So, what do you make of a country where a third grader brings a gun to school to ward off bullies?
In Inkster, Mich., an eight-year-old boy brought a nine-mm semiautomatic handgun to his elementary school two days in a row for protection, and to scare off three girls who were bullying him. The weapon was in the boy's backpack and belonged to a relative. And surely somewhere in this nation of unacceptable levels of violence and gun worship, there are those who think that is a good thing, to arm children to protect themselves. More guns will make us all safer, right?
After the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., America, it seems, is waking up to the need to stem the tide of violence in this country. But there is nothing new here. Whether we look at the shooting sprees and mass murder of young white men in the affluent suburbs or rural areas, or the epidemic of gun violence in communities of color in Chicago and elsewhere, violence is part of the fabric of America.
From the beginning, this country has used violence to solve its problems. Years of dehumanization of others will do that to you. And this was always the case, from the enslavement of Africans to the genocide of the indigenous population, and from the regime of lynching in the Jim Crow South and elsewhere, to the acts of terror waged against civil rights workers, antiwar protestors and organized labor.
Speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967, Martin Luther King said, "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." Dr. King's words are even more relevant today than when he spoke over four decades ago.
The U.S. has the most powerful army, accounting for 58 percent of the military expenditures made by the top 10 military powers. With high gun accessibility and the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, America leads in deadly gun violence. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. homicides are committed with guns, and 70 percent of the weapons seized in drug war-ravaged Mexico are traced back to the U.S. Gun proliferation is bolstered by an anachronistic and obsolete Second Amendment, and promoted by gun manufacturers, who bribe lawmakers and hold the public hostage in the process.
Further, America's love affair with violence extends to its overly punitive, disproportionate system of justice. With one quarter of the world's prisoners, the U.S. is the largest jailer in the world. Prisons are the largest repository for the mentally ill, with more people receiving mental health treatment behind bars than in hospitals or treatment centers. As budgets for education and social services are slashed and jobs are scarce, the American way is to lock up and even kill our perceived problems rather than to build up people and rehabilitate them.
Moreover, our continued reliance on the death penalty in the U.S. is a prime example of what happens when a society perpetuates a vicious circle of violence. While capital punishment was long cast aside in Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, the barbaric practice still finds a welcome home in America -- at least for now. The U.S. is part of an unsavory alliance of nations who lead the world in executions -- including China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. But the winds of change are blowing.
For a nation conditioned by violence, it is hard to break extremely old and equally bad habits. After all, people are comfortable with what they know, comfortable with what they were raised on. America can break the cycle of violence -- however normalized it has become -- and yet it must if it wants to break from its troubling past and become better than it was.
David A. Love is the executive director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.