Friday, August 16, 2019

DOMESTIC TERRORISM & THE MYTH OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM


In the span of twenty-four hours, America was shocked by the occurrence of two mass shootings claimed the lives of 31 people. The first shooting occurred in El Paso, Texas, a town located on the border of the US and Mexico, at a Walmart of all places. The gunman, Patrick Crusius (21), drove the nine-hour journey from his home in Allen, Texas, for the sole purpose of carrying out the massacre. Armed with assault rifles, shooting glasses and ear protectors, he systematically gunned down families and children. By the end of it all, twenty two people were pronounced dead.

Fast forward thirteen hours later and another shooting has occurred in the town of Dayton, Ohio. The second shooting claimed the lives of nine people, including the shooter, Connor Betts (24). To be sure, and already buried underneath the horrific headlines, there was last week’s shooting in Gilroy, California that claimed the lives of three people: two children and an adult, making the statistics even more horrifying with three shootings in the span of one week. And yet nobody mentioned or even talked about the Gilroy shooting. Perhaps because it occurred a week ago? A cynic might have said maybe because not enough lives were lost to warrant enough grief and outrage.

I have spent fourteen out of my twenty nine years of living in the United States. I learned many things about the world and about myself by living in America that I think I would never know had I stay in Indonesia. I became familiar with every different culture under the sun due to America’s diversity and I have received educational opportunities and scholarships beyond my wildest dreams. The United States is still the land of opportunity, the Mecca of scientific advancement, and one of the best places in the world for innovative works. And yet these days such great things about America seemed lost in the midst of the horrendous human tragedies in the form of mass shootings in public places.

I still remember the first mass shooting that I witnessed, the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech campus and its aftermath. I was still in high school back then, and after the shooting occurred the school’s doors that used to be open during school hours became firmly locked from that point on. After that first shooting, I lived through countless news of mass shootings, the frequency of which increased during the last year alone. And like a person who has been tickled too many times to the point of not being ticklish anymore, now whenever I hear news about another mass shooting all I can do is shrug and sigh tiredly.

Frankly, I have no energy to be outraged anymore after the nth time innocent people are gunned down in a supposedly safe public place, followed by the media arguing about why this tragedy happen and exploiting the tragedy for higher ratings and more clicks online and politicians doing close to nothing, only offering empty platitudes of thoughts and prayers, not trying to put safeguards in place so this tragedy won’t ever repeat itself. Cue the next mass shooting, and we’ll repeat the same thing all over again. And the sad truth is: most Americans’ knee jerk reaction when they read a story about a mass shooting is the same as mine.

With the repeated failure (or more appropriately ‘disinclination’) of lawmakers to enact stronger gun control laws - in direct defiance to what the majority of the American people want and in direct acquiescence to the gun manufacturers’ and gun lobbies’ wishes - mass shootings have become “normalized” in American society. Just a part of the American life, if you will. And that is the scariest part of everything, because something as gruesome and horrific as mass killings should never become the norm, and yet in today’s America it’s starting to become that way. I often think about the Sandy Hook massacre, where twenty six school children ages 6-7 years old were senselessly gunned down by a madman with access to too many guns. In the aftermath of the shooting, Congress couldn’t even pass a basic gun law reform to require universal background check on anyone who wished to purchase a firearm. If the deaths of so many children weren’t enough to catalyze significant reform, then nothing can.

The above lackluster attitude in the US was a far cry from the New Zealand when it saw its first mass shooting on March 15, 2019, that claimed the lives of fifty one peoples. Only a few days later, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the ban of assault rifles in the country. New Zealand might not ever see another mass shooting, but America? Another mass shooting is almost guaranteed. Unless something more than “thoughts and prayers” are offered to the victims and the citizens.

Domestic Terrorism in America

There is always one aspect of these mass shootings that people would spend the most time debating and grappling with: the motive. Most of the time the motive is self-explanatory: frustration, anger, hatred, the desire to sow discord and chaos in the general populace. All of these emotions coupled with the ease of obtaining and purchasing firearms leads to the unique American phenomenon of mass shootings. However, recently the motives of the shooters are even more self-explanatory as these people deemed it necessary to publish a manifesto to elaborate the reasons behind their atrocities: hatred against minorities, those who deemed to be contaminating American society with their presence in the country.

Recent shootings have all included a racial or ethnic component to it. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting was due to the shooter’s false perception that Jewish people were funding the caravan of Central American immigrants who were heading for the US border in search of asylum; the El Paso shooting was because of the perceived threat of ‘invasion’ by Mexican immigrants; the Charleston church shooting was to incite a ‘race war’ between White and Black Americans. White supremacy, the belief that the White race is superior to others and perceiving any other races/ethnic groups as subhuman, belied all these attacks and the fact that these atrocities are occurring more frequently is no coincidence.

