Paranoiacs With Guns: Violence and More Violence

I was contemplating the irrationality of violence. People turn to violence out of a desire for safety. Yet violence in the end makes the world a less safe place for everyone, not just for the supposed bad guys.

I can’t stop thinking about one piece of data. The US doesn’t have the highest rates of all kinds of crimes, compared to other similar countries. What makes the US crime rates stand out is that for Americans crime is more likely to involve violence and so more likely to result in injury and death. Why is that the case?

It occurred to me that criminals are more violent because our society unintentionally incentivizes violence. We have a heavily armed population who are trigger-happy. It isn’t always clear who is and isn’t a criminal. You only know a criminal after they commit the crime. Americans are a paranoid people, seeing criminals everywhere. Cops regularly shoot people who they mistakenly thought had guns. So do regular citizens. To a paranoid mind, a bag of skittles or a cell phone looks like a possible weapon.

The criminal is also in a paranoid state. Knowing so many people carry guns, the criminal isn’t going to mess around. He is more likely to shoot someone, if he has even the slightest reason to think the victim might pull a gun. Also, because our criminal system is so harsh in its punishment, the criminal is more likely to kill all witnesses to decrease the probability of going to prison. Our desire to protect ourselves from bad guys backfires and creates a less safe world.

Even mass incarceration just makes everyone worse. It has been convincingly argued that prisons have become schools for criminals where people come out the other side more dangerous than when they went in. Incarceration destroys lives, destroys families, destroys communities, destroys social capital. It makes our society worse in every possible way. We are surrounded by people who are the victims of our demented compulsion to punish at all costs. Some data shows that at least 6% of people in prison are entirely innocent of all crimes charged against them. Over the past few decades, that would amount to millions of Americans who have been falsely imprisoned and had their entire lives destroyed for no reason. These are the walking wounded, the desperate and hopeless, the victims of a society that betrayed them.

On a larger scale, our entire society has become militarized as our country increasingly has embraced its role as a police state and a military empire. The US has become the militarized policemen of the world. The Cold War, the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Terror, all of these first and foremost have been wars on people which includes American citizens. We’ve made our country and the entire world into a war zone.

In lowering the standards for recruitment, the military allowed people with criminal records into service. This unintentionally led to the military training of criminals who in many cases were gang members. So, the gangs in this country became militarized, using military tactics and military weapons against both other gangs and the police. At the same time, the police have militarized and our country is beginning to feel like a military occupation with police who look like soldiers, with guns being pointed at innocent citizens, and with military vehicles on American streets.

This creates a state of fear and paranoia. From right-wingers to minorities, people are arming themselves as the society becomes increasingly dangerous. American citizens aren’t sure who to trust anymore. Not even the police seem to be entirely on our side. If we can’t trust the police, as minorities and the poor understand all too well, then the only other choice is to defend oneself, to defend one’s family and community. Americans have started forming militias and are training in preparation. Even gangs in many ways are simply the poor person’s militia.

In our paranoia, we’ve projected our violent behavior onto the entire global society. In acting like Big Brother, we’ve simply become yet another authoritarian bully. All of the US war crimes and atrocities make us less safe as a country. These include: wars of aggression, long-lasting occupations, assassinations, overthrowing democratic governments, arming and training militant groups, mass bombings and drone strikes that kill innocent people (often women and children), funding Israeli’s genocide of Palestinians, allying with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and Latin America, and on and on.

As many have pointed out, the 9/11 attack was blowback from all that our government has done. When we do horrible things to others, they feel motivated to return the favor. It becomes a vicious cycle of violence. It creates and entire mentality and reality tunnel where everything is seen through the lense of violence and where violence is seen as the solution to all problems.

This is social dysfunction brought to its extreme. It is a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-destruction.

26 thoughts on “Paranoiacs With Guns: Violence and More Violence

    • I have often considered that. But finding good data has always been a challenge. It is largely how things get defined and categorized.

      Veterans costs get excluded. I think all of the costs of the alphabet soup agencies, drug wars, and militarized police should also be included in defense, especially since the military is giving away military surplus to local police departments. Also, what the heck is going on with the black budget?

      There obviously is much being left out. The military industry is the single largest sector of the US economy. That should shock the American public. The largest sector of the economy is being funded by the Defense Department.

  1. Well, the real numbers.

    Official defense budget:
    $495.6 billion

    The Republican Party regards this as a crisis because the defense budget last year was $496 billion. Effectively with inflation, this represents a budget cut.

    However the real defense budget is in excess of $1 trillion dollars:

    These costs include this year’s share of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars legacy (estimated to cost $4-6 trillion dollars).

    Actually, that cost of war is probably an underestimate due to the impact of resource cost inflation. This number will probably increase if the US goes to war again in Iraq (which it shows signs of doing).

    Finally, the defense budget is probably an underestimate too due to the state of accounting at the Pentagon. In particular, the “black” budget is not included, along with several other items.

    • I have little doubt that it is an underestimate. It is all about accounting. I’ve come across this difficult in trying to get a handle on the actual rates of violence and crime.

