Tag Archives: gun violence

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The Fiction of Independence

We wonder why there is so much social chaos eating into the once secure centers of American life. Guns in schools or workplaces are obvious examples. Among a complex chain of causes, low commitment to societal institutions is having it’s effects.

A few years ago a local bank ran a series of print ads of a comfortable family relaxing on a spacious patio that was meant to signal money.  The headline for the private bank was “You Did it All by Yourself.” The tone-deaf headline was meant to pander to the affluent on how they arrived at their privileged position.  It perhaps said more than the bank intended. An old commonplace has it that it really does not ‘take a village,’ nor the shoulders of others’ to succeed. Instead, as the durable old commonplace has it, gumption and hard work are the keys to accessing American prosperity. The message many of us carry around and still promote is that we are masters of our own destiny; failure or success will depend on our efforts. In this simplified logic everyone is an island responsible for their success, obligated only to themselves. So goes the fantasy.

The misguided impression that gun ownership represents a form of personal freedom

What this view nurtures is a long and continuing suspicion of institutions intended to nurture a civil society. We still hear the tired overstatement that prairie settlers, immigrants and nineteenth century entrepreneurs provided for themselves, partially taking on responsibilities to deliver justice, protect property, and find our own pathways out of the depths of poverty. Other social goals like the education of children by professionals, and providing basic medical care for all are now contested territories, with a vocal minority doubting the virtues of these traditional social functions.  Florida is a case in point, where even the accurate portrayal of the nation’s origin stories, or the value of virus vaccines, are officially challenged. Arguably, the populace of the continent-spanning United States has never uniformly committed to institutions promoting public welfare. Mistrust of authority and disparagement of fiscally hobbled public services seem embedded in out national character.

Consider evidence of decreased faith in major institutions.  As researchers at the political website Five Thirty Eight recently noted, “disillusionment with pretty much every major institution” has set in.  They cited a recent Gallup public survey found that Americans registered a one year drop in confidence in virtually every kind collective enterprise.  For example, in 2022 “high confidence” in the military fell five points to 64%; confidence in the police dropped to 45%; the medical system to 38%; religious groups down to 21%; the supreme to court, 25%; the public schools to 24%; big business to 14%; and confidence in congress fell into a cellar of just 7%.  All of their categories showed a decline in spite of real advances in child and senior citizen protections.

What is left of the social structure stressed by a higher level of fear and the enduring birthright myth of survival by any means. It is little wonder that disenchanted youth believe they must be their own providers and protectors.  At this age, guns are now the leading cause of death.

The idea of the self-sustaining individual can easily fuel the view that, among other things, a firearm is a necessary defense. We can take our pick of either the founder’s woolly wording of the Second Amendment, or the woeful misapplication of it by the Supreme Court (District of Columbia vs Heller, 2010).  In either case the U.S. is now awash in guns that kill as intended.   Never has a claim to freedom carried such a destructive outcome.

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Forty Years and Four Hundred Yards Apart

If you are old enough to remember the halcyon days of the CBS Evening News and the NBC Nightly News, you may have also noticed that one of the most disturbing and also the most ecstatic political memories that you carry actually occurred in the same city and virtually the same location, separated by 40 years and perhaps just 400 yards.

Barton Silverman/New York Times
     Barton Silverman/New York Times

The nadir came in 1968. A recent college graduate, I was among millions of Americans who were shaken by the impression that the superstructure of our nation-state was beginning to fall away. The stains of the assassination of President Kennedy five years earlier were still sealed into the fabric of the culture. And we could not know it was only a start.  Martin Luther King was gunned down in April while organizing a poor people’s campaign in Memphis. Two months later Robert Kennedy was fatally wounded by a Jordanian living in Los Angeles. By August, and against an enveloping sense of doom, there was at least the modest hope of some sort of political redemption as Democrats gathered in Chicago to stage-manage a presidential nomination. It was supposed to be a celebration of the orderly transfer of national leadership that would finally reconcile increasing public opposition against the Vietnam War. In the same year the conflict had already taken almost 17,000 lives. The nation was not only at war with the North Vietnamese, it was increasingly apparent that it was at war with itself, especially younger Americans who could be conscripted into a meaningless death. Inside the International Amphitheater near the stockyards the party trudged toward the nomination of Hubert Humphrey to head up the top of the ticket. He was to replace a mortally wounded Lyndon Johnson who had dithered his administration into a free-fall as it tried to find an exit from its war policy. Johnson’s attempts at leadership had divided Democrats so badly that it was in the process of incinerating itself.  

