This article reflects my personal opinion.
The recent events in Dallas, Minnesota and Louisiana and all the other places, where gun violence tears the American society apart on a regular basis, were likely caused by three issues. First, by a racial problem that the United States never managed to fully overcome and that once again shifted into the focus of media attention. Second, by growing inequality that increasingly disfigures the American dream. And third, the shootings fundamentally are symptoms of a problem that is rooted in the American identity, namely that the history of the United States has been to a large extent a narrative of violence, both regarding foreign affairs as well as internally. None of these issues and developments have been conclusively come to terms with by the American public and as long as this will not happen, the spiral of violence will keep on spinning. And only a miracle would allow this year’s presidential election to be the trigger for this desperately needed redefining of the American identity.
After the latest outbursts of violence, movements like “Black Lives Matter” have directed most of the attention to the assertion of a still smouldering racism that, almost half a century after the African-American Civil Rights Movement, is crippling the American society and is deeply embedded in the police system. Empirically, it is very difficult to determine the degree of truth of this theory. While, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the chance of encountering the police is not influenced by racial origin, far more blacks than whites are arrested and shot, both armed and unarmed, when set in proportion to their population share. However, it is basically impossible to determine whether this is caused by a racial bias of the police or by the simple fact that blacks commit more crimes than other ethnicities and hence are more likely to have violent encounters with the arm of the law (especially as crime statistics are kept by the potentially biased law enforcement agencies). This issue is further complicated by the question whether the law itself is racially biased, a claim often illustrated by the high sentencing disparity of 18:1 for the possession or trafficking of crack compared to penalties for trafficking of cocaine, with blacks being more likely to use crack than cocaine. So while some statistics and individual cases indicate police racism, the picture gets more blurry the closer one looks. But even if this racial bias was mostly a perceived one, it still leads to racial conflicts that can escalate like they did on Thursday night in Dallas.
The racial dimension of the problem is closely connected to the second issue: growing inequality. Poor people are more likely to engage in criminal activity (and the income and wealth gap between whites and blacks remains unacceptably large). Even more so as it becomes increasingly unlikely for the poor to fulfill their own American Dream since the level of socio-economic mobility is below that of other Western countries and the society becomes increasingly unequal. Without an economic perspective and barred from a privatised education system, many slip off into a criminal career or radicalise in some other way. Trapped in ghettos clasped in perpetual violence and social tensions, old conflicts and racial divides serve as outlets for the people’s frustration and convey identity. These conflicts often escalate amongst the heavily armed residents and between them and a nervous and often times overreacting police force (an extreme example is a car chase in 2012 during which Cleveland police officers fired more bullets at two people than the German police fired at people in total during the same year). Almost all police shootings occur in neighborhoods with low median family incomes, with many of them being predominantly inhabited by blacks. If the United States fail to tackle inequality issues they will be neither able to solve racism nor violence troubles.
While a lot of other developed countries face similar challenges concerning race tensions and growing inequality, none of them suffer from gun violence of the same magnitude. This is often correctly explained by the mass distribution of firearms that is unique to the United States (with there being more guns than people). But to add to the picture, one should look at the role that violence plays in the American identity in general. The history of the United States, like that of most countries, is characterised by wars and violent conflicts. Founded during the American Revolutionary War and suppressing the Native American tribes, the United States built a big part of their early prosperity on the enslavement of Africans. Its role as a world power was established by victories in two world wars. But while most other developed countries began to avoid armed conflicts and today try to a certain extent to steer clear of deployments of their military, the United States waged countless proxy wars throughout the second half of the twentieth century that led to millions of casualties. This violent foreign policy doctrine was continued with the so-called War on Terror, including a war in Afghanistan, an illegal war against Iraq and an outrageous secret system of detainment and torture. None of these operations has been critically reevaluated by the American public and none of the persons responsible had to bear the consequences of their decisions (In the UK, the damning verdict of an Iraq inquiry this week has at least sparked a new debate). Today, the United States uses drones to execute “enemy combatants” without a trial in an undeclared war in various countries. Western allies refrain from public criticism of this strategy and act as assistants, probably since they are under the impression that they need the United States to do the international dirty work and to protect them from old foe Russia. As a country that utilises violence as a natural means to enforce national interests, the United States struggles to develop a peaceful self-understanding for their citizens (and to reintegrate war veterans like the Dallas shooter).
Furthermore, also internal conflicts have been tried to solve with violent approaches by American governments. For a century, the United States has been waging a war on drugs with differing intensity that has led to the blossoming of organised crime, arguably the destabilisation of many countries south of its borders and in central Asia (with large parts of their domestic industries being forced into illegality by international treaties) and mass criminalisation and incarceration of its citizens. Instead of trying to regulate weapon ownership and stabilising violent neighborhoods with extensive social projects and better educational prospects, the U.S. government has allowed its police to enter an arms race with criminals and to go through a worrisome militarisation. The mass distribution of firearms amongst American citizens can be seen as just one symptom of the fact that violence has become an essential part of the United States’ identity. Domestically, this identity expresses itself in shockingly high numbers of people being shot in gang conflicts, accidents and so forth and, also, by the police.
It is highly doubtful whether any of these issues will be improved after the upcoming presidential election. If the first black president in its history was unable to reduce the United States’ racial tensions, how would you expect Donald Trump, whose campaign builds on mistrust and, at the very least, implied racism, or Hillary Clinton, who is seen by black activists as one of the people to blame for black mass incarceration, to be? (To be fair, Clinton does have a criminal justice reform in her election program. But then again, Obama has tried to reform the system as well.) Do you think Trump would try to tackle inequality, planning to cut the income tax rates for the rich (at least that is what he says on most days)? Or that Hillary Clinton will effectively decrease the wealth shares of those who finance her campaign to a large degree? Trump has already stated that he wants to protect the Second Amendment rights to bear arms and there is no reason to believe that Clinton would finally be the one to push through stricter gun regulations against the pressure of the Republicans and the NRA. And finally, why should Trump even try to change the violent narrative of the American identity when he himself uses a highly aggressive language (suggesting to kill the family members of suspected terrorists)? And how should Hillary Clinton be able to change that narrative when she herself has been a part of the killing machinery that is deployed in the War on Terror (some of the emails that have been looked into during the much debated private server inquiry deal with drone strikes)?
Sadly, this time next year, when sooner or later yet another shooting will hit the headlines, the new president of the United States will most likely issue the familiar statements of anger and sadness. And nothing will change.
Music – The Smashing Pumpkins – Disarm, Jimi Hendrix – Star Spangled Banner
Film – Syriana, Inequality for All
Reading – Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms, and, if you really want to spoil your mood, everything Chris Hedges has written in the last fifteen years
written by Jonas