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Rebecca Solnit Headshot

The Machismo-Industrial Complex

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Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

At a certain point in my life, I studied shotokan karate with a remarkable teacher, and then, unable to find her equivalent in the San Francisco Bay Area, took up wing chun for a while with a very amusing guy. At that point, I realized that the main threat to my health and well-being was my own stress level and -- well, you can see where this is going: yoga. There should be a national equivalent of that little trajectory from East Asian techniques for dealing with others to South Asian techniques for dealing with the self when it comes to real threat assessment: Americans die of lousy health and our lousy healthcare system, of natural disaster, and -- at levels unequalled throughout the affluent world -- of each other. Gun deaths in the U.S. in 2011: more than 11,000; in Japan that year, seven. From foreign terrorism in the U.S. that year: 0.

Some fears are convenient: terrorism has devoured money and civil rights and government surveillance at a rate that is itself terrifying. And it's made "security" into doublespeak. In terms of actual American deaths, terrorists are right down there with sharks. (Zero domestic shark deaths in 2011, 12 worldwide.) Some fears are inconvenient: if you look at leading causes of death and injury for women, the terms "terrorist" and "husband" should perhaps be interchangeable. Male violence, much of it by partners and former partners, is the second highest cause of death for women between 15 and 44, worldwide. And in the U.S., suicide kills more of us than homicide, as Erika Eichelberger points out in a timely piece on violence in the home.

To acknowledge what really threatens us is to upset two of the most guarded citadels in this country: the military and masculinity. They are perhaps the same force on different scales. Armed intervention is imperial machismo in the same way a raging husband or father is the military dictator of a household. Maybe "domestic terrorist" should be twinned with "domestic violence." After all, the seldom acknowledged main form of such terrorism in this country in recent decades, anti-abortion violence, fits in comfortably, being an assault on women's rights to bodily autonomy and self-determination.

At the Republican National Convention in New York City back in 2004, I coined the term "safe dangers" to describe how some perils are too dangerous to name and the way they are instead transformed into more conventional and acceptable dangers. The activists in Manhattan's streets then threatened the legitimacy and hegemony of the Republicans and brought up unsayable things about our wars, our leaders, and the state of our union. We were a threat.

To acknowledge what kind of threat we were, however, would have meant acknowledging first that we had real power -- the power to change the conversation and rock the boat (as Occupy would do, so threateningly, in that same city seven years later). It would mean opening up a genuine conversation, while framing the status quo as a construct of interested parties rather than the natural order of things. Instead, we were essentially reclassified as terrorists or criminals by a mainstream media taking its orders straight from the Bush Administration.

To acknowledge the real lay of the land is always dangerous when rhetoric and reality are out of joint. And are they ever over guns these days! The debate over gun control will never go anywhere as long as the anti-regulation side continues to argue from their inner Clint Eastwood: he who will always be faster on the draw, know just who the bad guys are, and drop them with a shot into a crowd, from a dead sleep at home, in a moment of utter surprise, in a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse... Call it the machismo-industrial complex: it sold more than 17 million guns last year, enough to arm every soldier in NATO five times over.

Mere statistics about who actually uses guns on whom just don't get in their way. (You know, the tiny numbers of intruders actually deterred and the startling number of family members knocked off.) Nor does testimony from people like gun-carrying Joe Zamudio. He was the man who came upon a group of people, including his congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, being shot by a lone gunman in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. Someone had already wrestled the gun away from the killer.

Zamudio almost shot that bystander by mistake. He wisely hesitated, ended up wrestling the actual shooter to the ground, and then simply lay on top of him.

Not at all like Dirty Harry, that role model for massacre perps -- also mostly white guys, speaking of the unmentionable -- exacting their own vengeance on a world insufficiently obedient to their idiosyncratic needs and notions. Clearly, we need counters to Hollywood, and militarism, and machismo. We also need to take stock of the real dangers in our country. That's exactly what Erika Eichelberger does in her piece "House of Horrors." In the immortal words of Pogo Possum, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Rebecca Solnit is the author most recently of 'A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster' and 'Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas.' She is a TomDispatch regular and writes for many other websites and magazines.