“The Terminal List” and America’s Vision of the Heroic

“Trust no one” could be the motto of “The Terminal List.” And “kill all those who betray you.”

W.J. Astore

What is it about this country and guns and violence?  

The Westerns I watched as a kid (John Wayne in particular) had guns in them, of course.  Colt pistols, Winchester rifles, an occasional shotgun.  And there was no shortage of violence.

But nowadays shows/movies feature much more gunplay with military-grade weapons and armor.  The Western isn’t in vogue today.  It’s military dramas instead.  America’s overseas wars have come home for real on our streets and in mass shootings, but they’ve also come home on our screens, where SEALs are the new heroes.

A short series I recently watched, The Terminal List, features a Navy SEAL who must “go to war” domestically because he’s been betrayed by the U.S. government, which even kills his wife and daughter.  Action scenes feature sniper rifles, assault rifles, grenades, explosions, and torture (one man is hung by his own intestines).

Torture and war, common to America’s war on terror, are now here to terrorize us, on our screens but also increasingly on our streets. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone complaining about violence on TV, as people did in the 1980s.  It’s now acceptable, par for the course.  We are inured to it.  Worse: we desire it, or at least some of us do, judging by the success of The Terminal List and similar shows.

The theme is “trust no one” and exact your revenge in the most violent way possible.  The SEAL in Terminal List keeps his own kill list: echoes of Barack Obama and his presidential kill list.  But a democracy saturated in militarized violence can’t possibly survive as a democracy.

Interestingly, today it’s the MAGA Right that distrusts government with a passion.  Fifty years ago, with the Vietnam War running down and Watergate winding up, it was the Left that distrusted government.

One of my favorite movies from the 1970s is Three Days of the Condor, which can profitably be compared to The Terminal List.  The hero in the first movie is a bookish guy who’s betrayed by the CIA.  The hero in this year’s Terminal List is a Navy SEAL and a violent man of action.  In Condor, Robert Redford’s character outthinks his opponents and goes to the New York Times with proof of governmental corruption.  The Navy SEAL simply kills all his enemies, or they kill themselves when faced with his demands for retribution, with an impressive range of deadly weapons.  (Of course, such violent fantasies of hard men meting out murderous justice are hardly new; think of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo or various Chuck Norris vehicles.)

The Terminal List is truly a series for our times.  It’s slickly done, and Chris Pratt is good in it.  What it reveals is the profound skepticism so many Americans have in their government and in corporations — and rightly so.

The problem is elevating a Navy SEAL as the principled hero. SEALs make good warriors but are they what America wants for vigilante justice?  In real life, SEALs can be loose cannons, as recent events show.

For me, real heroes are not often chiseled men of action like Chris Pratt’s Navy SEAL, with all his guns and violence.  Or for that matter Rambo. Think instead of Chelsea Manning, Daniel Hale, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange.  They may lack bulging biceps and impressive arsenals, yet Manning and Hale went to prison to reveal war crimes, Snowden is in exile for taking on the government and telling us the truth about wars and our surveillance state, and Assange is being tortured in prison for practicing oppositional journalism, otherwise known as real reporting.

Heroes in life come in all shapes and sizes; a Navy SEAL may be among the least likely of shapes and sizes we’ll see.  They often do their best work without guns and grenades and without lengthy kill lists and torture routines.  Their strength is measured by their principles, not by their pecs.

I think even John Wayne might agree with me here.

The Nasty Voices in Our Heads

There’s way too much fear mongering in America, which helps to drive the paranoid nature of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which I’ve included below in its entirety. If you don’t read TomDispatch, I urge you to subscribe (top right corner on the home page). Tom Engelhardt has been running the site for 20 years (I’ve been writing for it for 15 of them), and I’ve found the content to be stimulating and thought-provoking. Many thanks for your continued interest in “Bracing Views” as well, which, I joke to Tom, is a little like a baby TomDispatch.

Dystopia, Not Democracy

I have a brother with chronic schizophrenia. He had his first severe catatonic episode when he was 16 years old and I was 10. Later, he suffered from auditory hallucinations and heard voices saying nasty things to him. I remember my father reassuring him that the voices weren’t real and asking him whether he could ignore them. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

That conversation between my father and brother has been on my mind, as I’ve been experiencing America’s increasingly divided, almost schizoid, version of social discourse. It’s as if this country were suffering from some set of collective auditory hallucinations whose lead feature was nastiness.

Take cover! We’re being threatened by a revived red(dish) menace from a “rogue” Russia! A “Yellow peril” from China! Iran with a nuke! And then there are the alleged threats at home. “Groomers”! MAGA kooks! And on and on.

Of course, America continues to face actual threats to its security and domestic tranquility. Here at home that would include regular mass shootings; controversial decisions by an openly partisan Supreme Court; the Capitol riot that the House January 6th select committee has repeatedly reminded us about; and growing uncertainty when it comes to what, if anything, still unifies these once United States. All this has Americans increasingly vexed and stressed.

