Last year, in the aftermath of the Isla Vista killings, I watched as the man responsible, Elliot Rodger, spoke into a camera for a video he had made and uploaded to YouTube shortly before he went on the rampage.
In it, he poured out his own sick, self-justification for what he went on to do.
The world had treated him badly, so he was taking revenge.
His revenge was truly terrible.
He killed six and injured fourteen others in a shooting which appalled the whole world.
In the aftermath, his “manifesto” became big news, and in that he set out his “case”; it was a misogynist rant against the women who had spurned him and the society that had “forced” him to load up his guns and go on a murderous rampage.
Watching the video, I got the worst case of the creeps I’ve ever had in my life.
His face, and his words, and the things he had done, and then the words he had written … they haunted me for days. It took weeks to get over it, and in the aftermath I wrote a novella called Twisted, which I published on Kindle, to try and sift through my feelings about it all, and the sense of entitlement that makes a person think their own pain and suffering justifies mass murder.
I said in the intro to that book that Rodger and other mass killers are not simply an American phenomenon, and I listed other cases where they’ve struck.
Shockingly, there have been three here in the UK in my living memory; Hungerford, Copeland and, of course, most tragically, in Dunblane.
But what’s undeniable is that these killings are far more common in the US than they are anywhere else, and that is only partly explained by easy access to guns. Last year, alone, there were 283 separate incidents over there in which four or more people were shot.
There’s even a website which keeps track of appalling statistics like that.
Today, as yet another tragic, senseless, mass killing in that torn country shocks the world my heart once more goes out to America and to to all Americans. It must be terrible to live there at times like this.
One of the things that most troubles me, as someone on the left, is the enormous, irrational hate many people on my side of the fence have for the United States.
In my opinion, my lifelong opinion, every internationalist and socialist should love the USA.
Now, before I get an inbox of abuse for that sentiment, let me say that we can, with full justification, turn our fury on the actions of some of its governments and we can look to their political system for every lesson going in how not to run a great nation.
Yet the ideals on which that country is founded are pure and bright and beautiful, and the “American Dream” is still the romanticised version of what we’re all striving for in our lives.
America is broken. Those ideals have been twisted, and much of its political class is corrupt.
But I cannot hate an entire country for that.
In March this year an incredibly detailed, honest and unflinching article by historian, writer and social commentator Christian G. Appy appearing in Salon, detailing America’s loss of innocence during the Vietnam War.
In the article, he argued that the concept of America as a “force for good” in the world is a myth, and one that was better laid to rest.
In the piece, he quotes a character from the novel “Dog Soldiers”, about GI’s who go to fight over there filled with idealism and conviction, but grow disillusioned and finally become criminals when they realise the true nature of that war.
“We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else,” the character, Robert Stone, tells his friend, shortly before they get into the heroin business.
A lot of Americans feel that way about their country. A lot of them feel ashamed on nights like this.
I study American politics as closely as I watch the UK scene, and I can say, with some authority, that for all some on the left characterise America as being an arrogant bully the truth is that much of the country suffers from a chronic, and potentially dangerous, crisis of identity and the nation is riven with deep, historical wounds that time has not remotely helped to heal, and in fact has exacerbated and continues to, to the present day.
Many of its citizens no longer harbour any views on “manifest destiny” or their country’s place in the world.
They have more pressing concerns than that.
Parts of the country are spectacularly wealthy. Others exist in the deepest poverty you can imagine.
The country is ranked 14th in the world for education.
They are 19th in “national satisfaction.”
They are 23rd in gender equality.
They are 26th in child well-being.
They rank 24th in literacy.
Reporters Without Borders, who rank press freedom, rates America, the country of the 1st Amendment, in 46th place.
And if you do want to talk “manifest destiny,” well The Global Peace Survey ranks them 101st.
Does America rank the highest in any category?
Yes it does.
Their incarceration rate (per 100,000 people) is the highest in the world, and nearly double that of their closest contemporary.
They also rank number 1 for breast augmentation, which is probably because they have the highest number of plastic surgeons.
Their overall healthcare rating? The World Health Organization ranks them 37th.
These stats aren’t a secret, and the blame for it extends in so many directions you could get lost looking for a place to sit down.
Those who don’t loathe the federal government don’t trust it to do the right thing. Talk of a red and blue divide is a catchall which doesn’t come close to explaining the scale of the disunion that affects every facet of life in that country.
The British left doesn’t have to hate the US.
Much of its own citizens already have that well and truly covered.
Writing in The Guardian tonight, Gary Younge has, rightly, said that today’s shooting is a hate crime, happening as it did in a black church. That elevates racial tensions in a nation which seven years ago celebrated the election of Barack Obama on the basis that it was supposed to put that particular issue to bed once and for all.
Few who understand America really believed that, of course but it was a noble thing to strive for nonetheless.
The optimism of those days didn’t last. Before long, some on the right were playing games about birth certificates and the President’s nationality, with the undercurrent all too obvious.
There might not be Whites Only signs up across the South and segregation, in a legal sense anyway, might have been ended but America is still as split along white and black lines as it is along red and blue ones.
The hate some on the right have for the left and vice versa makes the average Glasgow derby look like a tame affair.
I took the title of this piece from the stunning documentary of the same name, about violence in the United States, a film that warned of the social consequences if that trend continued. This amazing movie, written by the great American screenwriter and director Leonard Schrader, caused a sensation when it was released … but policy makers generally ignored it.
That was in 1981.
Since then, a string of other documentaries have followed, many in the shadow of dark events, like Bowling For Columbine.
None has moved the mountain. None has ended the cycle.
A lot of Americans are scared.
A lot of them are permanently angry.
For every one who decries the easy access to firearms there is another who thinks if every citizen had a gun these incidents would happen a lot less frequently, although no-one’s ever cited a definitive example of an armed citizen preventing a massacre by drawing down on a shooter.
There are citizens groups who now routinely walk the streets armed, many carrying automatic weapons.
They say they are a deterrent and they might well be, but their very presence increases social tensions in a country which already has enough of them.
Tonight I just feel sick for the citizens of America, wherever they are and whatever they believe.
They are all caught up in the same whirlwind.
I revere the ideals on which America is founded.
The concepts that underpin it, The Bill of Rights, The Constitution, those magical words from The New Colossus which read “give us your tired, your poor and your hungry”, and which they inscribed on a plate on a wall at the Statue of Liberty …
There is so much about America to admire and respect, and yes that includes some of its leaders, those great men who fought for things that defined the world, those who looked outwards for friends instead of making enemies all across the globe.
Tonight Obama is saying all the right things, the things you hope to hear an American President say when these things happen, but the cynic in me is furious with him for it because he’s five months away from being effectively out of business.
He knows he can’t get anything done on the scale that this moment requires.
He should have pushed, forcefully, for major changes whilst he had the political capital required to deliver them and now that it’s too late he’s standing on the pulpit as if words alone are up to the task of making things better.
On a night like tonight I can’t even muster disbelief at a country and a political system that still lets these things happen.
Instead I feel a profound sense of sadness, and regret, and sympathy for every person who lives there tonight, for every person locked into this vicious, endless cycle of death and despair, where lives are still being lost in a country that seems to hate itself as much as certain corners of the world hate everything it represents.
Night is darkest just before the dawn, they say.
On a night like this, I really do wonder.
God Bless America and all her citizens.
I still hope for the dawn, and for the coming of the light.
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