The violence of empire

October 7, 2015

After another mass shooting, this time in Oregon, Nicole Colson asks why the "greatest purveyor of violence" in the world would expect to be free of violence at home.

TWO VIOLENT crimes happen two days and half a world apart. One takes the lives of nine people, the other 23. Both atrocities leave survivors stunned, families devastated, communities horrified.

Yet the responses to them at the top of U.S. society couldn't have been more different. One is being decried as a symptom of a gun-crazed culture and the act of a sick individual. The other is labeled a tragic error, but a regrettable consequence of war.

Neither explanation is adequate on its own terms--but taken together, we can see how they obscure the way these two acts of violence are intertwined at their roots.

At first glance, the mass shooting by gunman Christopher Harper-Mercer at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, on October 1 and the bombing of a hospital staffed by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3 have little in common. But in reality, they are symptomatic of a country founded on violence, and one that remains violent to its core.

Doctors care for the victim in the bombed U.S. hospital in Kunduz
Doctors care for the victim in the bombed U.S. hospital in Kunduz

And the contrasting responses of the "leader of the free world," Barack Obama--lamenting the deaths in Oregon and demanding gun control to prevent future shootings, while saying nothing about the massacre in Afghanistan except to decry a "tragic incident"--show that the root causes of both spasms of violence will go unaddressed.

THE KILLINGS in Oregon by 26-year-old Christopher Harper-Mercer were simultaneously horrific and deeply familiar--another in the depressingly long list of mass shootings that have taken place across the U.S. in the past several years.

As this article was being written, authorities had yet to release much detail about Harper-Mercer's motives for the shooting spree that killed nine and wounded nine more. According to reports, he asked some of his victims whether they were Christians before pulling the trigger--leading to the suggestion that he was motivated by a hatred of religion.

What we do know is that as he carried out the massacre before killing himself, Harper-Mercer seemed to revel in the brutality he inflicted on those he terrorized, ordering at least some of his victims to crawl along the floor and one to beg for her life before pulling the trigger anyway.

The drive to pinpoint a reason for his crime has led to speculation about everything from Harper-Mercer's brief time in the Army (he was discharged before finishing basic training) and preference for wearing camouflage, to his fascination with the Irish Republican Army, to his complaints about not having a girlfriend, to his mother's reported conservative politics.

Harper-Mercer, like other spree killers, did have a well-documented love of guns--he had at least 14, all legally purchased himself or by family members. In the aftermath of the attack, authorities found he had brought at least six guns, five extra magazines of ammunition and a flak jacket fitted with steel plates onto the campus with him.

Beyond this, the relentless media speculation only added to the misinformation--like the guessing game about whether Harper-Mercer suffered from Asperger's Syndrome.

Experts point out that there is zero evidence to suggest that Asperger's Syndrome--a form of autism--makes a person more likely to commit a violent crime. Likewise, mental health experts had to reiterate once again after the Oregon killings that those who suffer from mental illness--and it is not clear that Harper-Mercer did--are far more likely to be the victims of violence than to commit violent acts. As one report highlighted, "Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness."

Meanwhile, there was little to no discussion in the mainstream media about how their own celebration of war and conquest around the world--in the name of patriotism and national security--may have contributed to the mindset of someone who could take nine lives in cold blood.

HARPER-MERCER joins a growing list of people who have carried out mass shootings--a phenomenon that, while not exclusive to the U.S., is far more common here than in other nations. By one count, the shooting in Oregon was the 294th mass shooting--defined as when four or more people are shot--in the U.S. after only nine months. It was also the 45th shooting on a school or college campus.

According to Mark Follman, an analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that mass shootings are becoming more common in the U.S. From 1982 to 2011, according to researchers, mass shootings--defined as shootings at a public place where four or more people were murdered, and excluding killings related to domestic, gang and drug violence--occurred every 200 days on average. Since late 2011, mass shootings defined in these terms occurred at triple that rate--every 64 days on average.

Despite what the National Rifle Association might claim, it seems clear that relatively easy access to firearms is a factor in these killings. While the U.S. makes up about 4.4 percent of the global population, it has 42 percent of the world's civilian-owned guns. A new report notes that there are now more guns in the U.S. than people--357 million firearms in 2013, 40 million more than the population of human beings.

It's right to question why an individual would feel the need to possess 14 weapons and a huge supply of ammunition--and to find the ease of stockpiling guns and bullets frightening. This sentiment drives the renewed calls for gun control measures to prevent such tragedies.

But the guns themselves don't explain what prompts violence on this scale in the first place. Because of this, calls for gun control are inadequate as a response to the horror that took place in Roseburg.