Meanwhile, internationally, wars and rumors of war continue to be a constant plague, made worse by the exaggeration of threats to national security. History teaches us that such threats have sometimes not just been inflated but created ex nihilo. Those would, for instance, include the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin attack cited as the justification for a major military escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965 or those non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country.

All this and more is combining to create a paranoid and increasingly violent country, an America deeply fearful and perpetually thinking about warring on other peoples as well as on itself.

My brother’s doctors treated him as best they could with various drugs and electroshock therapy. Crude as that treatment regimen was then (and remains today), it did help him cope. But what if his doctors, instead of trying to reduce his symptoms, had conspired to amplify them? Indeed, what if they had told him that he should listen to those voices and so aggravate his fears? What if they had advised him that sanity meant arming himself against those very voices? Wouldn’t we, then or now, have said that they were guilty of the worst form of medical malpractice?

And isn’t that, by analogy, true of America’s leaders in these years, as they’ve driven this society to be ever less trusting and more fearful in the name of protecting and advancing their wealth, power, and security?

Fear Is the Mind-Killer

If you’re plugged into the mental matrix that’s America in 2022, you’re constantly exposed to fear. Fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, is the mind-killer. The voices around us encourage it. Fear your MAGA-hat-wearing neighbor with his steroidal truck and his sizeable collection of guns as he supposedly plots a coup against America. Alternately, fear your “libtard” neighbor with her rainbow peace flag as she allegedly plots to confiscate your guns and brainwash your kids. Small wonder that more than 37 million Americans take antidepressants, roughly one in nine of us, or that, in 2016, this country accounted for 80% of the global market for opioid prescriptions.

A climate of fear has led to 43 million new guns being purchased by Americans in 2020 and 2021 in a land singularly awash in more than 400 million firearms, including more than 20 million assault rifles. A climate of fear has led to police forces being heavily militarized and fully funded rather than “defunded” (which actually would mean a bit less money going to the police and a bit more to non-violent options like counseling and mental-health services). A climate of fear has led Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who can agree on little else to vote almost unanimously to fork over $840 billion to the Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2023 for yet more wars and murderous weaponry. (Of course, the true budget for what is still coyly called “national defense” will soar well above a trillion dollars then, as it often has since 9/11/2001 and the announcement of a “global war on terror.”)

The idea that enemies are everywhere is, of course, useful if you’re seeking to create a heavily armed and militarized form of insanity.

It’s summer and these days it just couldn’t be hotter, so perhaps you’ll allow me to riff briefly about a scene I’ve never forgotten from The Big Red One, a war film I saw in 1980. It involved a World War II firefight between American and German troops in a Belgian insane asylum during which one of the mental patients picks up a submachine gun and starts blasting away, shouting, “I am one of you. I am sane!” In 2022, sign him up and give him a battlefield commission.

Where fear is omnipresent and violence becomes routinized and normalized, what you end up with is dystopia, not democracy.

We Must Not Be Friends but Enemies

At this point, consider us to be in a distinctly upside-down world. Reverse Abraham Lincoln’s moving plea to Southern secessionists in his first inaugural address in 1861 — “We must not be enemies but friends. We must not be enemies” — and you’ve summed up all too well our domestic and foreign policy today. No, we’re neither in a civil war nor a world war yet, but America’s national (in)security state does continue to insist that virtually every rival to our imperial being must be transformed into an enemy, whether it’s Russia, China, or much of the Middle East. Enemies are everywhere and must be feared, or so we’re repetitiously told anyway.

I remember well the time in 1991-1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed and America emerged as the sole victorious superpower of the Cold War. I was a captain then, teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Those were also the years when, even without the Soviet Union, the militarization of this society somehow never seemed to end. Not long after, in launching a conflict against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, this country officially kicked ass in the Middle East and President George H.W. Bush assured Americans that, by going to war again, we had also kicked our “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all. Little did we guess then that two deeply destructive and wasteful quagmire wars, entirely unnecessary for our national defense, awaited us in Afghanistan and Iraq in the century to come.

Never has a country squandered victory — and a genuinely global victory at that! — so completely as ours has over the last 30 years. And yet there are few in power who consider altering the fearful course we’re still on.

A significant culprit here is the military-industrial-congressional complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about in his farewell address in 1961. But there’s more to it than that. The United States has, it seems, always reveled in violence, possibly as an antidote to being consumed by fear. Yet the intensity of both violence and fear seems to be soaring. Yes, our leaders clearly exaggerated the Soviet threat during the Cold War, but at least there was indeed a threat. Vladimir Putin’s Russia isn’t close to being in the same league, yet they’ve treated his war with Ukraine as if it were an attack on California or Texas. (That and the Pentagon budget may be the only things the two parties can mostly agree on.)

Recall that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in horrible shape, a toothless, clawless bear, suffering in its cage. Instead of trying to help, our leaders decided to mistreat it further. To shrink its cage by expanding NATO. To torment it through various forms of economic exploitation and financial appropriation. “Russia Is Finished” declared the cover article of the Atlantic Monthly in May 2001, and no one in America seemed faintly concerned. Mercy and compassion were in short supply as all seemed right with the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth.

