Our society has gotten to the point where we might soon become less and less shocked by any kind of violence. A little girl is shot to death after arguing with a little boy who has grown up in a world of drugs and disorder, one in which he could get an illegal firearm and take it to school with him. A fireman goes mad and shoots a couple of people to death. Before that, the country was wringing its hands because a couple of Columbine oddballs felt that they had taken enough criticism from their peers. Then, while walking the yard in the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo., where they both were held until last summer, the Oklahoma City bomber and the Unabomber discovered that, politics aside, they had a lot in common.
What all of these people have in common is a set of ideas that have been pumped into society for quite some time now, from every direction imaginable. When I was living in Los Angeles 30 years ago, gang violence had largely simmered down, until “The Godfather,” a masterpiece, arrived in movie houses and did for street gangs the same thing that “Birth of a Nation” did for the Ku Klux Klan five-and-a-half decades earlier. (One of the street gangs that came into existence after the film was called “The Family.”) That was far from what Francis Ford Coppola had in mind, but such are the odd twists of a society in which the idea of the metaphor seems to have no weight. Too, too much is taken literally.
This and the many other gangster films that formed a trend helped create the ethos out of which rose the Crips and the Bloods and the many, many drive-by murders that eventually became a national crisis. Kids started joining gangs and parents started trying to move them out of that gang environment if they could. The blaxploitation films that kicked off with “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” in 1971 were also important because they glamorized Negro criminal types and elevated the idea that violence was fine and dandy because the rules of the system didn’t apply to people who weren’t white.
On the other side of the lane, as with the Oklahoma City bomber and the Unabomber, there was consensus. It didn’t matter if one got a right- or left-wing reading: The police, the FBI, the CIA and local and federal government were all too corrupt to depend on. In the South, during the civil rights movement years, underground tapes were circulated with titles like “For Segregationists Only”; they depicted those who attempted to bring constitutional rights below the Mason Dixon Line as invaders who had to be dealt with very, very firmly. That firmness took three dimensions in the form of assassinations, bombings, beatings, hosings and the killing, mutilating and bruising of men, women and children. In the North, Malcolm X, always a heckler of the nonviolent movement, was calling for rifle clubs and “busting them redneck crackers in the head.”
In the wake of the Negro riots that moved along, almost summer to summer, from 1964 to 1968, the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground picked up on all of that Malcolm X rhetoric. During the anti-war years they put those ideas about self-defense and revolution into some thin Marxist wrappers and went to market calling for “offing the pig” and “bringing the war home.” There were plenty of shootouts between the Panthers and the police, as well as between them and rival cultural nationalists who thought African cultural retention and reassertion were more sturdy than alliances with white people and using texts by Europeans like Karl Marx. The Weather Underground attacked people in the street, bombed police stations and robbed banks. The Wild West, Bonnie and Clyde and dreams of overthrowing the government came together.
In retrospect, there wasn’t much actual difference between the violence of those reactionaries in the South and those purported revolutionaries in the North. Because violence was the common reaction of greatest intensity, a new level of it became popular in the mass medium of film. Violence was a seat that could fit every rump. Once Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” cranked up the scale and realistic depiction of violence higher than ever, two kinds of things began to happen. From the right, there were the lone vigilante types, such as Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” character and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. They had to break the rules because the system neither could nor would protect society from the demons who were rising from below. These men took the law into their own hands and blew away the riffraff. It had to be done. They had no choice. This made them heroes in rebellion against the system.
From the left end of the spectrum came all of the movies, culminating in “JFK,” that said, over and over and over, that the federal government and the army were corrupt, that most problems could be traced back to the CIA and that anyone who had faith in the system was, at best, a naif. The only thing one could have faith in was the fact that these institutions would forever play dirty tricks, try to cover them up and, when discovered, murder those who came across the muddy tracks that led to the powers that be.
The grand irony, however, is that Southern segregation was not brought to an end, nor redneck violence dramatically reduced, by violence. They were taken care of by the passage of civil rights laws, the election of local black mayors and other officials and the imprisoning of whites for violent crimes against black people that were once ignored by the local police. Richard Nixon was not felled by bullets or mail bombs but by the freedom of the press and Senate hearings. Big business, for all its lobbying, is often put in line by investigative reporting, public scandals and multi-million-dollar judgments in court against those who put products on the market that are dangerous to their buyers.
But the myth of violent solutions as the ultimate solutions maintains itself in much of popular media.
It is not, therefore, surprising that the Oklahoma City bomber and the Unabomber would find that they have much in common. It is not, therefore, surprising that the marauding street gangs who have made receiving respect a life or death game would listen to rap recordings thick with references to blaxploitation, gangster and horror films in which blood is the sticky unit of exchange. It is not, therefore, surprising that anyone, no matter their color, their station in life, their religion, even their sex, might decide that the time has come to let the world know that things have gone too far, that the insults and indignities must be put to a stop and bullets and bombs alone can make clear just how reprehensible things are.
Does this mean that we have to go after the gun makers and demand more of them? Sure. Does it mean that there should be a ban on violent films? In our world, bans only send things underground, where child pornography is bought and sold. What this society has to do now is recreate an image of civilization that is neither painfully repressed nor maudlin. That’s pretty clear. When a violent minority that crosses color lines comes to believe that killing those you know or do not know is a reasonable solution to problems, we are in need of another vision. Blowing up federal buildings, shooting other school kids because they make you angry and sending out bombs to express your rage against technology are the result of a brutal attitude toward difficulty, one that has been celebrated in our popular culture for far too long.