Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Pulse Nightclub. Las Vegas. First Baptist Church. Parkland.
These words, these places, are now seared into our collective American memory. They are the places where insanity has reigned, where mass murders have been committed against innocent civilians, many of whom have been children in school.
This is not normal, not in terms of history, nor in terms of comparisons with other countries. A debate in America rages about mental health and guns. And so I am about to spout heresy. It isn’t the guns. It isn’t the NRA. It isn’t politics. It isn’t about individual mental health. No, the problem runs much deeper.
America is in love with firearms. Little kids have played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, for how long? Who has not experienced a toy gun, a water pistol, a BB rifle, a paintball gun or even the real thing? Why are we so attached to our weapons? The answer is cultural. It is the American psyche, which has been steeped in shooting, violence, and war for more than 250 years.
The pioneers and colonists defended themselves against “savages” and the Redcoats. Every patriot, every backwoodsman, and every farmer had his musket. It was simply a matter of survival. This culture was written into our founding documents. The most relevant one is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted on December 15, 1791. It reads: “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.”
Every male citizen in the formative years of the Republic was expected to participate in his state militia. The dreaded British were feared, especially after the fall of their French royal nemesis in 1789. Keeping a couple of muskets and a uniform handy allowed a state to muster its defenders, when the Continental Army did not exist.
Following political independence, America continued to enslave Africans. While other slave-trading nations reformed, we refused to give up the obscene practice until a continental war tore us apart. An entire generation of violent gun-wielding young men came out of the Civil War. They left their battlefields behind and fled from the decimated south into the Wild West of Billy the Kid, the James Gang, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, gunslingers, and sharpshooters. All became American folk heroes.
The Gatling gun was invented by an American in 1861. At the same time, and well into the late 19th century, ethnic cleansing of an entire continent followed. Colt, Remington, and Winchester became household names. Kids played with toy six shooters. I still have an antique Colt 45 toy revolver that uses caps, just little rolls of gunpowder that allowed kids to imagine using the real thing.
Gun culture, the Civil War, the Wild West, a continental genocide, these are all of the things that defined America into the 20th century. Couple all of that with the fact that America has never suffered war losses on home soil comparable to other parts of the world. This is a toxic combination, which has poisoned our collective soul.
American losses? The War Between the States resulted in approximately 750,000 deaths, inflicted on us by ourselves. The War to End All Wars — 120,000 deaths, compared to French casualties of 1.7 million people and English losses of about one million combatants and civilians.
What about the next war, the one after the war that didn’t end all wars? In Russia, 27 million dead, about 14 percent of its entire prewar population. In London, 40,000 people perished in eight months of German bombing in 1940-41. Later in the war, German civilian losses from air raids were massive. Dresden is the most famous example, completely reduced to ashes. And then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 180,000 deaths in just two days.
In comparison, America has made war with relative impunity. Civilian deaths, following the Civil War, have been nil.
On 9/11, America finally had an immune reaction to 3,000 deaths. We had been so insulated that this loss redefined national consciousness and opened the door to a War on Terror. More than $3 trillion has been spent on Middle East wars since the Twin Towers collapsed. Is it any coincidence that the frequency of civilian mass murders and school shootings has increased in the same period?
The military industrial complex, about which the victor of World War II warned, has come to pass. Dwight Eisenhower and William Tecumseh Sherman understood this evil all too well.
After Sherman’s march to the sea, a scorched-earth policy that broke the South’s will to fight, in 1880 he was famously quoted as saying, “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!”
But still we glorify our legions and so war-making becomes honorable. And so do weapons.
Meanwhile, more than 30,000 American civilians die each year from gun violence. But we don’t recognize that terror. These mass murders largely go unfelt. Americans are accustomed to using weapons. We simply are numb to this insidious evil. Even mass shootings in schools result in nothing new, just thoughts and prayers.
America is sick. Its fever is growing. The only answer is a communal nauseous rejection of this evil. Perhaps the 17 victims in Parkland will be a tipping point. One can hope. We can remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, “And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Eric Weis of Wayne, past president of the New Jersey region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, is the treasurer of Mercaz USA, the Zionist branch of the Conservative movement. He worked for Senators Eugene McCarthy and Edmund Muskie, has held positions in the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and later was involved in the nuclear industry for more than four decades.