Now the Russian Bear is back — more menacing than ever, we’re told. Marked as “finished” two decades ago, that country is supposedly on the march again, not just in its invasion of Ukraine but in President Vladimir Putin’s alleged quest for a new Russian empire. Instead of Peter the Great, we now have Putin the Great glowering at Europe — unless, that is, America stands firm and fights bravely to the last Ukrainian.

Add to that ever-fiercer warnings about a resurgent China that echo the racist “Yellow Peril” tropes of more than a century ago. Why, for example, must President Joe Biden speak of China as a competitor and threat rather than as a trade partner and potential ally? Even anti-communist zealot Richard Nixon went to China during his presidency and made nice with Chairman Mao, if only to complicate matters for the Soviet Union.

If imperial America were willing to share the world on roughly equal terms, Russia and China could be “near-peer” friends instead of, in the Pentagon phrase of the moment, “near-peer adversaries.” Perhaps they could even be allies of a kind, rather than rivals always on the cusp of what might potentially become a world-ending war. But the voices that seek access to our heads prefer to whisper sneakily of enemies rather than calmly of potential allies in creating a better planet.

And yet, guess what, whether anyone in Washington admits it or not: we’re already rather friendly with (as well as heavily dependent on) China. Here are just two recent examples from my own mundane life. I ordered a fan — it’s hot as I type these words in my decidedly unairconditioned office — from AAFES, a department store of sorts that serves members of the military, in service or retired, and their families. It came a few days later at an affordable price. As I put it together, I saw the label: “Made in China.” Thank you for the cooling breeze, Xi Jinping!

Then I decided to order a Henley shirt from Jockey, a name with a thoroughly American pedigree. You guessed it! That shirt was plainly marked “Made in China.” (Jockey, to its credit, does have a “Made in America” collection and I got two white cotton t-shirts from it.) You get my point: the American consumer would be lost without China, the present workhouse for the world.

You’d think a war, or even a new Cold War, with America’s number-one provider of stuff of every sort would be dumb, but no one is going to lose any bets by underestimating how dumb Americans can be. Otherwise, how can you explain Donald Trump? And not just his presidency either. What about his “Trump steaks,” “Trump university,” even “Trump vodka”? After all, who could be relied upon to know more about the quality of vodka than a man who refuses to drink it? 

Learning from Charlie Brown

Returning to fears and psychiatric help, one of my favorite scenes is from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In that classic 1965 cartoon holiday special, Lucy ostensibly tries to help Charlie with his seasonal depression by labeling what ails him. The wannabe shrink goes through a short list of phobias until she lands on “pantophobia,” which she defines as “the fear of everything.” Charlie Brown shouts, “That’s it!”

Deep down, he knows perfectly well that he isn’t afraid of everything. What he doesn’t know, however, and what that cartoon is eager to show us, is how he can snap out of his mental funk. All that he needs is a little love, a little hands-on kindness from the other children.

America writ large today is, to my mind, a little like Charlie Brown — down in the dumps, bedraggled, having lost a clear sense of what life in our country should be all about. We need to come together and share a measure of compassion and love. Except our Lucys aren’t trying to lend a hand at the “psychiatric help” stand. They’re trying to persuade us that pantophobia, the fear of everything, is normal, even laudable. Their voices keep telling us to fear — and fear some more.

It’s not easy, America, to tune those voices out. My brother could tell you that. At times, he needed an asylum to escape them. What he needed most, though, was love or at least some good will and understanding from his fellow humans. What he didn’t need was more fear and neither do we. We — most of us anyway — still believe ourselves to be the “sane” ones. So why do we continue to tolerate leaders, institutions, and whole political parties intent on eroding our sanity and exploiting our fears in service of their own power and perks?

Remember that mental patient in The Big Red One, who picks up a gun and starts blasting people while crying that he’s “sane”? We’ll know we’re on the path to sanity when we finally master our fear, put down our guns, and stop eternally preparing to blast people at home and abroad.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

American Exceptionalism

W.J. Astore

Two images of American exceptionalism to mull over today. The first shows how exceptional the U.S. is with its military spending:

Of course, U.S. military spending is projected to rise in FY 2023 to $840 billion or so. Note how most of the countries that spend significant sums on their military are U.S. allies, such as Germany, the U.K., Japan, and South Korea. Russia is weakening due to its war with Ukraine, yet U.S. military spending continues to soar because of alleged threats from Russia and China.

The second image is a spoof sent by a friend, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it did become the official seal of the Department of Education:

Jesus riding a dinosaur: Why not? We have serious museums for creationists in the U.S., where dinosaurs wear saddles and Adam and Eve are depicted as cavorting with creatures dating to the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. I’m not sure how they all fit on Noah’s ark, but the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Given the emphasis on gun rights, babies, and Jesus in America, perhaps the bald eagle isn’t our best national symbol. Perhaps it should be the Baby Jesus holding an assault rifle. It certainly would give new meaning to “love God” and “love thy neighbor.”

