FP | If there is any singular feature that characterizes how many Americans understand our national relation to violence, it is our ingenuity at looking the other way, at siloing problems away from one another, and at disavowing, sublimating, or repackaging our complicity in the most easily observable patterns.
Signs of supposed progress in expressions of American violence often disguise profound continuities. For example: The era of highly visible public lynchings, which is estimated to have claimed some 5,000 lives, has passed. Yet since then we have moved on to an institutionalized death penalty regime, wherein states that previously had the highest numbers of lynchings now have the greatest numbers of black people on death row. Both per capita and in raw numbers, America’s prisons warehouse more human beings than any other country on the planet, and its police demonstrate a clear pattern of racial bias in killing their fellow citizens at a rate stratospherically higher than that of any of its supposed peer nations. U.S. soldiers are deployed in some 135 countries, and the number of troops actually engaged in combat is almost certainly much higher than authorities are willing to admit. Meanwhile, America is far and away the world’s largest exporter of weapons, with the global arms industry’s largest and most profitable players based in the United States and reaping booming markets in conflict zones while being heavily subsidized by federal and state tax dollars.
Everyday Americans may not be “inherently more prone to violence,” but our way of life is certainly structured around violence and around selectively empowering, quarantining, directing, and monetizing it at home and abroad. The majority of Americans apparently find no cognitive dissonance in this arrangement, if we even perceive it at all. Instead, we express bafflement and outrage that we are not something other than what we are and what we have always been. Plumbing what lurks within the “essential American soul,” a cynic might suggest, is a self-indulgent exercise, a red herring. The better question might be whether we even have one in the first place.