WHAT'S WORSE, the passionate pleas for gun control from the likes of Barack Obama obscure other roots to the violence of U.S. society--most obviously, the infinitely more violent and destructive killing machine that Obama presides over as commander in chief of the U.S. military.

In a statement following the shootings in Roseburg, Obama said that the tragedy:

means there are more American families--moms, dads, children--whose lives have been changed forever. That means there's another community stunned with grief...In the coming days, we'll learn about the victims--young men and women who were studying and learning and working hard, their eyes set on the future, their dreams on what they could make of their lives.

But Obama spent less time talking about the families whose lives were changed forever by the U.S. bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, not one day after he publicly mourned the victims in Oregon.

Consider the horrifying description of the attack, which killed at least 23 people, including 13 staff members and 10 patients, three of them children, and wounded at least 37 more. According to Médicines sans Frontieres nurse Lajos Zoltan Jecs, after waiting out the bombing:

We went to look for survivors. A few had already made it to one of the safe rooms. One by one, people started appearing, wounded, including some of our colleagues and caretakers of patients.

We tried to take a look into one of the burning buildings. I cannot describe what was inside. There are no words for how terrible it was. In the Intensive Care Unit six patients were burning in their beds...

It was crazy. We had to organize a mass casualty plan in the office, seeing which doctors were alive and available to help. We did an urgent surgery for one of our doctors. Unfortunately he died there on the office table. We did our best, but it wasn't enough.

The whole situation was very hard. We saw our colleagues dying. Our pharmacist--I was just talking to him last night and planning the stocks, and then he died there in our office.

The commander-in-chief had no moving words for these victims. Obama didn't talk at length about a "community stunned with grief." Did those killed in this attack not also have "their eyes set on the future, their dreams on what they could make of their lives"?

The best that Obama could offer was a boilerplate statement extending condolences for what he called a "tragic incident"--while urging people to "await the results" of a Defense Department investigation "before making a definitive judgment as to the circumstances of this tragedy."

IN MAKING his case for greater restrictions on guns, Obama asked his audience to tally up the number of Americans killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and compare it with the number of Americans who have died from gun violence. In doing so, CNN found that the number of U.S. citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2013 was 350. Including those killed in acts of terrorism inside the U.S.--which includes the September 11 attacks--brings the total to 3,380.

By comparison, from 2001 to 2013, a total of 406,496 people died from firearms on U.S. soil, including homicides, accidents and suicides.

The disparity is important, given the continued rhetoric about the threat that terrorism poses to Americans and the need for the never-ending war against it--which is now being prosecuted with equal vigor by Obama as by his predecessor.

But there's another important number that Obama purposefully left out of the conversation--the death toll of civilians around the globe as a result of the U.S. "war on terror."

In a March report, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War found that at least 1.3 million lives have been lost in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone since the onset of war after September 11, 2001. (The report points out that the total number killed in the three countries "could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.") That leaves out the casualty figures from other countries decimated by the "war on terror," including Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria.

In other words, the violence inflicted globally as a consequence of the U.S. "war on terror" far surpasses that of gun violence.

Yet there is no hint anywhere in the media or among politicians that a government which can inflict such carnage around the world might be responsible for a society where violence is routine. There is no speculation about how the officially sanctioned violence of police, now at epidemic levels, might set an equally grisly example.

Instead, politicians and the media look for answers in individual behavior or lax gun laws--without asking what kind of message it sends about the value of human life when the U.S. military can drop bombs and massacre thousands of people halfway around the globe.

Such violence cannot be compartmentalized--and the hypocrisy of those in power cannot be ignored.

The leader of the most powerful government in the world--a government that justifies drone attacks and sanctions the assassination of even its own citizens–cannot be taken seriously when he makes a plea to end violence, without first acknowledging the massive scale of the violence he is responsible for around the globe each day.

Barack Obama had the power to prevent the deaths and carnage at the hospital in Kunduz. Instead, he now has the distinction--and the terrible irony--of becoming the first Nobel Peace Price winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

As a statement from MSF noted, despite the changing claims from the U.S. about why the hospital was targeted, such an attack on a civilian hospital is a war crime--and one the U.S. government must answer for:

Today the U.S. government has admitted that it was their air strike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing--from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.

The double standards are no more tolerable today than in 1999, when then-President Bill Clinton invoked high-minded rhetoric about a "culture of values instead of a culture of violence" after the Columbine High School shooting--even as he dropped bombs on the former Yugoslavia.

How can we be surprised when the calculated brutality unleashed by the U.S. every day around the globe is replicated on a smaller scale at home?

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