By Michel Stone
February 24, 2018 “Information Clearing House” – When I was a young man, my best friend from college and I were riding on the subway, traveling over one of Manhattan’s famed bridges. The City in those days was in bad shape, homeless people everywhere, pornography, prostitution and worse at 42nd Street and spilling over, garbage strikes, debt piled to the ceiling, crime rampant, etc., etc.
My friend observed that everyone predicted the City would soon collapse. And then he said this: “Maybe the City has already collapsed, and nobody noticed.”
Today my friend’s question recurs. Are we on the brink of collapse in the wider society? Or have we already collapsed, and are we just unable to comprehend the fall?
The Stoneman Douglas school in Florida. Like countless school shootings before it, it summons an orgy of hand-wringing. The obvious first move is to ban guns. But that, of course, is ruled out of order in a country that produces and sells more arms than any other and means to continue. Useful idiots invoke the 2nd Amendment, subtler propagandists blame mental health, a subject they advert to on no other occasion. Congress collects its shekels, and nothing, but nothing, is done. Money calls the tune. If we produced nothing but nutmeg, and if nutmeg could kill, bet the farm no law would touch nutmeg.
But no one really thinks about the impetus to kill. Why would a mere schoolboy steel himself to kill indiscriminately? It’s not enough to say he’s insane. That merely names our ignorance. Of what nature is the insanity that would strike out against unoffending, anonymous fellows?
There are some indications. This was a shy, diminutive lad, perhaps bullied at school. Denied a biological father and mother, he was fortunate to have adoptive parents. But only one of them, the mother, was with him from early childhood to 2017, when she too died. Yet strangers tried to help him, took him in on the strength of their son’s friendship with him. Enrolled him for the GED, found him a job, even took in his arsenal on a promise that it would be locked away.
Yet he killed. Even joked about it beforehand. “I’m a professional school shooter.” He said he hated blacks, Jews, immigrants, Mexicans, liberals. He found places on the internet where these views were not condemned, or were applauded. It’s possible, I suppose, that when he went into his old school, Stoneman Douglas, from which he’d recently been expelled, there were particular people he aimed to kill, those he may have felt treated him badly.
But I doubt it. The list of victims seems indiscriminate and accidental, many of them 14 years old, children he likely did not know.
So what is it? Perhaps we deal only with a symptom, and only one, of a societal collapse that is already well under way. And perhaps the engine of this collapse is the same as the engine of our imperial project, returned home to roost. During the Vietnam War, our generals claimed the Vietnamese lacked our respect for human life. We would have to fight with redoubled viciousness to stop such beasts. Of course we did—and lost the war. It turned out it was the Americans who lacked respect for human life.
The sins of empire always return home, which is why no republic survives its own empire-building. American values, for which our politicians constantly congratulate us, decreasingly include respect for human life. Avarice and consumption are, increasingly, the only American values. There is a tipping point in this calculus which heralds the collapse of society. And we are past it.
Examples abound. Grinding poverty which is not even spoken of anymore. Thousands of deaths at the hands of a thoroughly monetized “health” care system. Education available to fewer and fewer students, whose studies are rewarded with crushing debt, never to be discharged in bankruptcy. More prisoners—in absolute numbers—than any other country. Obscenely draconian punishments, followed by a stigma which promises civil and economic death to the penitentiary’s survivors. Police posted in every school. The scant old-age protection of Social Security stolen from those who purchased it with a lifetime’s sweat, turned over to the arms makers and their bankers. Delirious, hallucinating patients dumped in the street by health care workers for the crime of indigence. Racist police killings spiraling without end. Massive incarceration and disenfranchisement of black and brown citizens. Brutal austerity measures for the poor, cutting school lunches, cutting food stamps, cutting Headstart.
Each one of these examples, a tiny sample, teaches the same lesson: human life is not valuable; empathy, unmonetizable, is worthless. Success is a zero-sum game. Capitalism is murder.
The purest strain is still exported. In Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and dozens of other places, the lesson is direct: human life is to be blasted and droned out of existence. The civilian death toll is never counted. Americans have no idea how many foreign noncombatants have died in our wars.
But the lesson is learned, even if never talked about. Young men venerate and emulate soldiers. They want those military-style weapons. They become expert at war game simulations—and in turn are recruited by a military that means to use those simulations in real time. “Enemy” lives are merely points in the game.
The military post mortem analysts of World War II were astonished and dismayed to learn that many of our soldiers did not actually fire their weapons, but faked it, because they could not bring themselves to kill their opposite numbers in battle. (The training changed for Vietnam, where fresh-faced conscripts were first taught to hate the slant-eyed gook, see him as non-human, therefore easy to kill. By now, the lesson is well-learned, practiced in all our foreign wars, and, increasingly, by our domestic police.)
And so the practice of the empire comes home. Bigotry, racism, and xenophobia are no longer out of bounds. Quite the contrary. They provide a welcome release for the hopelessness and despair coined by the new economy of disappearing alternatives. And the young, of course, are the most vulnerable, as neuroscience teaches us that the brain is not fully formed in the early twenties, emotional control is not yet stabilized. Fear and hatred are sharper, quicker to turn to violence against the self and others, driven and justified by every war crime, every domestic cruelty.
Thus, the stage is set for the final cruel irony. In schools, theatres, concerts, churches, social gatherings of any stripe all around the country, Americans are learning what it is to live in a state of war. We’d almost forgotten our last experience, in the Civil War, of being under siege, of trying to survive when a war is fought on your own land. Now we feel the terror of the Iraqi farmer, the Afghani shepherd, the Palestinian schoolkid. Now we experience, in a thousand random cuts, the hell that we’ve inflicted on the unmourned and uncounted foreign dead in their thousands and millions.
Will we make that connection? Will we finally understand that what we do is what our children learn? I’m doubtful. The exceptionalism myth is very powerful. It’s a variation on that oldest refrain, hubris. And hubris doesn’t listen. As George Orwell put it, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
Now, at home, we are forced to listen. But will we hear? Reform must start with the guns, of course. But it’s going to have to go a lot further and deeper than that.
This article was originally published by “Information Clearing House” –