A Quiet Violence


I was one of those kids that wasn’t allowed to have toy guns.

At the time I thought this was a deeply unfair infringement on my personal liberties.

Not that it stopped me.  I was growing up in a city with one of the highest rates of gun violence in a country notorious for its gun violence.  Boys teach each other about violence on concrete schoolyards across America as inevitably and methodically as they learn about math inside the classroom.

Later, when I worked at a preschool in college, I took an almost perverse glee in confiscating “guns” made of Legos, sticks, rolls of toilet paper.  Little boys will make guns out of literally anything.  Maybe I’m still just jealous of the other kids who had cool gun toys.

After four years of working at a school, when I see news of school shootings I can’t help but wonder how many thousand times each of those kids was “shot” in games on the playground before the day they were shot in real life.  I wonder if it seemed like just another game at first when a gunman pointed the barrel of a firearm in their direction.

We think of certain types of violence as perpetuated by “bad people”, by “others”.  Oh, those gangbangers on that side of town are violent.  Those crazy men who snap and shoot up schools and movie theaters are violent.  Those people in Third World countries that strap bombs to their chests are violent.  It’s that loud, flashy, gory violence on the evening news that’s easy to put on other people.

But there’s another kind of violence, a quiet violence.  It’s a careless disregard for human life and safety deeply woven into the fabric of our society, our laws, our economy.  Maybe it’s a curse from the ghosts of the thousands of imaginary people we killed in games as kids and watched die before our eyes on the TV screen gnawing away at the bottom of our conscience until we can’t feel it anymore.

We don’t have to physically harm another person with our own hands to participate in violence.  The cold inaction of lawmakers to reduce gun violence after countless mass shootings is far more violent than the action of Adam Lanza of Connecticut.  There is a quiet violence as members of Congress trip over themselves to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy while turning an apathetic shrug to the spread of assault weapons.  It is the cruel brutality of setting priorities.  It is the calm willingness to let young men of color die in America’s streets in every day because the gun lobby is too powerful.

The same day as the Connecticut shooting there was a nearly identical rampage of a man in China who stabbed 22 children.  The difference is that while the Chinese children were hurt, none of them died.  Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  But they’re much more effective with guns.  Individuals with serious mental illness and violent tendencies exist across the world, but the U.S. gun culture is unique.  Adam Lanza has blood on his hands, but so in a more subtle way do millions of us as American voters, consumers of popular culture, and funders of National Rifle Association lobbyists.

The loud violence of our tanks rolling through foreign deserts and drones whining overhead drowns out the much larger quiet violence: the slow sucking sound of those trillions of dollars that could prevent the deaths of millions of children from malaria and malnutrition.

And what about the quiet violence of the thousands of people every year in poor, polluted communities who die from diseases caused by our addiction to dirty energy?  What about the quiet violence as desperate unemployed men in shuttered factory towns turn to alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide because some consulting firm decided the plant wasn’t efficient enough?  What about the quiet violence inflicted on families who lose loved ones to the rising cost of overpriced pharmaceuticals?  What about the quiet violence of teenage boys repeating comedians’ jokes about rape with their friends until one day one of them meets a girl at a party and won’t take no for an answer?

These kinds of quiet violence never make the evening news.  They wouldn’t be played by Bruce Willis or Jason Statham in an action movie.  But in the true meaning of violence, the willingness to cause harm to another human being, they are far more violent than any shooting spree.

We know how to process incidents of violence like mass shootings where guilt is clear and isolated.  We want to point to individuals as violent, not societies, not laws, not institutions.  It’s uncomfortable to think that our lifestyles or our work or our political choices or even our words can cause violence.  We defensively reject the idea that the willful inaction of people with the power to prevent harm is as violent as the willful action of people who cause harm.  But our insistence on certain privileges, our reluctance to make change a priority, and our lack of courage to envision a better world are truly violent.

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