Packing Heat in America

A police officer reacts to the Highland Park mass shooting near Chicago on July 4th (Getty images)

W.J. Astore

Another mass shooting in America, this one during a July 4th parade, killing six and wounding dozens. I saw this blinding flash of the obvious at the New York Times today: “Why does the U.S. have so many mass shootings? Mostly because people have so many guns.” Well, that seems logical. I saw an interview on MSNBC where it was asked whether the shooter was a Trump supporter and whether he was a “loner.” To his credit, the expert being interviewed explained that, though the shooter posed with a Trump flag, it may have been meant ironically, and that he wasn’t a loner in the traditional sense as he was part of an active online community of bizarre mass shooting enthusiasts.

There’s always the tendency to dismiss these shooters as loners, as nutcases, and to politicize it as well by suggesting that Trump or some other figure was at least partially responsible. But America had plenty of mass shootings before Trump came along, and these guys are not all loners. Indeed, in some sense they’re a manifestation of a society obsessed with guns and violence, of settling scores and dominating the Other (or others) through killing, mainly with guns.

Speaking of killing with guns, is it really necessary to shoot an apparently unarmed Black man sixty times (!) after he fled a traffic stop? Here’s the story from CNN:

The city of Akron, Ohio, remains on edge one week after the fatal police shooting of 25-year-old Jayland Walker. A news conference held by city officials on Sunday — along with the release of 13 police body camera videos — has started to paint a fuller picture of the shooting, which police say happened when Walker, who is Black, fled an attempted traffic stop on June 27. Walker was unarmed at the time he was killed, Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett said. Authorities said Walker suffered at least 60 wounds in the fatal shooting. The Mayor of Akron declared a state of emergency and issued a curfew for Monday night through this morning in order to “preserve peace” in the community. 

A “curfew” to preserve peace: Something tells me we’re going to see a lot more of these “curfews” in the U.S. in the coming years, enforced by heavily armed police with converted MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. It’s hard not to think that America’s overseas wars have come home to Main Street USA, not in the same form as Baghdad or Kabul, but close enough.

Americans tend to put a lot of faith in “good guys with guns.” Those “good guys” failed to act for more than an hour in Uvalde, Texas, a delay that led to more children being slaughtered. In Akron, Ohio, the “good guys” apparently fired more than 60 rounds at Jayland Walker, who apparently was unarmed at the time of the shooting (though apparently he had a gun in his car). I like this official statement by the police: “The decision to deploy lethal force as well as the number of shots fired is consistent with use of force protocols and officers’ training,” the Fraternal Order of Police Akron Lodge 7 said in a statement.

America is in the (pistol) grips of a massive social experiment: what happens to a society when it’s consistently betrayed by its leaders, when people are increasingly desperate and fearful, and where those same people are massively armed with readily-available guns, including military-grade firearms. A society that continues to advertise violence on its TV and cable shows, that continues to suggest that more guns are the answer to gun violence, where the Supreme Court of the land embraces the idea of open carry of loaded firearms as a fundamental Constitutional right. It seems a foregone conclusion that such an experiment can only lead to higher body counts across the country. And indeed there were many more deadly shootings this past weekend, as this article summarizes.

Welcome to “extreme life,” as Tom Engelhardt notes today at TomDispatch.com. And while his article focuses mainly on soaring temperatures and extreme weather due to climate change, he starts by noting how the Supreme Court struck down the New York law that restricted the carrying of concealed firearms. Yes, America today is “packing heat” in more ways than one. Rising temperatures, soaring gun sales, more and more mass shootings, increasing alienation and unease: these times aren’t just “interesting,” as the alleged Chinese curse goes, they truly are increasingly extreme.

And in extremity, people often make the worst of choices, turning to anyone who promises them relief, a measure of “peace,” even if it takes the form of a militarized curfew.

Going “Hard” in America’s Schools

Hardening Schools and Arming Teachers Is the Wrong Approach

BY WILLIAM J. ASTORE

Originally posted at TomDispatch.com.

American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.

Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.

That “softness” diagnosis leads to a seemingly logical quick fix: “harden” the schools, of course! Make them into “targets” too intimidating to approach thanks to, among other security measures, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof doors and windows, reinforced fences, armed guards, and even armed teachers.

Here’s the simple formula for it all: no more limpness, America, it’s time to get hard. Johnny and Janey may still find it challenging to read books or balance a checkbook (or even know what a checkbook is), but, hey, there must be an app for that, right? At least they’ll stay alive in our newly hardened schools. Or so we hope. There’s no app, after all, for reviving our kids after they’ve been shot and shredded by some assault-rifle-wielding maniac.

As a retired military officer and professor, and a former gun owner, the latest chapter in this country’s gun mania, the Republican urge to keep all those assault weapons circulating and still protect our children, strikes me not just all too strangely, but all too familiarly as well. Those voices calling for billions of dollars to “harden” schools reflect, of course, the imagery of a sexualized hyper-masculinity, but something else as well: a fetish for military-speak. In my service, the Air Force, we regularly spoke of “hardening” targets or “neutralizing” them.

