The American Soul Is a Murderous Soul

Guns make America more lethal than other countries. But getting rid of the Second Amendment won’t make Americans any less violent.

In 1923, the British novelist D. H. Lawrence offered a grim assessment of America and Americans: “All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Lawrence’s observations of the American character did not draw upon deep wells of direct personal experience. When he wrote those lines, he had only been living in the United States for a bit more than a year and had spent much of that time among artists and the literati. But he was neither the first nor the last to make such an observation. Nearly 50 years ago, surveying both the wreckage of the 1960s and centuries of archives, the brilliant historian Richard Hofstadter acknowledged that “Americans certainly have reason to inquire whether, when compared with other advanced industrial nations, they are not a people of exceptional violence.”

The allegation that the American character is essentially murderous — or at least more murderous than that of other nations — still strikes a chord today. It’s not just the periodic invitations to violence that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has issued over the course of his campaign, most recently against his Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton. This summer’s headlines have also enumerated trauma after trauma. Eight members of a single family murdered in Ohio. Forty-nine dead in a mass shooting in Florida. Shootings by police claiming the lives of black Americans in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Maryland. Fatal shootings of police in Texas, Louisiana, and California. Breaking reports of horror follow one another fast enough to induce a kind of whiplash.

Or consider the strenuousness with which each political party now routinely denies that Americans are inherently violent, a refrain that can begin to feel like protesting too much. In his final speech at the Republican National Convention last month, Trump bemoaned the “violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities” but, true to form, laid the blame on hordes of “illegal immigrants … roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens”; “brutal Islamic terrorism”; and the enabling of a Democratic president whom Trump has previously and unsubtly intimated isn’t really American himself.

Democrats likewise tend to suggest that, for Americans, acts of violence are an aberration. Announcing a gun safety program in the wake of last December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, President Barack Obama declared: “We are not inherently more prone to violence. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency.” From this perspective, violence in America does not indicate anything “inherent” in the American character: It is about the presence of guns, the availability of which is a contingent and remediable matter of policy.

But what if there’s good reason to believe that being American has always involved a relationship of some kind to violence — whether as its victim, as its perpetrator, as a complicit party, or even as all of these at once. Rather than assuming, in Obama’s words, that Americans are “not inherently more prone to violence,” the country owes it to itself to finally try to consider the question directly.

FBI agents investigate a damaged wall of the nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a mass shooter, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people on June 12, 2016. Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

How is violence quantified, and what are the benchmarks used to assess whether a given society’s level of violence is high or low, normal or exceptional? The general practice among researchers across numerous disciplines is to present yearly “intentional homicide” rates per 100,000 of a given nation’s population; crucially, these figures do not include deaths directly related to full-blown wars.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) compiles national figures for its reports, the most recent of which reflects data from 2012 and 2013. Per the UNODC, some 437,000 people were murdered worldwide in 2012, putting the average murder rate at 6.2 victims per 100,000 persons. But beyond that average figure, as you might expect, there is wide variation in terms of both individual nations and continents. Regionally, Central America and southern Africa both clock in at over four times the global average (more than 25 per 100,000), while Western Europe and East Asia are some five times lower than it. Within continents and regions, the variations can be stark. Thus, to take Africa as an example, the rate in Senegal is 2.8; Egypt, 3.4; Sudan, 11.2; and Lesotho, the highest, at 38. In Europe, Switzerland’s rate is 0.6; the U.K., 1; Finland, 1.6; Lithuania, 6.7; and Russia, the highest, at 9.2. The Americas show the widest variation: Canada’s rate is 1.6; Argentina, 5.5; Costa Rica, 8.5; Panama, 17.2; Mexico, 21.5; and Honduras, the highest in the world — at 90.4 per 100,000.

Against this backdrop, for the period of 2007-2012, the United States has averaged 4.9 homicides per 100,000 persons. America thus stands more or less shoulder to shoulder with Iran (4.1), Cuba (4.2), Latvia (4.7), and Albania (5). So much for the data on homicides tout court. The question then is whether or not to consider America’s standing among countries like these to be an aberration. Such states certainly aren’t in the same class as the United States in terms of development metrics like per capita GDP, and this fact tends to get cited by American politicians and political observers as prima facie evidence that something else (whether “terrorists” or guns) is skewing their country’s violence data, pushing it out of its allegedly more “natural” peer group — places like the Scandinavian states, the U.K., or Japan.

But while such comparisons may sound rigorous at first blush, they are often naively aspirational (at best) or deliberately deceptive and chauvinistic (at worst). Nowhere is this more blatant than in the context of the debate over guns. For example, many gun control advocates and supposedly objective analysts will condemn violence in the United States as abnormal by invoking comparisons to “developed” nations as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Yet these comparisons will regularly exclude Mexico, which is not only an OECD member but also America’s third-largest trading partner and its unfortunate next-door neighbor. The reason given for this exclusion, as though self-explanatory, is “the drug war.” The annual U.S. market for illegal drugs may be well over $109 billion, and an estimated quarter-million guns may be trafficked to Mexican cartels from the United States in any given year, but inviting the contemplation of such queasy moral entanglements is apparently less politically expedient, and more offensive to patriotic amour-propre, than demanding why America can’t just clean up its act and be more like the places we feel it “should” resemble.

It’s not just our use of empirical metrics for evaluating violence in America that can be dubious. Opining on the supposedly inherent tendencies of vast groups of people toward violence — Americans, Muslims, the left-handed, anyone — should rightly raise flags. It’s the kind of thing you might expect from a 19th-century phrenologist, someone who would measure skulls for indicators of “destructiveness.” But although the vintage pseudo-scientific quackery underwriting such speculation may have fallen out of fashion, the sentiments themselves haven’t disappeared. Consider Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, pontificating on the civilizational contributions of whites versus other “subgroups,” or research indicating widespread biases whereby black Americans are perceived to be both “prone to violence” and less susceptible to pain. Passing judgment on “a people” as an abstraction rarely leads anywhere good and frequently reveals more about the observer than the observed.

