Frank Rich: America’s Other Original Sin

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with editor-in-chief Adam Moss about the Newtown tragedy, its political fallout, and our centuries-long worship of the gun.

Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, was among the 45 percent (!) of Americans that have guns in their homes. So I'm not going to ask you about gun control here; obviously you're for much stricter regulation, as most of your readers are. I want to know your thoughts about the culture of guns in America, and particularly in the last decade, during which public support for gun control has tumbled even as the incidence of mass rampages like Newtown increases, and the American people just get more enamored of their guns. Please try to help me understand why.
The first step on the long path to curing a deep illness in a society is to diagnose it properly and own up to it. We must acknowledge that guns and violence are not some new “modern” problem subject to a quick fix. We must recognize that they have always been intrinsic to the very idea of America and “freedom” — enshrined in our Constitution’s Second Amendment (however one chooses to read it), romanticized in our glorification of both our revolutionary and frontier past, and a staple of our popular culture not just in this era but every era: from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows through The Birth of a Nation, Zane Grey, Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch, gangster movies and gangsta rap, Bonnie and Clyde and Zero Dark Thirty, The Untouchables and The Sopranos. As Garry Wills wrote over the weekend, in America, the gun is a god, and like most gods, it “cannot be questioned.” And it has rarely been questioned over the course of our history except by the outnumbered and outgunned gun-control advocates who remain largely on the margins of American political power.

So that’s the size of the problem. There’s only one other malady that was so deeply embedded into the country’s DNA at birth: slavery. We know how long it took us to shake those shackles. And so in a country with some 300 million firearms (for a population of some 311 million people, many of them children), we must recognize that overthrowing America’s gun-worship is not a project that will be cured in a legislative session; it’s a struggle that’s going to take decades. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start right now — assuming we actually want to do so once the Newtown coverage has faded with the holidays.  

There has been much talk in the last few days about the violence of our popular culture, the rise in point-and-shoot video games, and the easy brutality you see in movies and television. Just how relevant is a violent "play" culture in tragedies like this? And inevitable follow-up: Is it worth censoring the culture for public safety?
Well, we now know that Adam Lanza played the video game Dance Dance Revolution at the local mall. Maybe it’ll turn out that he watched The Matrix — which was blamed for inspiring the killers in the Columbine massacre, at least until journalist Dave Cullen debunked that media myth. Even if you are certain that violent entertainment and video games trigger violence in crazy people — a debatable proposition empirically — and even if you believe there should be First Amendment abridgments to regulate cultural violence, who should we put in charge of censoring the culture in a way that might be sane and effective? Congress? The entertainment industry? The Simpson-Bowles commission? Talking heads who were advocating such censorship (though they avoided the word) over the weekend, led by the forgotten-but-not-quite-gone Joe Lieberman, should be forced to take the next step and explain exactly how this would work in practice. On ABC’s This Week yesterday, one proponent, writer Joe Klein, did have an action plan: “What we need to do in this society is treat people who create violent movies and violent video games with the same degree of respect that we accord pornographers. They need to be shunned.” Klein works for Time, a corporate sibling of Warner Bros. (The Dark Knight Rises), Warner Home Video-Games (Spy Hunter), and HBO (Boardwalk Empire). Perhaps he is confronting the pornographers in their executive suites at the Time Warner Center or Burbank even as we speak. 

I'm sure you read the harrowing essay by Liza Long that made its way on the web over the weekend describing having a son with high intelligence, mental troubles, and a seething capacity for violence. Most of these shooters are young male loners with high IQs. Why is this profile so amazingly consistent? I don't know what course of action it could possibly prompt, but the persistence of this Travis Bickle–like figure in these tragedies just stuns me.
I greatly identified with Liza Long. In my adolescence and teen years, I grew up with a step-sibling of roughly my same age (we shared a household, though not biological parents) who fit this profile. Even at the time — the sixties, when these incidents weren’t quite so numerous — my mother, my other siblings, and I felt a chill every time there was a news bulletin about a deranged young gunman, fearing that our own intelligent, seething loner might be the culprit. He received some of the better mental-health treatment available at the time, but, as Long describes her own plight, there was only so much that could be done. What does it say that some four decades later, we’ve made so little progress in both identifying and treating these cases? The persistence stuns me, too.