That would become all too clear on the night of August 28, when hundreds of anti-war activists any many young Democrats were on hand to seal the fate of the party.Their goal was to march in front of the Hilton and Blackstone hotels along Michigan Avenue, within earshot of the convention delegates. But they would witness the fury of a police backlash. Some of the activists were troublemakers. Most simply wanted to register their frustration with the inertia that had overtaken the party.

Mayor James Daley had done what he could to impede press coverage of the protests. The plan was to force the networks to cover the proceedings in the convention hall a few miles away, while preventing live television feeds of the confrontations brewing downtown. But the still-powerful news divisions of CBS and NBC weren’t used to being cowed by an uncharismatic machine politician.The convention was also their show. And they found ways to cover the angry confrontation that boiled over into the streets. Their solution was to set up cameras in Grant Park, recording the inevitable clashes that both sides had anticipated for weeks.

The Chicago Police turned out to be a machine ratcheted up to unload its fury. They used tear gas, truncheons, jeeps fitted with barbed wire, and undisciplined sweeps of bystanders trying to escape to surrounding streets and the park itself. In what a formal investigation later called a “police riot,” Daley’s minions’ managed to produce the kind of bloodshed and mayhem that it was ostensibly dedicated to preventing.

The city and the nation had seen violence many times before. But this conflict in particular settled into the national consciousness as a symptom of a deep and perhaps unbridgeable political rupture. The demonstrations momentarily concealed a rising disquiet among normally disengaged Americans who could not help but be witnesses to the train wreck of a doctrinaire foreign policy. When Walter Cronkite said as much on CBS, he contributed to a middle-class backlash that would be less strident but just as disruptive as the tactics of the “Yippies” in the streets. Even so, there could be no satisfaction in the meltdown of the Democratic Party in Chicago. It virtually guaranteed that government would be handed over to the secretive and suspicious Richard Nixon, a living paradox who could just barely conceal his twin instincts for political repression and the overextension of military power. 

While there was little question that bloodbath of political assassinations between 1963 and 1968 shocked the nation, for me at least, that single August night in Chicago somehow represented a rot that was even deeper. The assassinations where devastating. But all were more or less the products of lone actors. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Americans had to learn to harden themselves against the distorted logic that allows psychopaths to carry out personal fantasies of revenge with loaded weapons. To live in the United States is to accept the surreal normalization of random gun violence: a legacy given false legitimacy by a grotesque misreading of the Second Amendment. In addition, and in its own peculiar way, John Kennedy’s death at least momentarily brought the nation together. Recalling his words became its own act of public meditation on the possibilities of political transcendence. By contrast, we would have to wait 40 years to see even a partial vindication of the moral persuasion of Dr. King.

The violence in Chicago was so disturbing because it was systemic. Violent response to citizen-protesters had the apparent imprimatur of official policy; no electoral outcome could easily heal that wound. It was a surprise to many Americans that it suddenly made sense to talk about battles in the streets of Prague and Chicago in the same breath. The brutal Soviet suppression of young dissidents in Czechoslovakia had an eerie similarity to the military-style sweeps of Michigan Avenue and Grant Park. They all seemed to point to a dying order that would replace the rhetoric of conciliation with the application of brute power. 

If the nation never seemed more troubled after the painful ruptures in the hot summer of 1968, it came the closest to affirming its aspirations 40 years later, reflected in the moment when the same city served as the setting for the introduction of a new President and his family. It all happened within a few hundred yards of the same hotels bordering Grant Park. It’s my own choice for the one political moment that rose to a level of pure ecstasy. The evening was theater, to be sure, but also a signal that the nation could think differently about how it wished to be led. It’s too simplistic to say that the election of 2008 was the final antidote to the poisons of racism and an endlessly interventionist foreign policy. But who can forget those images? On that night Obama was the perfect embodiment of his own theme of hope. Against the glowing skyline of The Loop, he reclaimed the nation’s honor in the presence of over 100,000 citizens who had gathered to witness the deceptively short walk to the center of the stage.