The media (and political) furor over whether or not the rhetoric of right-wing extremists fostered the attempted assassination of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords almost completely missed the point. And what's the point? Well, let me quote this observation by 1960s black militant H. Rap Brown: "Violence is as American as apple pie."
I won't go into the long history of guns and violence in America. But ask yourself this: Is there any place in American society and culture where violence is not just accepted but embraced? Music? Film? Books? Language? Some of this reflects a coarsening of society that has been under way for quite some time.
Consider these grim numbers in a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 18 and 24. It is the leading cause of death among African Americans in this age group. And among this age group, 84 percent were killed by a firearm. In a "representative" sample of young people in grades 9 to 12 in 2009, 17.5 percent reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife or club) on one or more days in the 30-day period preceding the survey. And 5.9 percent of them reported carrying a gun.
But also, in an ahistorical, almost anti-historical society like the United States, the history of the ways that violence has been used against people for a variety of reasons is almost never discussed. Native Americans? Enslaved Africans? Immigrants? Lynch mobs of the South for almost a hundred years after the Civil War? This has all largely been ignored or romanticized and often excused — and thus legitimized.
As someone who lived in the Deep South during some of its most violent years, I see this broad failure to confront the violence that has defined U.S. history and culture as roughly analogous to the relationship of the White Citizens Councils with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and '60s. We're opposed to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, these white businessmen would claim, even as they created the climate for Klan violence and benefited from the advantages of white privilege protected, in part, by the Klan.
In those days, it was not simply the "extremists" who generated the violence, but also a culture that never challenged it. And by culture I mean both Southern culture and the larger political culture of the United States.
Finger-pointing at the extreme rhetoric of some right-wingers has predictably done nothing but trigger finger-pointing by right-wingers at the extreme rhetoric of some left-wingers. And while I am not saying there is an equivalency here, such back-and-forth will cancel out and reduce the prospects for a meaningful discussion and debate about violence in this society.
The news media could move the debate out of this sterile rut but probably will not.
This is a very simple thing: In a culture that has been shaped by violence — indeed, that tends to celebrate violence — expect violence from any direction and directed at anybody, even a congressperson, a Nobel Prize winner and, as some of us remember, a president of the United States.
Charles Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary in Mississippi for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.