In essence, politicians like Graham and Cruz seem way too eager to turn our schools into some combination of fortresses and bomb shelters, baby versions of the massive nuclear shelter I occupied in the 1980s during my first tour of duty in the Air Force (on which more in a moment). Button up and hunker down, America — not from the long-gone “red” enemy without, armed with nuclear missiles, but from the red-hot (as in murderously hateful) enemy within. These days, that increasingly means a school-age shooter or shooters armed with military-grade weaponry, usually acquired all too legally. Sound the klaxons! Lock and (especially) load! It’s time to go to DEFCON 1 (maximum military readiness, as in war) not in nuclear shelters but in America’s schools.

Speaking of my Cold War nuclear-bunker days in the 1980s, when I was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, America’s command center for its nuclear defense in Colorado, a few things stood out then. Security guards, for one. Locking cipher doors, for another. Security ID badges. Razor wire. Video monitors. Blast doors. I was in the ultimate lockdown fortress. But tell me the truth: Is this truly what we want our schools to look like — pseudo-military bunkers for the (hot) war increasingly blazing in our society?

In fact, the whole “hardening” idea represents not a defense against, but a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death. To submit to such a scenario is, in the view of this retired military officer and educator, a thoroughly defeatist approach to both safety and education. It’s tantamount to admitting that violence and fear not only rule our lives but will continue to do so in ever more horrific ways and that the only solution is to go hard with even more “security” and even more guns. Hardening our schools implies hardening our hearts and minds, while we cede yet more power to security experts and police forces. And that may be precisely why so many authority figures so lustily advocate for the “hard” way. It is, in the end, the easy path to disaster.

The Hard Way as the Easy Way Out

Though six of my college-teaching years were at a military academy, where I wore a uniform and my students saluted me as class began, it never occurred to me to carry a loaded gun (even concealed). For the remaining nine years, I taught at a conservative college in rural Pennsylvania where, you may be surprised to learn, guns were then forbidden on campus. But that, of course, was in another age. Only at the tail end of my college teaching career were lockable doors installed and voluntary lockdown drills instituted.

I never ran such a drill myself.

Why not? Because I refused to inject more fear into the minds of my students. In truth, given the unimaginably violent chaos of a school shooting, you’d almost automatically know what to do: lock the door(s) to try to keep the shooter out, call 911, and duck and cover (which will sound familiar to veterans of early Cold War era schooling). If cornered and as a last resort, perhaps you’d even rush the shooter. My students, who were young adults, could have plausibly done this. Children in the third and fourth grades, as in the Uvalde slaughter, have no such option.

That mass shooting took place at a hardened school with locking doors, one that ran lockdown and evacuation drills regularly, and had fences. And yet, of course, none of that, including 911 calls from the students, prevented mass death. Not even the presence of dozens of heavily armed police inside and outside the school mattered because the commander at the scene misread the situation and refused to act. Well-trained “good guys with guns” proved remarkably useless against the bad guy with a gun because the “good guys” backed off, waited, and then waited some more, more than an hour in all, an excruciating and unconscionable delay that cost lives.

But combat can be like that. It’s chaotic. It’s confusing. People freeze or act too quickly. It’s not hard to make bad decisions under deadly pressure. At Uvalde, the police disregarded standard operating procedure that directs the immediate engagement of the shooter until he’s “neutralized.” But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fear and uncertainty cloud the judgment even of all-too-hardened professionals, which should teach us something about the limitations of the hard option.

A related hardening measure that’s been proposed repeatedly, including by former President Trump, is to arm and train teachers to confront shooters. It’s a comforting fantasy, imagining teachers as Dirty Harry-like figures, blowing away bad guys with poise and precision. Sadly, it’s just that, a fantasy. Imagine teachers with guns, caught by surprise, panicking as their students are shot before their eyes. How likely are they to respond calmly with deadly accuracy against school shooter(s) who, the odds are, will outgun them? “Friendly fire” incidents happen all too frequently even in combat featuring highly trained and experienced soldiers. Armed teachers could end up accidentally shooting one or more of their students as they tried to engage the shooter(s). How could we possibly ask teachers to bear such a burden?

Let’s also think about the kind of teacher who wants to carry a weapon in a classroom. My brother was a security policeman in the Air Force, and he understands all too well the allure of weaponry to certain types of people. As he put it to me recently, “A gun is power. To some, even the psychologically relatively stable among us, carrying a gun is indeed like having a permanent hard-on. You have the power of life and death as well. It can be a pure ego-driven power trip, sexual, every time you get to pull the trigger. You give a guy a gun and strange things can happen.”

Think of your least favorite teacher in your K-12 experience, perhaps the one who intimidated you the most. Now, think of that very teacher “hardened” with a gun in class. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Arming Lady Liberty (to the Teeth)

Arming teachers is a measure of our collective confusion and desperation, though some politicians like Donald Trump are sure to continue to press for it. Again, if I’m an armed teacher, perhaps with a concealed 9mm pistol, I’d have virtually no chance against a shooter or shooters with AR-15s and body armor. Does that mean I need an AR-15 and body armor, too? Who needs an arms race with the Russians or Chinese when we can have one in every school in America?

