A new year promises change and fresh hope, and yet, less than two weeks into 2013, there has been another school shooting in America.
Thankfully, the student gunman who entered Taft Union High School in California on Friday was dissuaded – after shooting and injuring two people – from committing his murderous spree. However, the fact that this young man could even contemplate such a crime, less than a month after the horrific shootings in Newtown, shows how endemic is America’s current malaise.
The FBI classifies a ‘mass shooting’ as a single murderous act in which more than four people – the perpetrator excluded – are killed. Since 1982, there have been 62 shootings matching this criteria in the US. This figure becomes even more disturbing when you learn that over a third of these (25) shootings have occurred since 2006—even while US gun crime on the whole has fallen dramatically.
Last year there were seven mass shootings in America (if we include those with more than one shooter, there were sixteen, more than one a month) leaving 88 people dead. Perhaps only a handful of these ‘sprees’ will be remembered. In July, when James Holmes – a 24 year old phD student – burst into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and shot 70 people, killing twelve, I did not think it could get any worse: yet, five months and five mass shootings later; came an event unique in its horror, but not in its nature.
The Newtown killings could have happened anywhere in America, as could any of the other sixteen of last year. Every time a mass shooting occurs – whether it be at a school, hospital, church – the sheer senseless randomness of the horror is continuously remarked upon. Yet when such terrible events are so frequent; it is perhaps their predictability which should be cursed.
A few days ago, Vice-President Joe Biden and his gun-control ‘Task Force’ – set up in the wake of Newtown – made their suggestions to Obama about how to reform US gun law, so that further disasters can be prevented. If the recently re-elected pioneer of ‘change’ wishes to be truly reformative; the very least he can do is reinstate the ban on the sale of assault weapons, passed by Clinton in 1994—after much congressional wrangling that limited the length of its statute to only ten years. Of course, this is not simply enough, and even if the President were to ban the future sale of all firearms in the United States – a move only possible when pot-bellies strafe the skies – the mass shooting would still not become extinct. Shockingly, there is some doubt whether Obama can even pass this relatively supine legislation—when asked recently if a new ban would be allowed through Congress, John McCain, without hesitation, replied “No.”
The mass shooting, now almost a trademark of modern American society, is about more than gun ownership. Though of course the immediate problem is the legality and prevalence of firearms, there are more deep-seated national problems that I believe breed and encourage those able to perpetrate these most callous of crimes.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am no sickle-hugging Mickey Mouse-bashing anti-American; quite the opposite in fact. I am fascinated by US politics; I wear American clothes, listen to American music, watch American films, and I – like most others in this country and the world – would love to live in the United States some day. Indeed, I believe it is my love of all things Americana that makes me so aghast that a nation so great, can be so deeply flawed. A nation whose favourite supermarket (WalMart) sells assault rifles to 18 year olds, but does not allow the sale of music with curse words in the lyrics.
It dawned on me when visiting the West Coast this summer exactly how ruthlessly individualist America really is. This, I suspect, has a great affect on the actions of angry young men like Adam Lanza and James Holmes. The continued failure of Obama to implement even a semblance of universal healthcare is the perfect analogy for these wider problems. In America, you are born on your own and, unless you are financially stable, you die on your own too (I tried not to sound too smug when extolling the wonders of the NHS on those I met) but I was surprised that a nation – supposedly the most civilised on earth – do not provide basic medical care for their most needy.
Another facet of America’s ruthless individualism is in the shape of the almighty automobile. If you don’t drive in America, you had better love where you live. Public transport, especially on a national level, is almost non-existent. I was shocked to discover there was no direct train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and that the proposed building of one was facing overwhelming opposition. LA used to have a mass transit system envied the world over – the Red Car Railway – but it was bought up by and closed down by, of all people, the Automobile Association of Southern California. Now, the only way around the city, is sitting in an air-conditioned box creeping along the freeways that make up LA’s severely clogged arteries. The perfect way to alienate yourself from your fellow citizens.
I am astonished that there is no major desire to connect a nation which purports to be so passionately united. In reality, of course, America’s shameless jingoism hides the reality of an extremely divided nation. A draconian immigration policy is used to reinforce the idea of a nation under siege from unclean armies of ‘illegal aliens.’ And yet, despite being told from birth that ‘YOU. ARE. AN AMERICAN,’ most residents appear fascinated with anything that will differentiate them from their countrymen. Whether it be their surname, the colour of their skin, the denomination of their church—most Americans are obsessed with their ‘heritage,’ and are first and foremost an Italian-American, an African-American, a Mexican-American, a Red-neck or a Yankee. A nation so determined to appear united – which force feeds its citizens and the world this powerful image – actually ends up isolating the very people it claims to care the most about.
However, the biggest divide in America exists between the haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor. The main reason Obama will struggle to instigate meaningful reform of gun ownership laws is that guns are big business, and in America money is the primary factor. The NRA alone donated $24 million during the 2012 elections, and not just to the Republican Party (often seen as the bastion of the bible-bashing gun-nuts.) Whilst hoping that Newtown will provide a watershed moment in the American psyche and induce meaningful reform in gun laws, the cynic inside of me is still highly doubtful. The one concrete truth to emerge from the whole health reform debacle was how deeply entrenched vested interests were in Congress. Pork-barrel politics may sound delicious, but it stands in the way of any real change in the US.
Amassing personal fortune, even if it is to the detriment of others, is seen as the essence of the American Dream, and this creates a nation of individuals all out for personal gain. This perpetuation of a selfish ideal alienates and rejects those without money, and makes them begrudge those that have it. This toxic atmosphere does not encourage compassion. To the contrary: it breeds anger. It is from this divided and contemptuous society that people emerge capable of committing atrocities such as those in Columbine and Aurora and all the other banal names that will live long in the collective memory for all the wrong reasons.
America is great, and my hope is that the American people will emerge from the blood-stained year that was 2012 with a real conviction to change things for the better. When Piers Morgan emerges as a voice of reason within your society, you know you have a real problem.