American Violence, from Sand Creek to Sandy Hook
by Devon G. Peña
Je sais bien, mais quand-même [I know very well, but nevertheless...] — Octave Mannoni
The airwaves have been filled with agonizing reflections about the mass murder of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. There was wall-to-wall cable news coverage, endless interviews, moving eulogies at funerals, and a steady stream of talking head reflection. The public discourse turned on the questions of why and how this mass slaughter occurred.
The liberal response went along the lines of: There are too many assault weapons and high capacity magazine clips; it is too easy for the mentally ill to get weapons; mental health services for the growing at-risk population are inadequate. The conservative line espoused by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) revolves around the fundamentalist idea that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” So, the Sandy Hook massacre occurred because the principal and teachers were unarmed. We are to fight gun violence with more gun violence.
Conservatives also spout well-worn culture war explanations of gun violence: The ‘liberal’ media and Hollywood elites perpetuate the culture of violence; there is too much violence in our movies and TV-shows; young men act-out violent fantasies by becoming desensitized to murder and mayhem by playing video games like Halo, Special Ops, and Grad Theft Auto.
The world is not so easily reduced to a good guy versus bad guy formula — one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; remember? Also, audiences in other countries view the same shows and play the same games, but they are not engaging in mass murder.
One thing is clear to me: The speculation and lamentation will be with us but for a brief time and the country will fade back into the long familiar patterns of structural and interpersonal violence, traits that are as American as apple pie. We are in deep denial as a nation about the quintessentially ‘American’ trait of unending mass violence which we have long meted out to ourselves and any country or people opposed to the nation’s ‘manifest destiny’ or more contemporaneously the ‘national security interests’ of Empire.
Reluctantly and cautiously I entered this discourse because of a statement by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, while offering his typically frenetic take on current events — in this case, the why and how of gun violence in the United States. I am paraphrasing here, but Matthews basically said: “The mass slaughter of innocent children is unprecedented. It has never happened in our entire history.”
This statement struck me as deeply wrongheaded and tragically untrue. The fact that Matthews felt so secure making this declaration symbolizes for me the bedrock reason why so many of us will continue to die in the midst of an historical and institutionalized culture of violence. This violence begins with the very foundations of this nation and, moreover, it has never really been meted out in a random manner as many pundits currently argue.
Deep roots of the culture of violence
Religious conservatives like to proudly proclaim this as a Christian nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles and led by a Bible-loving and God-fearing people. If this is so, then to understand what happened at Sandy Hook they need to own up to the entire ugly legacy of violence propounded by their ‘good book’ and across the broadest strokes of the Old Testament. Psalms 137:8-9 illustrate this clearly and I need not remind anyone that the champions of Manifest Destiny, the white slave-owning settler elites, viewed the ‘savage Redskins’ and ‘inferior Mexicans’ as the New World’s version of the sons and daughters of Babylon:8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us 9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
The Spaniards followed Biblical advice and bashed the heads of Indian children against the rocks. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was among those who noted this travesty in his chronicle on The Devastation of the Indies (pp. 30-1):
…our Spaniards, with their cruel and abominable acts, have devastated the land and exterminated the rational people who fully inhabited it. We can estimate…that…with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million… [The Spaniards] took babies from their mothers’ breasts, grabbing them by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks…
The British perpetrated similar cowardly acts of mass murder as with the case of Lord Jeffrey Amherst who gave Native American men, women, and children blankets infected with smallpox during the French and Indian war (1754-1763).
This country and our media suffer from acute historical amnesia and white people, especially, have a very hard time reconciling themselves to the essentially violent nature of the forced entry, conquest, and colonization that created this settler nation-state.
The violence that killed the children and teachers at Sandy Hook was not an anomaly; it was simply misdirected at the wrong type of victims. Allow me to explain what must seem like an errant and outrageous claim.
The fact is that many young children have been victims of mass murder for hundreds of years. We would do well to recall our own U.S. 19th Century history: The gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 occurred when U.S. troops, under the command of a Colonel John Chivington, engaged in “killing and mutilating an estimated 70–163 Indians, about two-thirds of whom were women and children.”
In 1865, eyewitnesses presented a description of the massacre before Congressional hearings. John S. Smith, one such eyewitness testified of how he
…saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces … With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors … By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops…
There is, of course, a reasonable tendency to see all this as genocide to distinguish this type of governmental terror from the mass murder committed by individuals engaged in what appear to be random acts. But this is mincing words. Genocide is a form of mass murder. The only meaningful difference is that this is directed at a specific group or community of people with the intent of exterminating them.