What, then, of hardening schools? We’re back to locking security doors, reinforced fences around campus, cameras everywhere, metal detectors at each entrance, and of course more armed police (or “school resource officers,” known as SROs) in the hallways. We’re talking about untold scores of billions of dollars spent to turn every American school into a fortress/bunker, a place to hunker down and ride out a violent weapons-of-mass-destruction storm of our own making.

And mind you, of all the things we don’t know, one thing we do: this hunkering down, this fear will be indelibly etched into the minds of our kids as they navigate our ever more hardened, over-armed schools. It won’t be healthy, that’s for sure. In seeking to reduce and eliminate school shootings in America, we should be guided by the goal of not making matters worse for our children.

As horrific as they are, headline-grabbing school shootings are rare indeed compared to the number of schools across America. Indeed, given the violence of this society and the extreme violence we routinely export to other countries across the globe, it’s surprising we don’t have more school shootings. Their relative rarity should reassure us that all is not lost. Not yet, anyway.

I get it. We all want to feel safe and, above all, we want our kids to be safe. But buying them bulletproof backpacks or hardening their schools is the wrong approach. Besides, if we spend massively on school security, what’s to stop a shooter determined to kill children from going elsewhere to find them? It’s horrifyingly grim logic, but he’d likely go to a playground, or the movies, or a dance recital, or any other “soft” place where children might gather. And what then? I for one don’t want to live in fortress America, surrounded by armed and armored police and intrusive security gadgetry “for my protection.”

Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything but the most modest gun reforms (forget banning military-style weapons or even restricting their sale to people 21 and older), the hardening of schools is an easy target (so to speak). As gun enthusiasts like to say: don’t focus on the weapons, focus on the shooters.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, right? As best we can, we must identify those crazed enough to want to murder innocent kids and get them the help they need before they start squeezing triggers. We should deny unstable people the ability to own and wield weapons of mass destruction — that is, assault rifles (and preferably simply ban such weaponry period). We must do everything possible to reform our blood-drenched society with all its weapons-porn. One thing is guaranteed, as a “solution” to the gun problem, adding more of them and other forms of “hardness” into an already deadly mix will only worsen matters.

Quick fixes are tempting, but school-hardening measures and even more “good guys with guns” aren’t the answer. If they were, those 19 children and two adults in Uvalde might still be alive. An exercise in over-the-top security, meanwhile, is guaranteed to do one thing — and that is, of course, starve schools of the funds they need to… well, teach our kids. You know, subjects like math and science and English and history. We’re trending toward graduating a generation of young people who may have trouble reading and writing and adding but will be experts at ducking and covering behind hardened backpacks.

Going hard isn’t the answer, America. Unless the “hard” you’re talking about is the hard I grew up with, meaning high academic standards instilled by demanding and dedicated teachers. If, however, we continue to harden and militarize everything, especially our schools and the mindsets of our children, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when this country becomes a bastion bristling with weapons, one where Lady Liberty has relinquished her torch and crown for an AR-15 and a ballistic helmet from the local armory.

And that’s not liberty — it’s madness.

Originally posted at TomDispatch.com.

Death and Violence in America

W.J. Astore

It’s staggering the number of people dying in America in ways that are preventable. Here’s a quick summary, courtesy of Blake Fleetwood at Scheerpost:

  • Gun deaths are at record levels, up 45% from the previous decade. In 2020 there were a total of 45,222 firearm deaths in the US.
  • Suicide rates have gone up more than 30% in the last 20 years. More than 1.4 million adults attempt suicide every year in America. And 45,979 succeeded in killing themselves in 2020. The highest rate of suicide is among middle class white men.  Suicides rose to the highest in the central part of the country. In 2020, 54% of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition. 
  • Health risks for adolescents have shifted from pregnancy, alcohol, and drug use to depression, suicide, and self harm.
  • Drug overdose data from the CDC indicates that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before.

When you start adding these numbers, you reach a grim conclusion: Americans are killing themselves and others at record rates. Grimmer still are the numbers from the Covid-19 pandemic, which in the U.S. has killed more than a million people. Estimates suggest that a true national health care system could have reduced this number by 300,000 (!), but there’s no interest among Democrats or Republicans to create such a system. Our politicians, corrupted by money from the health care “industry,” Big Pharma, etc., have no interest in saving lives (or even saving money, since a national health care system would save trillions over time).

Is it any wonder why the U.S. government embraces violence with such zeal? If you can’t care for your own people, why should you care at all for other peoples, such as in Yemen or Ukraine? What matters is profit from selling weapons, whether in the U.S., awash in assault rifles and other guns, or overseas with massive arms sales or shipments to Saudi Arabia and Ukraine, among others.

Violence or the threat of violence can be enormously profitable to those who deal in it.

Last night, I was watching baseball and saw an advertisement for a new show. In one 30-second clip, I saw several assault rifles and a gun battle, with a few handguns thrown in for good measure. We are assaulted constantly by such imagery, so much so that gun violence is seen as “normal” because it has become our new normal. Hence the gruesome spike in mass shootings across America.

