Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The US culture of guns, violence and death

By Partha Banerjee

Those who always think of America as a dreamland are perhaps now a little troubled by the gun violence and massacre in Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech or Columbine High School. The fact is, this dreamland’s free market, primitive laws and dark-age social customs are responsible for the never-ending campus tragedies.

Nobody knows where Lord Yama, the God of Death, will strike next.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a new campus tragedy in USA shook the conscience of the civilized world. A 27-year-old student Steven Kazmierczak entered one of the lecture halls at rural Northern Illinois University and randomly fired his shotgun to kill half a dozen students before killing himself. In April of 2006, a younger student named Cho Seung-Hui at another rural university Virginia Tech gunned down thirty-two people - mostly students - before turning the gun on him. In April of 1999, two teenage high school students attiny Columbine, Colorado used their guns to mow down thirteen of their classmates and teachers. Similar grotesque incidents at various colleges, malls, health centers, post offices and other public places continue to happen in this so-called dreamland - innocent, young people are paying prices for this meaningless barbarism.

It’s an undeniable fact that in any society in any country there would be some crazy depraved and perverts. That is reality - just the way a beautiful garden perhaps would have a few diseased and blotched plants. Upon investigation, one would often find DNA, genes, poverty and economic reasons, a child’s developmental processes, broken families, the sociopolitical environment, domestic violence, lack of education, police brutality, etc. to be the underlying attributes for such out-of-norm traits. In case of USA, the fraction of such a population could be just a little higher than the average: psychological and sexual deviations, racism and supremacist doctrines, gender-based discrimination, outdated, superstitious mindsets and unscientific thoughts still pervade the country. I’m not exaggerating: the reader can verify it - especially, with the advent of the Internet, one can easily look up the facts and get to know the “unseen side of the moon.”

Prof. Noam Chomsky wrote me after the NIU incident: “If you explore, you quickly reach a deep-seated paranoia that goes far back in American culture. A few years ago the State of Indiana had to replace all of its highway signs, because they were being pulled out and destroyed. The reason, it turned out, was that they have on them some kind of code for highway crews, and many people believed they were instructions for the UN forces who are preparing to invade the US to carry out genocide. Not a joke. There’s a remarkable element of fear in the culture that goes back to colonial days.”

Now the question is, just because someone carries some mental illness or crazy, outlandish dogma - should he be able to create such havoc and kill people indiscriminately at a school campus or shopping mall? Here comes the critical difference between this so-called best country in the world and some “ordinary places” like France, Germany, Austria or Finland, or for that matter, China, Korea or Mexico. That critical difference is, nowhere else in the world - London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam or Tokyo - can an ordinary resident buy or use dangerous weapons out in the open. Nowhere else in the world than the U.S. would an average person be able to purchase arms and ammunitions, shotguns or automatic rifles at Wal-Mart-type supermarkets or the more than 80,000 licensed gun shops all across the country.

It’s often said that finding gun dealers in America is easier than finding a gas station. The free market works at its best in the U.S. - even for guns.

More than two decades ago, when I first came to this country as an international student in Illinois, I’d be shocked to notice it. I’d often wonder: how come a modern nation like America has such easy access to weapons of mass destruction - don’t they understand its grave consequences? Later, however, I’d learned that there was this precious little thing in the U.S. constitution called the Second Amendment. It says: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” In other words, it is a sacred, fundamental right that can never be meddled with.

In reality, a lot of storm had once brewed over this issue. Forward-looking, modern and non-violent Americans wanted to impress that the time when the Second Amendment was written was when the U.S. states had their own citizen-member militia; it was a time when the armed militia would often battle with each other. It was a time when the U.S. was a newly-formed nation that needed to protect its sovereignty. An armed militia would help the government to stem the uprisings and rebellions; it would also expand its borders and defend against Britain. All these were perhaps relevant reasons in the eighteenth century. But now in 2008, they are all outdated and ludicrous.

Problem is, a vast number of Americans, especially the “traditional” ones, would not even encourage a dialogue to challenge it; to them, there could be no arguments against it. Their status-quo dogma has found powerful allies in the wealthy and middle-class, mostly white-conservative organisation named the National Rifles Association or NRA. The all-powerful group has practically bought off many Republicans and some Democrats by large-scale contributions to their election funds. The result of their relentless lobbying has been that in USA, one can’t hear any more discussions on a simple, easy-to-understand issue such as gun control. NRA and its sponsored politicians and friendly media have successfully silenced the debate. There has always been a debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment: does it protect the right to bear arms, or the right to raise a militia. So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the right relative to raising a militia. The current Supreme Court judges, with the new inclusions hand-picked by the Bush government, might change that interpretation.

There was a lot of talk after the Virginia Tech massacre; however, nothing substantive had been done nationally to change laws ever since. Only some cosmetic changes were made by local politicians to quell the massive unrest by the victim families.

The reality is, even in this day and age, one can find shotguns, revolvers, rifles and other weapons in Americans’ living-room cabinets or basement crawlspaces, and nobody considers it unusual or bizarre. Americans have been made to believe that easy access to weapons of mass destruction has nothing to do with mass destruction by weapons. They still believe that weapons are only kept at homes so that they can go out and hunt game animals during the hunting season. Without any knowledge or appreciation of the world outside, they’re brainwashed to believe that guns don’t kill; guns only protect the sacred American home from “enemies” and “invaders.”

The maniacs of Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University took advantage of such sky-high ignorance. They acquired their weapons legally and on those fateful mornings, used them on innocent young men and women, just the way the two teenage maniacs did it at Columbine High School.

There was a time when under the leadership of Jim Brady and his wife Sarah, their organization Handgun Control pioneered a movement to get America rid of such a social menace. Jim Brady was a close ally of conservative, pro-gun president Ronald Reagan; he was paralyzed by gunshot wounds inflicted by bullets aimed for Reagan. The Brady couple’s tireless fight was able to push for some major anti-gun laws in the ’90s. Handgun Control, however, has now lost the power it once had.

Contrary to what most people believe in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other “Third World” countries, America is still very much under the clutches of conservative social dogmas, prejudices and ignorance; the constitutional right to bear arms is no exception to that mindset. Mass media especially TV and Hollywood and Bollywood keep glorifying war, violence and killings, and reap profit from it. Video games- and other so-called entertainment industries thrive on selling violence. This originally U.S.-Europe-Japan-conceptualised socioeconomic model is now idolised and mimicked in other countries such as India, Bangladesh, South Korea, Russia or China. The young minds are rapidly falling for it: the recent school shootings in India are stark reminders.

America and American people actually have a lot more to offer to the world: millions of people in this country are fighting tirelessly for peace, knowledge, prosperity, equality, rights and justice for all. These Americans reject the culture of guns, war and violence, and teach the values of non-violence to the younger generations. They inspire many of us to live and work here in the U.S.

Can we idolise and emulate them?

(Dr. Partha Banerjee is a New York City-based professor and human rights activist and can be contacted at )

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