Just another murderous day in America

In the US we are so used to people being killed by guns that reports on such events are relegated to a few lines in local media or even none at all. It is only people outside the country who are astounded at the high rate of violent deaths and how we do not treat it as a scandalous epidemic that requires an immediate response.

British reporter Gary Younge has a new book that looks in depth at a specific day in America. On Saturday, November 23, 2013, 10 children and teens were killed by guns. The youngest was nine, the oldest 19 and the average age was 14.7. Seven were black, two Latinos, and one white. But this day was chosen by him at random and those numbers do not even represent all the deaths of teens and children that day since there is no national database that records gun deaths. They were just the ones that he could find by scouring local media for news items. In other words, this horrific statistic represents just a typical day in the gun-obsessed, blood-soaked nation that is the US.

In a lengthy interview, he talks about what he learned by looking closely into these deaths and how we rationalize away the carnage that is going on all around us as some kind of aberration when it is not.

Set less than a year after the Sandy Hook shooting, when a lone gunman killed six adults and 20 small children at a Connecticut elementary school, the book aims to capture the dissonance between Americans’ obsession with the all-too-regular spectacle of mass shootings and the “national shrug” with which the relentless stream of gun deaths is met every day. Yet the book is not polemical in the way gun debates often are; it is more simply and powerfully a quiet collection of stories. As Younge writes, “It is not a book about gun control,” though “it is a book made possible by the absence of gun control.”

It’s a book about America. And you can’t talk about America without talking about race, but the way people understand race in America all too often is an exclusive, discrete thing, as opposed to something integral to the country. This was a random day rather than a representative day: way more black kids were shot dead than normal. But there is this very clear racial overlay to the way in which gun deaths are understood. Americans want to find a way to discount these deaths, “because they’re gang related” or “because they happened in this part of town,” and that’s a way of saying, “it’s not just that these people are likely [to die], they’re actually not really people.” It’s like this is happening to a different species.

You see that in some of the comments. After Samuel Brightmon is killed while walking a friend home he gets just 81 words in the paper, and this woman says, “Well I know where my children are, why don’t his parents know where his children are?” His mom knew exactly where he was.

I was on a radio show recently and someone said, “If you took out three or four cities, then this country wouldn’t look so bad.” How do you do that? If you just imagine America without Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Oakland, then what is the rest of America? It’s crazy. They have arranged a way of trying to reimagine America without these people in it.

No other Western country has death like this, because no other Western country has access to lethal weapons in this way. Nonetheless there is this huge pile of tinder onto which these lethal weapons are flowing: segregation, isolation, the lack of youth services, deindustrialization, poverty. There are all these things that come together, so to talk about gun control by itself, in most of these places, is an insufficient conversation. There’s nothing here, there are no jobs, there’s no hope, the schools are terrible, they’re policed like an occupied territory, the kids are going to prison, there are no youth services, the basketball courts don’t work, there are no health services. You get guns into that and of course what you get is this kind of failed state; but you withdraw guns from that and it’s not like what you get is Switzerland or Sweden. You get a failed a state where people aren’t armed.

America does a very good job of telling itself these stories of victories and reinventing itself. In a way, that makes it very easy first of all to forget where it’s been, but certainly what’s still going on. So, Obama is elected in 2008 and people say, “Well this is a post-racial America, this is the end.” And he’s leaving eight years later and black people are still being shot dead in the street and Donald Trump has been elected. But the American narrative is one of this constant sense of reinvention, which is kind of beyond truth really. They’ll say, “We’re done with that, we’ll travel light not only in terms of our historical baggage, but even stuff that’s going on now. We’re just going to say it’s not happening.”

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside has a very good formulation to this, which is that black communities in America are over-policed but underserved. There are police everywhere until you need them. Their job is not to serve those communities but to control them. There’s very little confidence in police. Pretty much all the families I spoke to just don’t think the system is working for them. They don’t assume that their child’s life matters to the people charged with finding out; they just think they don’t care, and the basis for that is how few people get back to them. Because journalists don’t follow up on these things, there’s no pressure. There’s no political pressure. These people don’t contribute to campaigns, journalists don’t follow up on their stories, they can’t afford lawyers. There’s no pressure on police to do anything, which would not be true if it was a rich person in a fancy part of town.

We are so good at deluding ourselves that things are better than they are. On a personal level, this attitude may be necessary in order simply to get through the day. People who experience a senseless tragedy need to find some silver lining in order to regain hope that things are not really that bad and that life is still worth living. But that same survival technique may not be what is best on a societal level. That might require a hard, brutal look at the reality if we are going to deal with the problem effectively. And in American right now, guns, racism, and economic desperation combine to form a volatile mix that we ignore at our peril.


  1. says

    We are so good at deluding ourselves that things are better than they are.

    … at the same time as being deluded that things are worse than they are.

    You know, ISIS is going to come over here and kill us, so we need to have a huge military effort to bomb them in order to something something. Meanwhile, the cops that supposedly keep us safe are vastly more likely to kill us than anyone from ISIS is. Assuming we don’t die from the screwed up medical care system, etc. It’s a weird mix of “FNORD FNORD FNORD” and “carry on and consume!”