Way back in the early 1980s, I had a sticker that read “NRA Freedom.” Remarkably, “freedom” in America has become synonymous with having guns everywhere, more than 400 million of them. Other freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, are being curtailed and eroded with barely a complaint, but any attempt to make it slightly more difficult for a few people to buy guns is instantly opposed.

A culture of freedom is increasingly a cult of death. And as the Outlaw Josey Wales said, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living.” Time to learn from Josey.

“Responsible” Gun Laws

Matthew McConaughey holds a photo of Alithia Ramirez, 10, killed in the Uvalde mass shooting

W.J. Astore

The bottom line on gun laws in the USA is, surprise, profit. What matters most is not banning any guns, including military-style assault weapons. There are already more than 20 million AR-15-type assault weapons in the hands of Americans, with more being sold legally every day. They and their related gear (ammo, ammo magazines, and so on) are a big source of profit to American gun makers and gun sellers, so you can be sure that those guns will be protected, unlike the victims of them.

To illustrate this, two stories popped up in my email today. The first, from CNN, is a quick summary of where we stand on gun control measures in Congress:

The current changes to gun laws under consideration include hardening school security, providing more funding for mental health care and ensuring that juvenile records can be considered when a person between the ages of 18 and 21 wants to buy a semi-automatic weapon. Federal incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws are also being discussed. However, despite the ongoing talks, it remains unclear whether there will be enough Republican support to push the legislation forward.

Note that Orwellian term: the “hardening” of school security. Schools are now being talked about in military terms as “soft” targets for mass shooters. Naturally, the solution isn’t to deny shooters their assault weapons. No: let’s turn every school into a “hardened” fortress, with more fences, cameras, locking doors, and armed guards (perhaps with AR-15s?). How long before our schools are indistinguishable from our prisons?

You’ll note, of course, that none of the “new” gun laws being considered by Congress will reduce the number of guns in circulation. Gun sales will continue to soar. When you think about it, guns now have more rights in America than people do.

The second story involves a Hollywood celebrity, Matthew McConaughey, who was born in Uvalde, Texas, and who’s been working with the Biden administration in the cause of “responsible” gun control. He’s called for “universal background checks, raising the minimum age for purchasing an AR-15 to 21, a waiting period for purchasing AR-15s and the implementation of red flag laws.” These steps are better than nothing, but again they will not impact the profit margins of gun makers/sellers. Even so, they are likely to be judged too radical by Republicans in Congress.

President Biden has called for a ban on new assault weapons, but it’s simply empty words. He knows a ban stands no chance of getting through Congress. If the Democrats really wanted to accomplish something, they’d get rid of the filibuster in the Senate, but they’re not about to do that, especially since they’re likely to lose control of the Senate after the November elections.

Speaking of Joe Biden, I saw this hilarious headline at NBC News today: “Biden’s gaffes might actually be his selling point.” The gist of the op-ed is that Biden often misspeaks and sounds both angry and confused, but these qualities make him “authentic” to voters, therefore “let Biden be Biden” and don’t try to handle or edit him.

That’s where we’re at as a country. Guns have more rights than people and our president is to be embraced for all the gaffes he makes. What a country!

Weapons as “Gamechangers”

W.J. Astore

Americans have a remarkable faith in weapons as “gamechangers,” as simple panaceas to complex problems.

Yesterday, Donald Trump addressed the NRA convention in Houston, offering guns as a panacea to mass shootings. Once again, Trump said that “highly trained” teachers should be allowed to carry concealed guns in the classroom. Apparently, teachers should now be the equivalent of Special Forces warriors, ready to confront shooters with assault weapons at a moment’s notice. When he was president, Trump suggested these warrior-teachers might even see a small bump in pay for their willingness to carry guns and to serve as quasi-SWAT team members at schools. What generosity!

Just as many Americans see more guns as the answer to domestic violence like mass shootings, yet bigger guns and missiles are seen as “game changers” for complex foreign issues like the Russia-Ukraine War. According to CNN, the U.S. government is considering sending the MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) to Ukraine, which has a range of up to 300 miles, to counter Russian troops. One Congressman in particular thinks it’s a dandy idea:

Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who was part of a congressional delegation trip to Kyiv earlier this month, told CNN he believes the systems could help Ukraine gain significant momentum against Russia. 

“I think it could be a gamechanger, to be honest with you,” Crow said, not only for offensive attacks but also for defense. He explained that Russian conventional artillery, which has a range of about 50km, “would not get close” to Ukrainian urban centers if MLRS systems were positioned there. “So it would take away their siege tactics,” he said of the Russians.

Where to begin? Are Ukrainian troops trained on such a system? How do you get the system into Ukraine to begin with? What if the system is used to strike targets inside of Russian territory? What about Russian warnings that such a system could lead to reprisals against European or American assets? What if less-than-well-trained Ukrainian troops fire a bunch of missiles that end up killing dozens, even hundreds, of innocent people?

No matter. The “answer” is always more guns, more howitzers, more missiles. They’re “gamechangers”!

Indeed, they just may be. Just not in the way that Trump imagines, or Congressman Crow.