      We have no good data on police brutality. No one knows how many citizens are abused, physically harmed, and killed by police. No one knows how many innocent people are or have been in prison (or were executed), although false imprisonment rates have been estimated upwards to 6% (and that is probably an underestimate).

      My interest in this has largely been in relation to racism. Studies have shown how much police target poor minority communities. Racial bias is found in every aspect and level of the system: police, courts, etc. Whites are as likely or more likely to use illegal drugs, carry illegal drugs, carry illegal guns, and many other categories of crime. Yet blacks are disproportionately stopped and frisked, arrested, charged, judged more harshly, and imprisoned for longer periods of time. This is true even for the exact same crimes.

      But if you go by official accounting, it is hard to see how bad it is.

  2. I should point out something. After writing this, I couldn’t help but think of Skepoet’s response. He has mentioned to me that many comparisons aren’t useful. The United States isn’t really comparable to European countries. The country we live in is very young and European countries are old. It is a post-colonial country whereas Europeans were the colonizers.

    The better and more accurate comparison, as Skepoet argues, is with other young post-colonial nations, such as in Latin America. Like here, Latin America is violent and has militarized police. Essentially, the US is a Latin American country. We Americans forget that. Most of this country was once part of the Spanish Empire and much of the population is and always has been Hispanic.

    Plus, there are also other minorities as well. Native Americans are still an occupied people. African-Americans are still living with the legacy of slavery. And Asians have never been considered full citizens and Real Americans.

    • In that case, fairer comparisons may be:

      – Canada
      – Australia
      – New Zealand

      Potentially South Africa as well.

      Former colonies colonized by the English who then used their populations.

      The US still does very poorly compared to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in most social indicators.

      Let me know what you think of the data.

      • You make a good point. Those comparisons could be useful, even if imperfect. No comparison is ever perfect. But comparing to regions of former English colonies would make for a more useful comparison than with European countries.

        Canada is useful in that it also has similar issues with a split society, between the English, French and First Nations. Australia is also useful in that, like the US, it received large numbers of prisoners from England (actually the US received more, despite Australia’s fame as a prison colony). New Zealand is the least similar of the group for it was established much later by the English. This difference is explained in David Hackett Fischer’s Fairness and Freedom.

        Even so, I would still argue that this country is highly unusual.

        The Spanish Empire and the French Empire once ruled most of North America and have permanently left their imprint, from California to the Southeast, from New Orleans to Florida. The California land system remains based on the Spanish imperial system. Also, the English took over the Dutch New Netherlands colony (New York City) and maintained its cultural and political traditions, and it is the non-English quality of New York City that precisely makes it so American.

        The US is a massive country. Few countries can compare in either size or diversity.

        • If you define size as in area, Canada is actually larger. Australia is a pretty large nation too.

          Population wise though, no nation can compare that is true. China and India though are large nations with similar problems.

          • I suppose I was using size loosely. I was thnking in a combination of measures:

            1. land area (depending upon which incorporated and unincorporated territories one includes),
            2. populaton size (depending upon which inhabited territories one includes),
            3. how spread apart are those populations,
            Et cetera.

            Or something like that. I’m thinking off the top of my head. I haven’t looked closely at any of these numbers.

            If I had to guess, I’d say Canada and Australia have more concentrated populations with larger areas of uninhabited land. As for diversity, some measures supposedly show that Canada has more of it, but I have no idea how that particular measure of diversity is being defined and calculated.

            China and India are a whole other kettle of fish. As a note of interest, India’s caste system may be the closest equivalent in the world to the US slave-originated racial order/hierarchy. No other former slave colony has the genetically polarized racial separation as found in the US. Much of US history was essentially a caste system of a variety unique to this country.

    • I have come across at least one book that compared the United States and Africa, specifically in terms of the respective racial orders. But I think the focus was more narrow on the Jim Crow era of the US.

      In terms of origins, South Africa has a historical timeframe more similar to New Zealand. It wasn’t an early English colony like Canada and Australia. I’m not sure if that makes any difference.

      Many people have noted the US has something akin to apartheid, even though no longer legal or as overt as it once was.

      • The question is how this will end.

        Inequality keeps rising. The US is heading towards the direction of a third world banana republic.

        – Very high inequality
        – No middle class; rich fantastically rich; poor barely scraping by
        – Police state
        – Violence is commonplace
        – Authoritarian leaders
        – Lots of propaganda
        – Declining education
        – Infrastructure aging or falling apart

        The US is already deep in that direction.

        Well, I will say this: history is our warning.

        • America’s diversity has always been its strength. Effective police states have only ever been fully implemented for any length of time in homogenous societies. Diversity is what makes the US dynamic and also what makes it unstable in so many ways.

  3. I fear that Canada is following that direction. I fear that it is mostly natural resources keeping Canada afloat.

    Neoliberal economics really deserves the blame for a lot of the problems. Combine that with a militant foreign policy, although that’s mostly an American thing.

