Challenge Our Violent Culture

"America is, by far, the most violent country in the world when measured against comparable, industrialized nations." That's the conclusion of a report by a conservative former California attorney general, Dan Lungren. Today, America is at war in Iraq, a war that the Bush administration began of its own choice, against a country that had not attacked us (and in fact did not threaten us). More than 3,500 soldiers and literally hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives, with millions more displaced. We are also at war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. We patrol Bosnia, have troops stationed on the border of North Korea. We have military forces in over 700 bases located in over 130 nations across the globe. Our fleets patrol the world's seas. We are the GloboCop.

The United States has witnessed more than 4,000 riots from the 1600s to 1992, according to Paul Gilje in Rioting in America. Some 2 million people have been killed or suffered serious injury, which is an average of over 5,000 a year for nearly 400 years.

But the deaths and casualties in war are far outnumbered by the slaughter wrought by Americans killing Americans. Some 10 million Americans were victims of violent crimes in the 20th century. We have suffered more Americans killed by Americans than our combined losses in the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.

Americans have more guns and suffer more gun crimes. We sell more guns and military equipment than any other country. Our military budget is nearly half the military budget of the entire world.

Violence isn't simply part of our history; it is embedded in our culture: TV, video games, music. A culture of violence invades our lives, from our homes to our schools and work environments. Moreover, violence has become entertainment, glamorized in the behavior of real and fantasy heroes.

The government, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, is the great teacher. Our government teaches us to believe in the efficacy of violence. Ironically, violence is demonstrably ineffective. Our military has never been more powerful than it is today, and our country has seldom felt more threatened. Not one of the emerging security threats that we face -- al-Qaida and stateless terrorism, catastrophic climate change, nuclear proliferation, growing inequality and economic dislocation, mass epidemics -- has a military answer. Yet every one of the major candidates for president in both parties calls for increasing the amount of money spent on the military. Violence is our answer -- but what was the question?

Dr. Martin Luther King challenged this commitment to violence, posing nonviolence as a more effective measure of change. You cannot bring democracy at the point of a bayonet, he argued. A society that spends more on military adventure than on social provision is a society that has lost its way.

Nonviolence is in retreat. We are at the end of a punitive era -- an era that railed against controlling guns, celebrated military adventure, and ignored the rising death toll at home and abroad.

Now, in the wake of the Iraq debacle, with violence in this society once more on the rise, it is time to change course. We must challenge violence in America. We must build a culture of nonviolence, a culture that challenges the assumption that violence is the American way. We must ask: Has policing the world made us more secure? Has revoking gun-control laws added to the security of our neighborhoods? Isn't it time for America to look hard once more at the violence that is at the center of our history and our present?

(c) 2007 Chicago Sun Times

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