checks may not have forestalled the Columbine or Sandy Hook massacres. Mental health services may not have saved my father or the lives of the slain Newtown children. People do awful things to one another—with guns or knuckles, pipe bombs and words.  But now that the immediate culprits of last week are accounted for and the “shelter in place” orders have been lifted, I wonder: What do we make of our culture suffused with violence? How do we begin to address that spectacular cancer that eats at our national character?

It is much harder to target than bombers, because it has to do with something that we Americans rightly hold dear: individual freedoms.

Let me be clear. Liberty—the idea, the ideal—is not cancerous. It is fundamental to democracy. Liberty is in my bones: I grew up in the American west, back when Colorado was a real red state, and when our neighborhood south of Denver was virtually treeless (it’s prairie, after all) and bordered by a road made partly of dirt. A few states north, Montana highways were characterized by the freedom to drive whatever speed we wanted—no posted speed limits, just good old individual judgment. On that frontier, fundamental freedoms were first priority. So I am not an impartial observer when it comes to the liberties lauded in our country.

And while liberty is a pivotal precept of our democracy, it is also the case that American idolatry of violence is writ into legislation through the vehicle of the second amendment. Civil, domestic, private and public violence, per se, is not Constitutional. But it infiltrates civic discourse through the language of liberty, especially with regard to the second amendment.

Our nation’s character is increasingly shaped by a gun-toting, profit-seeking idolatry of liberty—the kind that removes background checks for the most lethal of guns (as with the Senate’s vote) while perpetuating the myth that violence is due to the isolated, evil decisions of a few aberrant individuals (the terrorists). Yes, terrorists must be brought to justice—but terrorism in the United States kills far fewer people than cancer, heart disease, domestic violence, automobile accidents or guns. Terrorism is the exception. Violence is de rigeur: against women, immigrants, people of color; with guns; now enshrined in national policy—that is the norm. It is tragic. It is pernicious. And usually, we choose to ignore it.

But right now, for a brief moment, the pervasiveness of violence is an open wound in our public consciousness. For those who have eyes to see, it is a wound that runs very deep. Satire may remain a necessary salve, but it is not a sufficient remedy after last week’s Boston bombings and the pathetic spectacle of the gun-lobbied Senate.

The idolatry of liberty—of rights unfettered from social responsibilities—is cancerous. In our culture of violence, it is at least partly fed by hyper-permissive interpretations of the second amendment. And we are too strapped to guns and gurneys for any of this to be even bleakly funny. If the body politic is to survive, the cancer requires surgery. Rethinking the contemporary stipulations of the second amendment seems as good a place to start as any.

Christiana Z. Peppard, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics at Fordham University. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.   [This post is also featured on Catholic Moral Theology.]

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