False Flags: Violence in America is not something which comes from outside. Violence dwells at the heart of American society and culture: it is the constantly beating organ which pumps its deadly and destructive energy into America’s arms and legs; into its brain and hands; into its trigger-finger.
HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT the way a bowl of fruit goes bad? All those apples, pears, oranges and mandarins may have been picked together, transported together, displayed together and sold together; but they do not go bad together. There is always one that goes bad before the others. Looking at each item of fruit, as you fill the bowl, it is practically impossible to identify which one that might be. But, give it sufficient time, and the right conditions, and that piece of fruit will make itself known to you.
Stephen Paddock’s brothers certainly hadn’t picked their murderous sibling as a bad apple. They simply had no idea he was capable of unleashing horror from the thirty-second floor of Las Vegas’s Mandalay Hotel – or why? One of them told reporters that hearing of his brother’s deadly attack on concert-goers was like being struck by an asteroid.
And that’s the way the rest of America will attempt to make sense of this latest mass shooting. Paddock’s crime will be characterised as something entirely exogenous to the daily rhythms of American life: something which, like a wayward piece of space rock, arrives unheralded, and unstoppable, from somewhere beyond this world.
Except that violence in America is not something which comes from outside. Violence dwells at the heart of American society and culture: it is the constantly beating organ which pumps its deadly and destructive energy into America’s arms and legs; into its brain and hands; into its trigger-finger.
Violence has been fundamental to American history. Whether it be the genocide basic to colonial America’s birth; or the indentured servitude and slavery which underpinned its economic expansion; violence has always been absolutely central to the American project.
Perhaps the easiest way to drive this point home to New Zealanders is to ask them to think about Australia. Why did Great Britain send forth its convict ships to Tasmania and Botany Bay in the late 1780s? What could possibly have spurred the British to such a colossal investment of men and resources downunder?
In the most simple and brutal terms, Australia was Great Britain’s response to the loss of its American colonies. Until the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1776, Great Britain’s North American colonies fulfilled a role very similar to that which would, a decade or so later, be assigned to its Australian possessions: a vast wilderness into which His Majesty’s excess and most troublesome subjects – men and women – could be decanted. Throughout the eighteenth century, white indentured servants (persons legally bonded to their wealthy masters for a punitive period of time) vastly outnumbered African slaves.
Even after the American colonies won their independence, the stigma of indentured servitude and the rigid class hierarchy it did so much to engender and entrench, remained a constant of American social relations. The fledgling United States’ republican ideology may have attributed the individual’s position in American society to his or her own efforts, but the violence meted out by those ranked above, to those ranked below, was the glue which held American society together. Men were superior to women. Wealthy whites were superior to poor whites. Americans descended from the English and the Scots were superior to immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Ireland and Europe. All whites were superior to all blacks. The only good Indian was a dead one.
It was an economic and social hierarchy constructed out of, and maintained by, a brutal combination of legal, cultural and physical violence. That it drove American history forward cannot be doubted. Certainly, America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, apprehended its moral legacy. Speculating in his Second Inaugural Address whether America would remain riven by the “scourge of war” until “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”.
Science tells us that what rots the fruit in the bowl is the effect of microscopic organisms that float in the air all around us. All it takes is a particularly forceful bruise, or tiny cut, to begin the process. The spores of violence, likewise, float in the cultural air Americans breathe. Inevitably, her most damaged citizens; the United States’ rotten fruit, will make themselves known.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 October 2017.