News from the Classroom: Violence in America

Second Year Option: ‘Violence in America’

National Rifle Association Logo

The United States of America is a violent country. On any average day in the U.S. there are 81 gun-related deaths. The murder rate for American men aged between 15 and 24 is 37 per 100,000 — 60 times that of England and Wales. In 25 years of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, 3,000 people died. However, even this horrendous death toll pales in comparison to the murder rate of just one large American city. In New York, over 2,000 people were murdered every year from 1987 to 1994. The response of American law enforcement is to fight violence with violence: according to Amnesty International, in 2002 a total of 71 prisoners were executed in the United States — more than in Syria, North Korea Saudi Arabia and Libya combined.

The United States also exports violence abroad. Even in times of peace, it spends more on its defence budget than the next dozen countries combined. From the Berlin Blockade until just prior the World Trade Center attacks, there were over 200 American military incursions in other countries. No wonder then that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Noam Chomsky reminded Americans that they should “recognize that in much of the world the U.S. is regarded as a leading terrorist state”.

The students on Brian Ireland’s second-year module, Violence in America, are investigating America’s culture of violence. Why is the United States so violent? Some argue that the entertainment industry is to blame. Through watching contact sports, Hollywood movies, music videos, computer games and television shows, Americans unarguably are exposed to many violence images. For example, one survey has estimated that the average American child sees 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18, and witnesses 16,000 murders. Yet American culture is exported around the world, with no corresponding increase in levels of violence in those countries that are the most eager consumers of violent American entertainment. Some argue that America’s brutal past acts as a paradigm for today’s violent society. Perhaps the seeds of violence sown during the frontier wars against Native Americans, or during the African slave trade, are now being reaped? The United States is, however, not exceptional in having a violent history. Germany and Japan were responsible for two world wars, yet now have much lower levels of violent crime than the United States. Maybe it is the high level of gun ownership that leads to violence? The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that citizens have the “right to bear arms”, and this is one right that Americans are not slow to exercise: the FBI estimates, for example, that there are over 200 million privately-owned firearms in the United States. Nevertheless, gun owners claim that their weapons make them safer: the influential National Rifle Association promotes firearm ownership, claiming that citizens need to be armed to safeguard their political liberties. Indeed, they might argue, if it were not for well-armed citizen militias, the U.S. might still be part of the British Empire!

Using examples from American literature, television, cinema, comic books, and popular music, this module introduces students to America’s culture of violence and explores the reasons why such a situation has come to pass.

Recent topics include:
Dirty Harry and police violence
Taxi Driver and the lure of vigilantism
Natural Born Killers and copycat violence
Slaughterhouse Five and the destruction of Dresden
The Complete Maus: comic books and the Holocaust
The Nat Turner slave revolt
The connection between criminality and heavy metal and rap music
Have sexually provocative advertisements contributed to a culture of violence against women?
Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson: why do we watch violent contact sports?
Were the wars against Native Americans an ‘American Holocaust’?
Was it necessary to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two?

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7 Responses to News from the Classroom: Violence in America

  1. tehagingfanboy says:

    More than 40,000 deaths on the road each year too (one every 13 minutes). The strange thing is though, the USA takes in more immigrants than any other country. There’s communities from just about every country in the world in America, and precious few who want to go the other way. I hope that their foreign policy changes, but it’s still the country many aspire to. Give ’em credit for that.

  2. theagingfanboy says:

    P.S. Is it a second or third year module?

  3. DualUKYank says:

    As a dual UK/USA citizen who now has the privilege of living here in Wales, I must comment on the blog, which does contain some interesting points. However, there are some inaccuracies in the information provided.

    The statement that the “Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution guarantees that US citizens have the “right to bear arms”, is incorrect. The Second Amendment actually provides the right for US citizens to “bear arms” in order to form an “armed militias”. The blog is accurate in saying that the US Revolution against the Crown is unlikely to have succeeded without an armed militia, and certainly the power of pork barrel politics and the NRA are never to be ignored.

    Also, in this blog various important aspects were overlooked. First, most violence happens between people who actually know each other, family and friends or friends of friends. Violence between strangers does happen, but such incidences are in the minority. This is why in violent situations the police always look to friends and family first. To be sure violence is violence, whoever the victim and the assailants are. However, to fully assess why America is such a violent place, the study of gender, race, class, and religious power and oppression, are all required. These social structures all influence the dynamics between individuals and between the individual and the state.

    Second, America, for good or otherwise, was founded on several ideals, one being the right to pursue personal happiness and freedom. This notion has led to the development of the cult of the individual and internal focus on self. Historically in the UK and Europe, where the external facing focus of collective responsibility was often embedded within communities, albeit within a rigid class structure, the focus was rarely on the individual, except for those in power. Early and subsequent settlers of America left the UK in pursuit of financial, social and religious freedom. There was never a ‘frontier’ mentality this side of the big pond.

    Third, America has one of the highest percentages of people attending church, and many believe in the King James Bible, word for word. However, sadly far too many US citizens, focus in on the scripture of an ‘eye for an eye’, rather than ‘turn the other cheek’.

    This module sounds excellent and perhaps in fact the blog was inaccurate in parts and perhaps not a true reflection of the curriculum. The module appears lean heavily on popular culture and less on historic contexts. This could provide students with a distorted picture.

  4. Brian says:

    Thanks for your comments DualUKYank.

    The US Constitution, as interpreted by the US Supreme Court up to the present day, supports the right of the individual to ‘bear arms’. It may be that the framers meant something else — that’s an ongoing debate — however, there is no limitation on the right of an individual to bear arms based on whether or not he/she is in a ‘militia’.

    You have provided some interesting historical context. However, I am not a great believer in the doctrine of American exceptionalism, except perhaps for the influence of the frontier on historic and ongoing levels of violence. Even that though is mostly a creation of the mass media, and that is why I focus mainly, although by no means exclusively, on popular culture and media representations of violence. These usually act as starting points for discussion of the wider issues you mention, something, I concede, is not made entirely clear in the short blog post.

    Finally, as my students are aware (and sometimes much to their frustration), I don’t offer much by way of answers as to why American society is so violent. The US is too complicated for generalities to make much sense, and the easy answers — availability of guns, the influence of the media, the frontier etc. — often fall apart under close scrutiny.

  5. Chris says:

    The frontier ethos is often cited as a cause of violence, but the USA isn’t the only country with a ‘frontier history’. Canada, Argentina and many other countries in the western hemisphere had a frontier experience of their own. But they don’t seem to have quite the same veneration for the gun. Is there any comparative work on different frontier experiences in the Americas?

  6. James says:

    Bowling for Columbine – A brief history of the USA:
    ‘I loves my gun’

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