Facing up to violence in America
When I was 7 years old, I walked down to my favorite playground in Riverside Park and watched a man get beaten half to death. Despite its current upscale ambiance, the Upper West Side of New York City during the 1950s had not yet become gentrified. Instead, it more accurately mirrored the “West Side Story” of violent street gangs.
One of them was present that day, surrounding and stomping this poor guy lying on the pathway in front of his screaming wife. There were no police in sight and no one else had the courage to interfere. I watched in silence and slumped back to my apartment, a few blocks away.
Violence in real life is worlds away from its portrayal in the media or the blood-soaked video games we allow children to play. It is raw, savage and as corrosive to the spirit as it is to the body. Although this event transpired decades ago, I still remember the walk home and my troubled thoughts, more like messages from an outside source. They said, with unmistakable emphasis, that there was no such thing as safety. Safety was an illusion. It didn’t exist.
In retrospect, this was a starkly profound thought for a second-grader, one that even an adult would have trouble grappling with. Instinctively, I chose not to share this brutal episode with my parents. They, like most, would want to reassure me that I was safe and that everything was fine. At that time, the gun massacres we regularly witness at schools were not only unheard of, but inconceivable to any sane American.
They are conceivable now.
The United States is earning the reputation as a nation of gun-toting psychopaths where a week doesn’t go by without a senseless shooting. Almost all the shooters have no prior criminal record. They include parents, grandmothers, the quiet, friendly guy living next door, the passive employee. Congress, with characteristic cowardice, has removed an assault weapons ban and many Americans agree with them. The old chestnut that those liberals are going take our guns away becomes even more ludicrous when you realize that there are now 300 million guns in our country, one for every man, woman and child.
Hollywood is the favorite whipping boy of right-wing conservatives who shed crocodile tears over what they see as excessive carnage being perpetrated. This is odd seeing that the horrors of war, torture and poverty are otherwise fine with them. They hate Hollywood because it is a mostly liberal institution, which should not be surprising. Creativity and conservatism are polar opposites — not that the latter doesn’t occasionally give it a try. When they do, the result is “2016: Obama’s America,” Dinesh D’Souza’s loony smear job about the president.
Likewise, a recent investigative article in the New York Times found that there is a cozy relationship between gun companies and video game producers. Gun manufacturers use video games as a way to introduce their weaponry to a target audience, so to speak. They hope the Bushmaster AR-15 that Junior is using in “Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2” to murder dozens of digital terrorists might entice him to buy the real item when he comes of age.
Historically, violent entertainment is hardly new. The first great piece of literature in western civilization, “The Iliad,” chronicled a decade-long war. Shakespeare’s most famous plays are littered with dead bodies and anyone who tackles “Titus Andronicus,” one of his lesser offerings, better have a strong stomach. You’ll think twice before you ever again order pie off the menu. But I will agree with recent writer Georgie Swinerton that “The Hunger Games” is a disturbing selection for young children. I read the trilogy of books and was shocked by the vicious slaughter rampant in “Mockingjay,” the last of the series. The violence is sadistic in its intensity and why any parent would subject their child to such cruelty is beyond me.
I wonder, however, how many “family values” Christians brought their little children to endure Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked travesty, “The Passion of the Christ,” which featured scenes of brutality that would make exposure equal to abuse.
My encounter as a child with that gang beating has shaped my values to abhor cruelty and its justification. While there is some primitive arena of our minds that enjoys viewing it in books and on the screen, it should never be forgotten that actual bloodletting is something any conscious person would do well to avoid. I believe Americans love violence in the media because they choose not to confront its true consequences.
If every citizen was forced to go into the kindergarten classrooms of Sandy Hook right after the recent gun atrocity and view the victims, both the NRA and their good buddies in the killing industries would go out of business overnight. The first responders who entered those abattoirs will be emotionally scarred for life. So would we all.
Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County since 1970 as an artist, writer, amateur historian, and photographer. He is a frequent contributor to The Recorder and welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.