 What are you wanting from Barack Obama right now? He can take certain actions by executive order, and he can enforce existing laws more strenuously — but beyond that, what should he be doing? There's not much constituency for gun control among chicken-shitted members of Congress and gun-loving Americans.
Guns — like another looming disaster, climate change — were off the table in the election for the Democrats, for the usual cynical political reasons. (Romney, of course, disdained gun regulation.) Obama has hardly been a leader on this issue over the past eight years. That’s inexcusable, but we do have to fear that he is literally taking his own life into his hands by venturing into this hot political area. The utterly groundless conspiracy theories of the angry far-right that he wants to “take away our guns” have been a staple of the rise of our first African-American president. “Don’t retreat, reload!” was the Sarah Palin political battle cry, at least until Gabby Giffords was shot. On Sunday night, the sports site Deadspin found an outpouring of unexpurgated racist rage on Twitter aimed at a black president (the word used was not black) who had the audacity to interrupt the Patriots-49ers game to address the mourning community of Newtown. 

Obama can issue executive orders, call for better enforcement of existing laws, etc., but he really hit the bigger point in his Sunday address: “We’ll have to change.” Now, in reality, people don’t change — or change overnight. If we are going to start to find our way out of gun-worship, it’s going to take many leaders over time to affect that change, just as in, say, the abolitionists’ movement or any other major political or social movement that changed our country and helped it grow up. 

David Gregory on Meet the Press: "We reached out to all 31 pro-gun-rights senators in the new Congress to invite them on the program to share their views on the subject this morning. We had no takers." Have at them.
They’ll stay on the down-low through the holidays, hoping that the coast will be clear and that the Sunday shows will return to the good old “fiscal cliff.” Even so, we are seeing the conservative establishment’s talking points emerge. Both George Will and The Wall Street Journal editorial board are citing the massacre last year of 69 mostly teenage victims in Norway, with its tight gun restrictions, as proof that gun regulations can’t work. John R. Lott, Jr., a social scientist whose works include the 1998 More Guns, Less Crime, remains the right’s go-to intellectual godfather in making the case that if more Americans carry concealed weapons, there will be less crime. 

On that same morning, Michael Bloomberg said that the power of the NRA is a myth, that commentators and politicians vastly inflate its influence. You agree?
Political fear is in the eye of the beholder, and the NRA, like Grover Norquist and the Family Research Council, remains a perceived superpower on the right, whatever the reality. Bloomberg bases his statement on a very limited sample: He gave money to seven congressional candidates running against pro-NRA types in this election, and four of them won. Good for him. But a lame-duck New York City mayor may be inflating his own influence (as well as that of the president, who he seems to think can fix this in his second term). David Brooks argued that Bloomberg may actually be a liability “as the spokesperson for the gun law movement” because he won’t earn the respect from “rural and Red America” that’s needed to affect change. (Translation: He’s an East Coast Jew.) Brooks may have a point.

Now what? Does anything change, or will this blow over like these horrors always do? Could twenty dead children somehow make a difference?
I don’t know. Just because someone says we’ve reached a “tipping point” every 30 seconds on cable news doesn’t mean we’ve reached one. There’s a lot of piety on display now from the press and some politicians. Liberal pundits and editorialists are rolling out the same arguments they always do after one of these horrors (and as I certainly have done in the past). They are (in my view) irrefutable arguments, well stated, and it makes us feel good to repeat them to an audience that already agrees with us. But there’s no reason to believe that pounding our fists on the table will get any more action now than in the past. In the non-liberal precincts of Fox News, a writer for Fortune, Nina Easton, called for “a commission, an urgent commission.” Bill Kristol wants “hearings … serious hearings.” All very urgent and serious! This morning, Joe Scarborough, who had the highest possible rating from the NRA when he actually could affect legislation in Congress, announced on MSNBC that he had finally seen the light on guns (even as he spun a false equivalency between gun lobbyists and the purveyors of Hollywood violence). Better late than never — and by late, I mean after Tuscon, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and all the others. I found his long sermon almost as moving as the tearful mea culpa delivered by that sobbing pair of Australian D.J.’s after the nurse in Kate Middleton’s hospital committed suicide. But Scarborough did make one telling admission: that he might have been affected by this massacre more than others in part because it was so close (literally) to his home. 

That proximity to the media hub of New York has certainly facilitated the rush of news media stars to the scene of the crime, heightening the sense that maybe this time is different and change will follow. Unfortunately, not all of them are there to report the news or explore the issues it raises. Too many are sob sisters (male and female) exploiting the tragedy as an opportunity to prove to the audience how empathic they are with the victims — a particularly tasteless form of show-business self-aggrandizement. The treacly background music in the television coverage is also offensive: Newtown isn’t a Lifetime movie or a human-interest Olympics feature.

So let’s see what happens when the circus folds its tent and we are back in the bitter winds of January, redirecting our attention to the Inauguration and the Super Bowl. By then, we may have a better idea as to whether this is actually a tipping point in the history of our enslavement to the gun culture, or whether it’s just another chapter in the modern history of America bingeing 24/7 on the pornography of other families’ grief, declaring “closure,” and then moving on.