    There are a few rays of hope:

    This is a right wing newspaper by Canadian standards, by the way.

    • The Canadian perspective is always useful for us Americans. That is probably the most compelling comparison, since they are our neighbors. We share geography and historical origins. We even share many political and cultural traditions, including being two of the largest and most multicultural nations on the planet.

      • The politician in question is actually left of centre (Canadian spelling).

        But that’s the key difference between the US and Canada. Left wing newspapers at times will also print centre-right politicians and opinions if for no other reason to hear their arguments out. In the UK, the Guardian, the BBC, and most of the main newspapers do the same.

        Something like Fox News is actually illegal in Canada.

        That and I find the average person to be much better informed about the world then the typical American.

  4. The reason why I push so hard for a Blue State-Red State split is because I do not see the Red States having much of a future. I’ll be blunt – the standard of living in the Red States for all but the top 10% will be closer to that of Mexico than that of say, northern Europe.

    I do not see any way for the Red States to save themselves. Save for a few urban oasis, like Austin or perhaps Miami, it’s heading down the gutter in terms of living standards. The loss of manufacturing, the recession, and other issues have not been very kind to the South.

    When things come to roost and the military (disproportionately from the South) proves unaffordable, things will get worse.

    I can see the “Blue States” perhaps with Canada pursuing something different. But the US as it is, is politically in paralysis.

    • I’ve voiced that kind of opinion before. The South has been a major focus of my thought. I spent so many years living there and at a formative time of my life. Also, so much of my family came from the South. It is part of my identity and heritage.

      It is harder for me, though, to dismiss the South as a genuine lost cause. I’m not sure what future potential that region might hold. All I know is times are changing.

      Many Northerners are heading to the South. On top of that, the South is leading the country in the formation of the minority-majority demographic. These minorities, who are the new majority for the South and soon for the whole country, are much more left-leaning in many ways or at least more Democratic (and the younger minorities are more independent, split between their attraction to libertarianism and socialism).

      The South always has had its progressive tradition. This is particularly seen in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, but also in Appalachia as well. Most people don’t realize that most Southerners identify with Democrats. It is only voter suppression and such that has kept the majority down. But this form of oppression is breaking down.

      The South might turn out to be the region that most strongly challenges the oligarchy. The minorities most oppressed will be those most willing to risk everything in a fight against power. When that fight begins, it will be revolutionary. In all of US history, there has always been a white majority. The ending of that should not be underestimated.

      • There are other problems.

        In terms of the young, I see several trends:

        1. In the “Blue States”, most people of my generation (y) are progressive and would probably prefer a society closer to that of Europe than the US. In the South, that’s the issue, it’s split between libertarian and socialism. White southern males in particular seem to find libertarianism attractive.

        2. The other issue is the pace of change. We’re talking a slow demographic change. Time is not really a luxury the US seems to have in huge supply right now.

        3. The Democratic Party really isn’t the “change” party, more like the “status quo” party. Clinton actually seems more militaristic than Obama is and may end up getting the US into another war.

        Some things are lost and could take decades to rebuild. Manufacturing for example. Infrastructure is another example. Easier to rebuild will be things like education, but that requires capital, something that may not be present in large quantities in the future.

        It’s hard to predict the future, but I suspect that the economy could take a turn for the worse. That and the richest 0.1% will undoubtedly flee or retreat into gated communities when the very worst happens.

        The other reason is the South does not have a great deal to offer the North that could not be obtained through other means (ex: if the two nations split, a trade agreement would likely occur between the two).

        • I was thinking of this post, which I think I’ve shown you before:

          One thing I wrote was:

          “Interestingly, blacks and hispanics both have a negative view of capitalism. However, blacks have a more positive view of liberalism while hispanics have a more positive view of socialism. That will be an interesting future dynamic as these two demograhics grow.”

          I then quoted this at the end of the post:

          “While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll.”

          So, the youngest generation of the two fastest growing demographics, blacks and hispanics, are critical of capitalism. Both are more open to socialism than capitalism, in particular hispanics.

          I’m not sure what to make of this. It is only a poll asking about responses to labels. But it seems to indicate a fundamental shift, specifically in the South where these two demographics are concentrated.

          This is emphasized by the fact that the youth demographic is the most critical of both parties, especially Republicans, but certainly no friend of Democrats either. The youth are the most independent demographic in the country at the moment. This shows how much the political system is up in the air, and how high the stakes are in the South.

          There is potential, however it may play out.

          • We’ll have to see.

            The issue is let’s say they hand a permanent Democratic majority. Then what? A few more Obama-like presidents?

            Given the campaign finance system, it is unlikely that a progressive would ever be able to assume the seat of presidency because the special interests would fund the opposition.

            That leaves us with a permanent centre-right Democratic Party, even if the Republicans are locked out. The special interests will simply finance that Democratic Party instead.

            Admittedly, this would be a problem with the split in the Blue States, but by Canadian standards, the Democrats are quite conservative for the most part. It’s possible that a more left wing party could at least gain some ground.

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