  2. says

    Tabby Lavalamp:
    The US is a failed state

    I’m afraid it’s fairly successful. Its rulers are well taken care-of.

    What it’s not is a legitimate state. It’s a thinly camouflaged oligarchy. As it’s not a legitimate government the people living within its borders have every reason to consider themselves under an occupying power.

  3. says

    Nordic countries seem to be getting along quite nicely. Also Uruguay, to a degree.

    I don’t remember the exact numbers, but after Sandy Hook, a ridiculously large majority of Americans (pretty sure it was over 60%) were in favor of stricter gun-control laws and nothing happened. I don’t know what the hell you guys think you have going on up there, but it’s not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination.

  4. invivoMark says

    @mnb0, and the reason that gun-associated death rates (not just homicides) have been declining is because fewer people own guns. There are more guns owned, but they are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people. Of course, it is also true that over time, a person who is purchasing a gun is more likely to be a mass-murderer -- simple math necessitates this conclusion, as mass-murders are on the rise -- but hey, do we really need tighter gun control? Why let a few thousand human lives get ever so slightly in the way of a good collector’s hobby?

  5. says

    is there such a thing as a legitimate state?

    The only state I would be able to recognize as legitimate would be an ideal democracy, in which all significant decisions were made by a supermajority of the citizenry.

    Any other political system would depend on disempowering a minority, or allowing a minority of “super voters” or “representatives” to make decisions in place of the majority. Further, any state that asserts a monopoly on political violence cannot be legitimate, because it’s implicitly coercive -- i.e.: its police and military can tell you what to do and make it stick, whether you agree or not. Of course such state would not last very long or be very successful, but that’s not my problem.

  6. says

    A Lurker From Mexico@#6:
    I don’t know what the hell you guys think you have going on up there, but it’s not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination.

    It’s an oligarchy. As we’ve just seen today, 500 or so oligarchs select the leader and completely ignore the popular vote.

  7. Silentbob says

    @ 5 mnb0

    “In the US we are so used to people being killed by guns”
    that some forget that the rates have been declining since 20 years.


    So it may be a bit premature to conclude that the USA is “a gun-obsessed, blood-soaked nation”.

    That’s a non sequitur. You can’t determine whether the USA is a gun-obsessed, blood-soaked nation by comparing it to itself 20 years ago, but by comparing it to other nations. From your own link:

    The US homicide rate, which has declined substantially since 1992 from a rate per 100,000 persons of 9.8 to 4.5 in 2013, is still among the highest in the industrialized world. [… ] In 2004, there were 5.5 homicides for every 100,000 persons, roughly three times as high as Canada (1.9) and six times as high as Germany and Italy (0.9).

    I’ve linked this infographic from the BBC before, but I’ll do it again because it seems much more relevant than your link to the contention that the USA is “a gun-obsessed, blood-soaked nation”. One look at that and the answer is obvious: Yes, it is.

  8. invivoMark says

    @Marcus Ranum #8, the problem with defining a legitimate state in such a stringent and nigh-impossible way is that it makes your claim that the US is not a legitimate state next to worthless. You might as well say that the US is a state. I’m really not sure what point you’re trying to make, if it’s anything beyond that obvious truism.

  9. says

    @Marcus Ranum #8, the problem with defining a legitimate state in such a stringent and nigh-impossible way is that it makes your claim that the US is not a legitimate state next to worthless.

    Uh, no. It sets a bar as to what constitutes political legitimacy. The fact that virtually no state is legitimate under that definition is not my problem; it’s a problem with the degree of political control to which people willingly subject themselves, or are willing to accept under threat of violence.

    anything beyond that obvious truism

    I’m not trying to say the US is a state, you said that. Yes, it’s true. But the US is not a state that derives its operation from the will of the people. That’s not an obvious truism, it’s your pointless reformulation of my remarks that are the truism.

    A street gang of thugs doesn’t care if they’re legitimate, either. It doesn’t make them any less of a street gang of thugs. You’re arguing that because there are nothing but street gangs of thugs that it’s pointless to say they are thugs? I don’t agree. They are still thugs.

  10. Silentbob says

    @ ^

    Actually, in the context of the analogy, you said they were not a legitimate street gang of thugs.

    Hence AndrewD & invivoMark’s observation that the qualifier is hardly necessary under your definition.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 mnb0

    some forget that the rates [of homicide in the USA] have been declining since 20 years

    True but the same is true of almost all OECD members, it’s just that the USA’s rate is higher than anyone other than Mexico which we know is in the grip of a drug war. The only other countries that seems even close to the US rate afre Estonia whose high rate has been dropping precipitously in the last 20 years and Chile which looks like it’s probably plateauing. https://www.quandl.com/collections/society/oecd-murder-rates. As far as I can see it looks like Most Recent is probably 2014. Incompetent table creators.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    jrkrideau @ # 14: … Mexico which we know is in the grip of a drug war.

    A drug war driven entirely by the US market on one side and in large party by US taxpayers on the other, and probably conducted with mostly US weaponry all around.

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