Finally, that word: “gamechanger.” It’s a common practice in America to talk about war as if it’s a sport, a game. Call it the triumph of dumbass thinking. War is neither sport nor game, and you’re not going to “game-change” the Russia-Ukraine War, as in turning the tide so Ukraine wins, just by sending the MLRS, just as you’re not going to decrease mass shootings in schools by arming teachers with guns.

We Talk Strangely About Guns

W.J. Astore

Guns are the only innocents in America. To be clear, I’m being sarcastic.

Whenever there’s a school shooting, you can count on the shooter being denounced as evil, as monstrous, as out of his mind. But the guns the shooter uses? There are always people who tell us not to blame the guns. Guns aren’t evil. Guns aren’t monstrous. Guns are, in a word, innocent.

It’s all very strange. I think of the children killed in Texas, along with their teachers, as being innocent. I wish we’d have kept them safe. I wish their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness hadn’t been cut down by bullets. But wish in one hand …

We hear a lot of talk about gun rights and gun safety, almost as if guns indeed had rights, almost as if America’s true goal was to keep guns safe.

America is indeed a country where guns are safe, secure, and free to roam. We have more than 400 million of them, including more than 20 million military-style assault weapons. Congress is not seriously acting to put meaningful restrictions on guns. We’re lucky if we’ll see a “red-flag” law (allowing the confiscation of guns from a person who makes deadly threats before he decides to go on a murderous rampage), or possibly universal background checks. Of course, neither of these will curtail gun purchases and availability, and neither would have stopped the latest shooter in Texas, who purchased his guns legally and apparently showed no clear “red flag” before he attacked a school and killed 19 innocent children.

And there’s that word again. Innocent. We need to focus on child rights and child safety, not gun rights and gun safety. Don’t you think?

I’ve been a gun owner and have shot everything from a pellet rifle and .22 pistol to a .44 magnum Model 29 Smith & Wesson, made famous by Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.”

Model 29 Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum.

I’ve felt the powerful allure of guns. I also have no problem with hunters, target shooters, and all the responsible gun owners we have in America. But when guns are responsible for 45,000 deaths a year in America (data from 2020), and when mass shootings become almost forgettable in their repetition (except in the most heinous cases, like the latest mass murder event in Texas), it’s time to admit that guns are not the innocents here. They are part of the problem, and restrictions to their ownership is part of the solution.

Guns and Money!

W.J. Astore

Remember in the 1930s how Americans referred to arms dealers, especially those who profited from war, as “merchants of death”? Yes, that was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Nowadays, it’s weapons ‘r’ us, and America’s leading sounds of freedom are blam-blam-blam and ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Cash registers for weapons makers are truly ka-chinging wildly as America continues to dominate the global trade in war weapons, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Hartung’s title, “Selling Death,” puts it succinctly. Here’s an excerpt:

When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.

In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington’s threat du jour, China. 

Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts.  The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress.  This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it’s bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates.  The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.

When it comes to weapons sales, America truly is Number One! Which, in that faraway galaxy ,was once nothing to celebrate. In fact, it was something to deplore and denounce.

Why is this? Christian Sorensen at Consortium News has some answers. In a five-part series, he’s tackling the military-industrial-congressional complex and detailing its reach and power across American society. In “A People’s Guide to the War Industry,” Sorensen has this to say about America’s “solutions”-based war industry:

War corporations market their goods and services as “solutions.” A Raytheon executive, John Harris, explained to the Defense & Aerospace Report in 2018 that engaging “with senior members of government” is just “providing solutions to our customers,” providing “integrated solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” and even “figuring out how we can solve our customers’ problems using a dispassionate system approach.”

The solutions trick works well when selling to the U.S. military. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton offers digital solutions, CACI offers information solutions, and Leidos offers innovative solutions. Through its inherently harmful, anti-democratic activities, the war industry helps create the miserable conditions for which it then offers “solutions,” of course without ever taking responsibility for the dismal state of affairs (i.e. nonstop war) that it helped create.

“Providing solutions” sounds prettier and more generous than “making money off death and destruction.” MIC officials also regularly couch Washington’s imperialism, weapon sales, and war-first foreign policy as giving the troops the “tools they need.” A similar phrase (“We’ve listened to the warfighter”) is utilized when selling goods and services, particularly upgrades and technological insertions.

I’d add that, not only do war corporations market “solutions” to the warfighter, but the Pentagon sells these to the American people as “investments” in peace.

And who can be against “solutions” and “investments”?

I had the pleasure to be at a Warren Zevon concert in the early 1980s when he sang one of his signature songs, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” How right he was! Between a rock and a hard place, America knows how to send lawyers, guns, and money.

I urge you to read Hartung and Sorensen and then reflect on the words of MLK about a nation that spends so much on weaponry and exports so much violence as one that is as a result approaching spiritual death.

Atlanta, Georgia, USA — Martin Luther King Jr. listens at a meeting of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at a restaurant in Atlanta. The SCLC is a civil rights organization formed by Martin Luther King after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. — Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS