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The International Writers Magazine: Movies & Guns - from Our Archives

Why So Much Violence?
• James Morford
That the United States teems with violence is no surprise. Although biologists and psychologists assure there is no universal aggressive instinct, television, newspapers and magazines, daily report children assassinated in schools, adults slaughtered inside theaters, and geriatrics mutilated in the park.


Violence has become so interwoven in the American fabric, so often inflicted by strangers onto one another, it’s misleading to consider the United States without it. To live in America is to live with violence. To be an American is to be filled with violence. Violence defines America.

The last two sentences might surprise some. “There is violence in the country”, they say, “but I’m not violent, nor are my family and my friends. Violence is related to the bad economy. People are broke and frustrated and need violence as an outlet, something the media is all too eager to report.”

These same peaceful souls then switch on TV to relish 11 huge men violently hurling 11 replicas to the turf so they can carry a pig skin to a goal line. Football has surpassed baseball as the national pastime. The best players receive huge monies by endorsing commercial products, and are labeled with colorful nicknames that suit the sport, “Hammer, Killer,” and so on. Football stars make “guest celebrity” appearances on TV variety and talk shows, and are sentimentalized in magazine articles. They are profiled as normal-work-a day guys that just happen to sprawl people backward onto grass for a living. A NFL fan can see photographs and television essays of a two hundred and fifty pound linebacker tossing a baby into the air while the child’s beautifully quaffed mother, dressed in a Nieman Marcus “play suit,” smilingly approves.

Football players pay a price for their money and adulation. Doctors are beginning to understand football reeks irreparable harm to bodies, limbs no longer respond properly to menial tasks, severe headaches and dementia are often discovered in the newly middle-aged. This is no surprise when the intent to injure the opposition and reduce performance to a sub-standard level, is accepted. Last year the New Orleans Saints were punished for giving players a “bounty” for deliberately harming players. It is supposedly a common practice in the NFL. Yet, nobody seems unduly alarmed, fans commenting (truthfully): “Football is meant to be a rough sport. These guys just got caught.’’

In defense of football many will say: “It’s a game and doesn’t cause violent crime as does high unemployment.’’

But we are talking individual not political themes. During the l930’s ugly political movements gained favor across the land, but when unemployment hit 25%, violent crime levels dropped.

Inner city crowding and resultant absent or negligent parents are considered violence provoking. “A by-product of a broken family is violence,” goes the argument. Yet, with national poverty and divorce rates increasing and income levels dropping, the year 2010 saw violent crime rates reach a 40 year low.

Recent FBI statistics show the fallacy of Urbanization “explanations “for violent crime. Last year, in towns of less than l0,000 inhabitants, murders increased by l8%.

Statistics often saturate and numb the mind. However, one last statistic cannot be ignored: Nearly 100,000 people are shot by guns each year. This fact literally destroys cogent arguments against gun control. Politicians ignore legislating gun control. And so what else is new?

But eliminate social, economic, and biological causes for violence (according to the National Academy of Sciences, no biology pattern yet discovered can identify violent behavior), and what are we left with? Most would say we are experiencing the way of the world realistically. Violence is a part of nature. Accept it.

But internal violence has seldom existed in history as it does now in the United States. The reasons can only be cultural.

First we must clarify: To identify American cultural attributes that induce violence, we must eliminate two qualities that appear “wired” in homo- sapiens: A need for national defense, and resentment at discrimination. These resentments include outrage over discrimination based on race, religion, skin color, facial features, physical handicaps and the like.

Let us therefore, except for the above exclusions, define what historical cultural predispositions are behind violence in the United States. We will examine only two, Hollywood movies, and, as we have seen, football. Collectively these have driven a permanent spike into American brains.

That Americans are culturally branded with violence from birth is not arguable. The Revolutionary War seared into American souls that violence is the quickest and best antidote to problems, and this was best seen in the myths that grew out of the American West. Constructed in ritualized Homeric terms, for centuries this has been drummed into Americans at an early age. The following is a plot well known to everyone:

A town suffers from a gang whose self-centered rule and lawlessness have oppressed everyone and everything. Women can no longer walk the streets in safety, good men have been cowed into aimless lives, nothing seems to be going right and the future appears hopeless. The gang is often a cattle rancher’s association that years ago took control of the town using money not earned behind the plough, selling animal skins, nor even cattle ranching. They are, basically, crooked speculators.

Somehow the cattle ranchers must be stopped, and since violence is all the cattle ranchers understand, it must be stopped with violence. A gunslinger rides into town. American films are studded with gunslingers and vigilantes, from Wild Bill Hickok, who went West to make a name for himself by killing people, to all the mythical and exaggerated characters that followed. This Western hero is drafted into cleaning up the place. He defeats (kills) the bad guys. He then rides off into the sunset looking for more towns to clear and the chance to again become a hero. A drifter and a killer, this hero is portrayed again and again in American western films. He’s always the loner (the irony being the mass killer in contemporary American society always is reported by his neighbors as a loner), and at heart is a decent fellow. He never picks fights, but when picked upon, he responds enthusiastically.

Wild Bill
Wild Bill Hickok
Outlaw Josie Wales

The hero is not called a killer or a loner by his fellow screen participants, although early on in the film he is sometimes dubbed “The Stranger.” As to just who “The Stranger” is, nobody seems quite certain, including a pretty young thing who teaches the three R’s to the town’s otherwise seldom observed or heard children. “The Stranger” is always laconic. He does not explain his reasons for coming to town, nor does he reveal where he is from. He goes about his duty laconically, stoically, and above all, matter-of factly. When the bad guys are killed, the hero journeys to the next town to repeat the same process. What does the hero do for a living? He cleans up towns for free, that’s what. Where does he get money to live on? Don’t ask the school teacher, who is muddled enough trying to get the three R’s through the wooly heads of students, much less understand her attraction to a handsome stranger who never takes her anywhere in town. A babbling brook, a mountain top, or a glen, is where they realize (for her, anyway) their destiny. These natural backdrops are needed because there is nowhere else for lovers to journey. Not to the movies, since there are no movies yet, nor to a football game because the NFL and college football have not inflated upon the American scene. They could flirt at the local saloon. Trouble with that is “The Stranger” doesn’t drink, smoke, or chew. So off tramps the film’s location crew to find a babbling brook where the gurgles and sucks of the rapids will hopefully drown out the dialog.

The heroine and the town do truly know one thing: Their hired hero, although dangerously head-strong, is deep down in the fiber of his being is a real man; although aloof, he is also filled with the right stuff, a true-grit-American that doesn’t turn tail regardless of circumstances. He stands his ground, and will use violence when he must. Near the film’s moment of crisis, he takes on the bad guys, violently and needless to say, successfully. So many times have we seen these “stranger” heroes, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood, they become interchangeable. Collectively they are the American legend. Ostensibly, they may be playing a sheep herder searching for a new flock, or a medical doctor suffering from amnesia, but “The Stranger” (regardless of his seeming lack of past) has been “around.” Not easily fooled, he knows from the start guys on black horses wearing black hats are up to no good. The hero is as sophisticated as he is honest. He’s our alter ego.

In American popular films, the character possessing reason is often portrayed as weak since he preaches against the hero’s single-minded views on the need for violence. Obviously, he doesn’t have his priorities straight and no school marm worth her pencil sharpener, wants a part of him (the hero, if he wants her, can have her. Usually he passes up the option, who knows what the next town will offer?)

These characters can even invade outer space (“The Thing”) where a mamby-pamby intellectual fruitlessly points out that knowledge gained from studying the live monster offsets killing the monster. Three times now “The Thing” has been made and remade, with no end in sight, like a electronic sagebrush whirling above us in a not-so long-orbit.

Violence doesn’t always lurk inside popular entertainment. In what many refer to as the “Great American Novel,” Herman Melville’s, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is so obsessed by violence that he not only eventually kills the white whale, but everyone else on his ship except the character Ishmael, who needs escape to tell the tale.

A great literary artist, D.H. Lawrence, summed up American obsession with violence : “The essential American soul is hard, isolated, stoic, and a killer.”

To change a soul is a grandiose undertaking, and let’s face it, terribly difficult. For a society to do so will take luck and time, lots of luck and lots of time, not to mention tons of patience. Our fast moving American society does not excel in qualities taking time and patience. What we do well is the quick. After all, violence is usually sudden. Pull the trigger, plunge the knife, throw the fist. It’s over in a second or two. Trouble is that myth needs ritual, and ritual means time to delineate its many trappings.

Shoot Em Up American moviegoers who see these rituals know (to one degree or another) that they have experienced the American myth, a myth crammed with ritualized violence. It’s called the Western, and regardless of time period and form it takes, they never stop coming.

© James Morford September 2012

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