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It’s not the killers’ problems; it’s our own

Jasmine Ruiz writes a note at a make-shift memorial in front of the Dallas police department on Saturday.ERIC GAY/AP

I don’t really care about the background and beliefs of the black sniper in Dallas, or of the white cops who killed defenseless black men in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, Minn.

I don’t care about what drove a young white man to murder nine members of a church Bible class in Charleston, S.C., or a young white man to murder white children and teachers in Sandy Hook, Conn., or a young Asian man to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech.

I’m not interested in whether jihadophilia or homophobia motivated a man to commit the devastating massacre of people in Orlando and whether the killer in San Bernadino was with ISIS or not.


If you’re wondering what’s wrong with me, I wonder when you’ll start asking what’s wrong and monstrous about all the chasing around after each new killer’s derangement, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, or rage at America. What’s monstrous is what we keep missing in the chase because we’ll do almost anything but look for it and face it.

Of course, we talk about the historic “frontier” culture, the gun lobby, and the Second Amendment absolutism that induce Americans to arm themselves against one another, as citizens of other developed democracies don’t do. We acknowledge the American original sin of racism and its analogues. We lament the inadequacy of treatment for mental illness. We even talk about the perfect storm of all three of these factors that, like Hurricane Katrina, throws them all into high relief.

What we don’t talk about is what’s accelerating that perfect storm instead of diffusing it. We’re more likely to talk about decisions that melt polar ice caps and ratchet up tsunamis and tornadoes than we are to talk about the social decisions that are ratcheting up gun usage, racism, and, arguably, mental illness.


We don’t talk about those social decisions because we’re complicit in them. We vote for them. Confronted with their consequences, we double down on them until we’re dependent on, even captive, to them.

The decisions whose dangers we deny are the ones that empower whorls of anonymous shareholders to glorify violence in our entertainments, thinking, and politics. These mighty engines aren’t malevolent as often as they’re civically mindless. Their casino-like financing of predatory marketing has become a relentless, multi-billion-dollar, decades-old campaign to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets. It stimulates impulse buying and anti-social behavior and short-circuits deliberation and sharing by titillating, intimidating, groping, goosing, addicting, tracking, and indebting us.

Under its influence, a culture that was always violent has succumbed to a profound misunderstanding of where power really comes from, a misunderstanding immensely profitable for some, devastating to most, and idiotic to unarmed peoples who, in our own lifetimes, brought down heavily armed, tyrannical regimes in British India, apartheid South Africa, and Soviet Eastern Europe.

To put the American challenge I’ve posed in legal terms: We can’t hope to curb destructive interpretations of the Second Amendment until we’ve discredited destructive interpretations of the First Amendment that — with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union as much as of plutocrats and business conglomerates — have expanded commercial corporations’ “rights,” as legal “persons,” to constitutional freedoms of speech in glorifying and marketing weapons that kill, and in inundating public decision-making itself about how to restrain engines we’ve created and have every right to regulate.


This isn’t Adam Smith’s or John Locke’s capitalism but its antithesis. And the bitter or crazed loners whose backgrounds don’t interest me very much — the poor souls who act on these engines relentlessly subliminal or direct prods to resentment, paranoia and escapism — are simply more acutely attuned to such signals than those of us who filter them out and do nothing about them.

When even the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee has announced that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and my supporters wouldn’t leave me,” even our filters are broken. It’s time to stop worrying about his and other individuals’ premises and to start re-thinking our own. Yes, gun control and anti-racism and mental-health treatment are imperative. But we won’t get there until we curb the commercial acceleration of our violent culture.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of “The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.’’