But making claims about the inherent relationship “Americans” have with violence is especially dicey. The United States is an extremely heterogeneous country, with vast regional differences, considerable ethnic diversity, marked de facto segregation, and wide income inequality — which Americans would we be talking about?

Neighborhood residents hang out at a memorial for 18-year-old Michael Brown on Oct. 20, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo credit: SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images

This is where considerations of the allegedly violent American national character run aground, though in a telling way. Because like most goods and ills in America — from job opportunities to education to healthy drinking water — violence is not equally distributed among Americans. Indeed, drilling down into the demographics of violence in America reads like an indictment of society’s broader treatment of the poor and marginalized. As analysts have pointedly observed, black Americans are some eight times more likely to be murdered than their white compatriots and, in any given year, will be killed at rates anywhere from 10 to 20 times the benchmark OECD rates. When the homicide rates for individual states rather than the national average are compared, the results are damning: The murder rates in Louisiana (11.93 per 100,000) and Washington, D.C., (13.92) are on par with figures from countries like Nicaragua (11), the Central African Republic (11.8), and Côte d’Ivoire (13.6).

Those who cast these figures as artifacts of so-called “black-on-black crime” not only often traffic in thinly veiled racism, but don’t even attempt to understand the problem at hand. Most crimes of any sort in any place — not just murders — involve members of the same group targeting one another in close geographic proximity. And in a nation as segregated as the United States remains to this day, the concentration of violence in crowded ghettos and benighted postindustrial areas should be unsurprising. Americans have a history of citing violence as the cause of their racial prejudices. But the reality is that anti-black racism is itself the defining feature of the institutions and social pressures that generate everyday violence in the United States.

What Americans should reflect on is how deftly their society has contained and distilled the phenomenon into marginalized communities — and how that distribution of violence is something the majority of Americans of either political persuasion tend to deem irrelevant to their periodic national debates about the country’s safety or lack thereof. The Washington-based politician or journalist who sees a headline-grabbing rampage of shootings as a sign that America is descending into barbarity, and as threatening its status as an “advanced” country, exists in a kind of cognitive bubble: Literally only blocks away, bodies regularly drop at rates otherwise only seen in violence-prone corners of the developing world. Taking an even broader view, it is arguable that, but for modern advances in antibiotics and trauma care, murder rates in such parts of the United States would surpass those historically associated with medieval Europe. American “progress,” such as it is, has apparently consisted in merely blunting some deadly outcomes and enabling others.

Guns are undeniably a central part of this landscape. In environments in which violence is already present, and in which more violence is probable, the presence of guns appears to quicken lethal outcomes. This is true on both the level of households and the level of communities. Research indicates that, over the course of their lifetimes, one-quarter of American women will experience physical or sexual violence from a domestic partner; this rate puts the United States alongside Jordan, Serbia, Nepal, and Guatemala. But when a gun is present in an American home where there is a history of domestic violence, the likelihood that a woman living there will be killed has been credibly estimated to increase some twentyfold. On the community level, homicide rates in cities like Chicago and New York are roughly equivalent — but only for murders that don’t involve guns; gun homicides in the former are easily an order of magnitude higher than the latter.

But these considerations do not easily translate to the national level. Although in the past year many cities have experienced a sharp and disturbing increase in homicides, with no clear explanation as to why, overall violent crime rates have been dropping for decades, even as Americans have consistently expressed a conviction that crime has been steadily getting “worse” and even as they have accordingly purchased more guns than ever before. From a certain perspective, when considering America’s unprecedented saturation with firearms, observers may be forced to admit that the surprising thing is how much more violent America could be than it currently is.

Gun enthusiasts try out laser sighting systems at an annual National Rifle Association meeting, held in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 21, 2016. Photo credit: SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images

If there is any singular feature that characterizes how many Americans understand our national relation to violence, it is our ingenuity at looking the other way, at siloing problems away from one another, and at disavowing, sublimating, or repackaging our complicity in the most easily observable patterns.

Signs of supposed progress in expressions of American violence often disguise profound continuities. For example: The era of highly visible public lynchings, which is estimated to have claimed some 5,000 lives, has passed. Yet since then we have moved on to an institutionalized death penalty regime, wherein states that previously had the highest numbers of lynchings now have the greatest numbers of black people on death row. Both per capita and in raw numbers, America’s prisons warehouse more human beings than any other country on the planet, and its police demonstrate a clear pattern of racial bias in killing their fellow citizens at a rate stratospherically higher than that of any of its supposed peer nations. U.S. soldiers are deployed in some 135 countries, and the number of troops actually engaged in combat is almost certainly much higher than authorities are willing to admit. Meanwhile, America is far and away the world’s largest exporter of weapons, with the global arms industry’s largest and most profitable players based in the United States and reaping booming markets in conflict zones while being heavily subsidized by federal and state tax dollars.

Everyday Americans may not be “inherently more prone to violence,” but our way of life is certainly structured around violence and around selectively empowering, quarantining, directing, and monetizing it at home and abroad. The majority of Americans apparently find no cognitive dissonance in this arrangement, if we even perceive it at all. Instead, we express bafflement and outrage that we are not something other than what we are and what we have always been. Plumbing what lurks within the “essential American soul,” a cynic might suggest, is a self-indulgent exercise, a red herring. The better question might be whether we even have one in the first place.

Top photo credit: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images

Patrick Blanchfield is a freelance writer and academic based in New York and Pennsylvania.