Anyone who’s intellectually honest would call these shootings for what it is: An act of domestic terrorism fueled by white supremacist ideology. And its rising frequency is directly correlated with the normalization of anti-immigrant sentiments by none other than the President himself. Combined with the ease of obtaining deadly weapons to enact such murderous rage and the socioeconomic conditions of the current day, it all combined perfectly to create a situation where domestic terrorism perpetrated by white supremacists occur at high frequency in modern day America.

It’s clear as day what is occurring and who’s to blame. And yet the Conservative Right, chief among them the Republican Party, Right Wing pundits, the incumbent administration and GOP lawmakers, are all eager to blame anything else but their constant rhetoric that has been not so subtly demonizing immigrants and the poor and championing American (white) supremacy. In their minds, it’s not the guns that are the problem, but the people who wield them.

These people are afflicted with mental illnesses or played too many violent video games that messed with their heads. Right wing lawmakers and pundits made these arguments conveniently ignoring the fact that these talking points have been debunked by extensive research and ignoring the fact that the majority of mentally ill people are non-violent, stigmatizing mental illness in the same breath. Furthermore if the perpetrator is White, they would go through the extra mile of convincing everyone that this was an isolated incident and not in any way representative of race relations in America. So why this exercise in futility?

The Myth of American exceptionalism
I think the answer to that is twofold. 1): these lawmakers are heavily reliant on money from gun manufacturers and the gun lobby to finance their campaigns. It is in their best interest to never pass any form of gun reform law that could limit sales and consequently affecting these companies’ bottom lines, which will stem cash flow to their campaign funding. Hence, anytime a shooting occur, it is never an issue of accessibility to guns and weak oversight but personal responsibility so there’s nothing the government could do about any of this. So the more they distract and blame the tragedy on other things the better. 2): acknowledging these shootings as a domestic terrorism act committed by white supremacy and right wing extremism would be anathema to the myth of American exceptionalism, the foundation on which American self-identity was build upon, and detrimental to the American brand as the shining beacon of Democracy on Earth.

American exceptionalism purports that America is different from any other countries on Earth. Its existence was ordained by God, or in the words of the Puritan John Winthrop “a shining city on a Hill”. This myth of American exceptionalism -another word for “exceptionalism” is “supremacy”, by the way- is the basis of many policies enacted by the United States government since its independence from British colonial rule. Policies such as the Westward Expansion and the Indian Removal Act systematically remove and dramatically decrease the population of the Indigenous people of the American continent in favor of providing land for White settlers and Colonists.

The Annexation of Texas and the Gadsden Purchase increased the United States’ territory through forceful taking of Mexican lands. Not to mention the 19th century experimentation in Imperialism through which America obtained Hawaii, Puerto Rico, parts of Cuba, American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Philippines. Out of all the territories obtained only the Philippines became an independent country, while the rest, with the exception of Hawaii, remained a US territory to this day, stuck in a limbo where they’re subjected to US law but without having a say on what laws are being made.

Ironically, it is the myth of American exceptionalism that has made it possible for the US to interfere in other country’s internal affairs, toppling democratically elected governments and installing regimes that are friendly to US business interests under the guise of bringing democracy to oppressed people. However, regimes that are supported by the US are almost always brutally oppressive to its own people. Imagine if the Chilean government were to do the same thing the US government did when they supported the rise of Pinochet to power? US interventionism was never seen as a bad thing by the American people, since they have long been inculcated with the myth of American exceptionalism. They truly believe that what their government was doing in their name was done under humanitarian concerns. Which explains why in the wake of 9/11 attack many Americans wondered why they were attacked. “Why do they hate us?” seemed the prevailing thought back in those days. 
Perhaps the most famous example of what American exceptionalism allows was the fact that Americans never had to confront or seriously deal with the legacy of slavery and racism in their country. The Klu Klux Klan flourished in the wake of Emancipation, terrorizing newly freed Blacks and the Jim Crow law was basically part of many Southern states’ laws up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. To this day, one can find many statues of Confederate generals that seceded from the Union and fought to keep slavery in many cities and states in the South. It’s also not strange to see Confederate flags flying alongside the American flag. As an analogy this is akin to seeing the Nazi flag or statues of Hitler or Goebbels anywhere in Germany. Yet in America, in 2019, this is a familiar sight.

White supremacy is entrenched in American society. Its existence is undeniable and permeates many aspects of society from the Criminal Justice system, housing access, the educational system to the job market. To deny it is to turn a blind eye to a parasite that lives within a living body. Dormant most of the time but when the immune system weakens, the opportunistic parasite strikes and wreaks havoc in the body, resulting in irreparable damage. To acknowledge it and to take steps to prevent its spread will be tantamount to decreasing the threat this harmful ideology poses, not just for America, but for the world at large.

*) PhD candidate, Dept. of Biological Chemistry, School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA.
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