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Our Violent Culture Vs. Our American Exceptionalism

Ken Krayeske

August 27, 2008

You should wear a bullet proof vest when you ride your bike in Hartford, my coworkers at the small suburban law firm tell me. They fear for my safety.

Sadly, I barely wake when gunshots rip the night in Asylum Hill, yet I feel plenty safe. But the continued violence in Hartford continues to frighten suburbanites, and worse, this rash of violence paralyzes political leadership on all levels in Connecticut.

Another double homicide greeted Monday, reminding this late August week that no matter how many rallies and curfews and prisons our society responds with, guns love poverty. The mating of those two elements is death and destruction.

The solution lies in introspection, and genuine personal change in each citizen, not from the political power brokering.

I imagine that Mayor Eddie Perez feels genuinely pained by his inability to stem the crimson tide washing Hartford’s streets. Mayor Perez can install his people in office, he can strong-arm opponents with legislative maneuvers and he can hand out favors to his cronies.

But that power is illusory, and he knows it. He lacks the power to stop the violence. For us to think that we can rely on a Mayor, or a Governor to stop it is a fallacy.

I think that deep down, a good man resides under the Napoleanic garb Perez clothes himself in. He must question what good being mayor is if he cannot stop people from dying.

Rather than rage at his impotence in halting the shootings, we should feel for him. We all should express compassion not just for the families and friends of those who perish under a non-stop ballistic reign, but for those who seek the answers, but ask the wrong questions.

If the question is “What legal measures can we implement to prevent kids from killing each other?”, then the curfew is an appropriate answer.

But we as a society are asking the wrong questions, and thus Perez, despite his three years of job security (unless the grand jury returns an indictment sooner), works under the crisis management model, and invents the incorrect short-term solutions, like a curfew.

And never is a long-term solution addressed, as we bounce from quick fix to quick fix, the results of an instant gratification society unable to grapple with the intensive introspection we must do to confront the ills plaguing us.

It doesn’t help that Perez’s police department bumbles through public safety, and that Perez has consistently tried to defang his city council, those elected officials he should be working with as a team to overcome the problems of this city.

The right question to me is “What is wrong with our society that young people find solutions in the insanity of guns and violence?” This inquiry presents no fast answer, it presents nothing but a painful look in the mirror of what has consumed our society.

Perez is no Corey Booker – the mayor of Newark, NJ who once took up residence in a trailer on the most violence plagued streets to attempt to calm the street violence. Nor is Perez a Gandhi who could hunger strike to end the communal violence.

And Obama is no Martin Luther King, Jr. Obama is a candidate of perpetual warfare, and he represents the many corporations that profit from infinite, endless armed conflict live here in Connecticut, and they help us pay our bills.

These corporations are us. We are a people who live off of death and destruction. Yet when the war we sow overseas rises its head during the daytime in our capital city, we wring our hands and wonder why. And our coworkers in the suburbs warn us not to ride our bicycles at night in Hartford because it is dangerous.

Rather than looking outside for a savior in these dirty streets, we should look within. This is a time for introspection. We are a country of imperial domination, and we – myself included – enjoy the spoils of empire.

Despite my attempts to wean myself from the corporate capitalist teat, I still have no choice by to drink the font of oil to heat my home. I participate in the consumer culture to relax and escape, and I too am alienated and blinded to real transformation.

This is American Exceptionalism, and it is harming us, according Andrew Bacevich, a 23-year Army veteran strategist, who is now a professor at Boston University. Bacevich has lost a son in Iraq, and he was recently interviewed on Democracy Now!

“The tacit bargain between our political leaders and the American people, which basically assumes that our culture of consumption, our refusal to save, our addiction to oil, as President Bush himself described it, that all of these things can be sustained indefinitely, if we can simply employ our military power in ways to shape the world to our liking,” Bacevich told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

Applied locally, we are asking Mayor Perez to participate in this tacit bargain, he will pay lip service to ending the violence, he will deploy the quasi-military might of the hopelessly disorganized Hartford Police Department and try to enforce the rule of law, and we will be upset about it.

Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor, the poverty that causes this violence, runs rampant, and remains unaddressed, the silent killer.

On a global level, Bacevich explored this themes in his new book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, in which he predicts the end of the American empire.

“I think the great majority of us basically have allowed ourselves to become seduced by this culture of consumption, of not taking seriously the notion that someday the bills come due, that you can’t simply run up a line of credit that stretches from here to infinity. We don’t want to look ourselves in the mirror. We don’t want to recognize the need to make some changes in the way we live,” Bacevich said on DN!

This echoes the message issued by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “A Time to Break the Silence” speech, given at Riverside Church in Harlem, April 4, 1967. He spoke of the role Americans take in making “peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.”

King continued: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Here in Hartford, we must address the gap between rich and poor. It is not for Eddie Perez alone to do. We must feed the hungry, house the homeless, and teach the illiterate to read. Until we commit to facing these problems as a society for the long-term, we will continue to hypocritically tolerate the double murders.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
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