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Lessons in Death, Born in the USA

Young American men are the most violent group in the industrialized world. In 1992, after the first Gulf War, the homicide rate for American men between 15 and 24 was 37.2 per 100,000. That's ten times higher than the next country on the list, Italy, and 60 times higher than England.

Homicide is now the second leading cause of death among young American men. Why do they kill so often? The comparison to European countries suggests that part of the answer has to do with lax gun control. Easy access to guns in this country ensures that violence will more often be deadly.

But as Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine shows, the problem isn't just guns -- it's guns plus the readiness to use them on other people. Which means that we need to look at what American boys are learning that inclines them to kill.

The deadly lessons are ones that link manhood to violence.

Boys learn that being a man means being tough, never showing weakness or fear, and never backing down. They learn that confrontations are opportunities to make someone else back down, and to come out on top of the other guy.

This idea of manhood invites an escalation of conflict, as threats and intimidation must be met with counter threats and displays of even greater menace. When no one can back down, violence is inevitable.

The lessons are pervasive. They're taught through sports, action films, rap videos, even professional wrestling. Every boy soon figures it out: the man who gets the most respect is the one whose capacity for violence puts him on top.

Societal context is also important. In 2002 the World Health Organization issued its World Report on Violence and Health, a massive review of the literature. The authors found young men's violence to be associated with income inequality, lack of trust in the criminal justice system, erosion of the social safety net, and a decline in economic opportunity.

The causes of violence are thus complex. Yet the stark contrast in homicide rates between the U.S. and Western Europe and Canada, when many other conditions are similar, suggests that something sets the U.S. apart in fostering violent masculinity.

So what's different here? Two things: capital punishment, and the ready and frequent use of military force.


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Whereas almost all other industrialized nations have grasped the counterproductive absurdity of killing people to show that killing is wrong, the U.S. government continues to teach the lesson that killing is a legitimate and effective way to deal with people who behave badly.

The use of military force -- from assassination to bombing to invasion -- also teaches that violence is the preferred means of resolving human conflict. Uncle Sam makes for a mean and bloody role model. The celebratory language now being applied to the rapid U.S. occupation of Iraq will just make things worse.

Thank George Bush, we are told, for taking decisive action, despite world opinion. Learn from this not to be swayed by appeals to the values of peace, cooperation, and patient diplomacy. Learn that it is a sign of weakness to listen to others.

Revere our troops, we are told, for being tough enough to do a job that was made harder by the civilians who got in the way. Learn from this not to let empathy and compassion deter you from taking what you want. Learn to put tender feelings aside, so you can do what will win the favor of bigger men above you.

Relish the liberation of the Iraqi people, the celebrators insist. We've given a vicious bully his comeuppance, and the townspeople are happy. Learn from this to seek heroism by vanquishing violence with greater violence. Be faster on the draw.

There is indeed reason to worry about soldiers coming home with haunted minds and warped souls from having witnessed the gory results of the invasion. Will some of them be walking cluster bombs, ready to go off if mishandled? We've seen it before.

But the fallout will go beyond the lives of ex-soldiers. It's the non-soldiers, the boys and young men hungry for cues about virtuous manhood, and who are now being exposed to toxic celebrations of war, about whom we should worry. Expect more fist fights, road rage, battered women, sexual assault and rape, and school and workplace shootings. Even as we have sown, so shall we reap.

The lessons of the war celebration will be clear, if often only implicit. Real men, we will be given to understand, don't flinch from violence in a harsh world. Nor are they given pause by body counts, untidy liberation, or the cries of disemboweled children. Real men are sure of themselves and rise above such things, just as they rise above the weaker vessels who cannot.

The celebrators will also steer us toward the false inference that our fears can be overcome by destructive force. They will in fact lead us away from seeing that the use of violence to dominate others is not the solution to our fears but their source. They will not teach us, except by negative example, to stop creating monsters and monsters of ourselves.

Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is "Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World" (Oxford, 2020).

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