We must observe: Sand Creek and Sandy Hook have several elements in common: Both involved the slaughter of innocent children; both involved the use of guns; and angry, frightened white men carried out both of these slaughters. Yet, it is far too easy for this basic idea to be forgotten; for the experience of Native Americans to be erased in the endless media and pundit genuflection over the persistence of violence.
It is also too easy to forget that the problem of violence for Native Americans, Blacks, and Latina/os is not a spectacular isolated event. It is instead a daily-lived experience. We live daily doses of structural violence and micro-aggression and have experienced this for several hundred years.
Would it thus appear that the Sandy Hook massacre is mostly notable to the punditry because the victims were white and middle class children? Where is there the comparable concern for the mass murder of undocumented children who are hunted down my militias in Arizona’s deserts and suburbs? Where is the sense of tragic loss when the victims are undocumented youth raped and maimed inside private immigration detention centers?
In the Daily Kos this past July, Chauncy de Vega made an important point about the history of recent mass murders in the United States. Writing in the aftermath of this summer’s Colorado movie theater slaughter, he noted that there is one aspect to these heinous acts that is seldom part of the conversation: “It is unlikely that the aftermath…will be a moment when we as a country reflect upon the relationship between masculinity and violence. There most certainly will not be a ‘beer summit’ about how…mass killers are [predominantly] white, male, and young.”
In a related line of analysis, Mother Jones recently published a report verifying that 61 out of 62 of the mass murderers in the U.S. since 1980 have been young men and 70 percent of these white men. This is a significant finding since white men constitute only 30 percent of the total U.S. population. Imagine the racial profiling that would be happening if the primary perpetrators of mass murder were Blacks or Mexicans.
Given this racialized history of violence by white men against the “Other,” we must confront the idea that this problem is not entirely about the proliferation of assault weapons in the streets and homes — the U.S. population is a mere 5 percent of the world’s population but owns 70 percent of the guns; we have more than 300 million guns out there right now.
The problem, however, is that most analysts have a simplistic and shallow understanding of the origins of the culture of violence, which is most often presented as a fabrication of recent vintage by Hollywood elites or blamed on the presumed influence of immoral atheists infecting our schools and popular culture with their Godless ideologies.
As I have argued here, the roots of the culture of violence run much deeper than Hollywood’s manufactured blood-and-gore fests. No one wants to take a serious look at the deeper history of genocidal violence; the murder and rape of Native youth by white men as a matter of business as usual in the building of the Empire of Manifest Destiny. The social critic and theorist Slavoj Žižek offers some insights on what might be behind this lack of an honest conversation about the culture of violence. The problem of denial and erasure of history is part and parcel of a larger problem, which he calls the ‘totalitarian disavowal.’
I argue that this is what explains the culture of violence in the United States: The problem is that totalitarian societies — including those like our own that have the mirage of a representative democracy — involve a denial of history and deep roots of violence because of “the power of ideology [as] reflected in the cynical attitude of the subjects, who know full well that the official ideological line…is false, and yet they stick to it as a matter of belief — since…belief has less to do with reason and knowledge than with habit and senseless…enjoyment.” (Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner 2007. Ideology critique or discourse analysis? Žižek against Foucault. European Journal of Political Theory 6:2:141-59; p. 146.)
The white majority culture celebrates this senseless enjoyment precisely because it is so afraid of confronting the dirty truth of a culture of violence that was actually always the basis for the establishment of a Republic of Property that values acquisitiveness and aggression above relationship and peacemaking. As long as this deeper source remains unexamined, we will never overcome the base cultural impulses that drive mass murderers to gun violence, which will continue to wreak havoc on an already stained and corrupt national soul.
The problem of totalitarian disavowal is also premised on the ability for white people to continue exercising their racial privilege — even as mass murderers. Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Feminist Wire, states: “…white people are simply unaccustomed to being explicitly identified as white. For many, the tired colorblind party line of white privilege means that just talking about race is racist. Universal means normal, and even the most heinous white criminals (Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer, and the list goes on) are humanized by a back story of psychoanalysis, cable TV biopics, books, and pop culture reportage.”
This is precisely what has unfolded in recent weeks as liberal and conservative pundits and policymakers tried to interpret the why and how of the Sandy Hook massacre. For one thing, they forgot to ask themselves how it was rooted in the violence visited upon Native American children at Sand Creek.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.