With the first school, restaurant, and workplace shootings we gasped in horror at the inexplicable. But after the tenth shooting, the twentieth, the fiftieth and into the hundreds it dawned on us—they were here to stay. We argued guns. A crisis of masculinity. Bullying. Cuts in mental health services. But the entire fabric of our social system is all of a piece. Now we expect the shootings, now we can categorize massacres by clusters of dead: over 50 killed, 25-49 killed, 10-24 killed, 6-10, 1-5.
Some blame “the system” because that absolves us of personal responsibility. And indeed, “the system” is to blame, though blaming it doesn’t absolve anyone. If anything, it places a greater responsibility upon us all, both in terms of complicity and our duty to change it. Any system that continually produces mass murderers is designed to produce them, just as somes regions of the world produce drug cartels and others suicide bombers. Ours turns out the mass murderers.
There is a theory that sheds light on why systems behave like this. “Systems Theory” states, in a nutshell, that any system – social, biological, mechanical, psychological, ecological, etc.– strives to keep its component parts working smoothly in order to achieve the system’s goals. This systemic drive can prove so powerful that the system appears to behave with its own logic and intentions.
In social systems, however, the “parts” are thinking, feeling human beings. And considering the many social systems we each belong to, like wheels within wheels – family, workplace, community, nation, earth – might we be mere cogs in the systemic machine, with no free will?
Not at all. Each system acts as a powerful force field that shapes our behavior. A system does not, however, necessarily govern how we respond to it: what aspects of it we reject, accept, exploit, or learn from; whether or not we choose to change it; and the means we are willing to use. But unless we question its authority over us or resist its pressure, we get swept along and fall into its rhythms, demands, agendas. Because they “view” anomalies as potential disruptions, systems devise mechanisms to regulate and enforce behavior, always ready to sacrifice individuals or parts for the system’s “greater good”.
The problem, the internal paradox of any system, is that external conditions change and everything eventually wears out. Machinery gums up or rusts. In social systems unresolved conflict festers into explosive confrontation. Yet the system as it exists at any given moment does not want to change. Too many individuals still reap its rewards, and even those whom it no longer serves are reluctant to trade the devils they know for those they don’t. Social change is difficult enough without being conducted under explosive circumstances. And yet the world changes and places unforeseen pressure on the system. New generations arise for whom the system no longer works. Despite the inertia and resistance, change always comes.
And that’s where we’re at with our own violent system. The ongoing massacre of innocents is now integral to our national system. The system itself supports this violence and, as does any system, its highest priority is its own survival in its current state. If a shipload of Martians were spying on us from their mobile sky-box, they would likely interpret our daily harvest of gun deaths as an integral part of our national system, perhaps a sacred ritual. After all, these sacrifices must serve our system or they’d no longer be offered to whatever terrible overseers demand them.
And the wars! The system obviously craves their daily harvest too! The millions of dead, maimed, and dispossessed! Why else would it squander its wealth on the implements of war that reap this grim harvest, for the scythe unfeeling sweeps across ripe and unripe alike. The system needs its enemies and if none are readily at hand, it simply creates them.
Can you imagine how our Martians, green skin and all, would laugh at racism, that smoldering brew that has inspired so much of the violence at America’s core. Our Martians would hoot at the yahoos reverently pledging themselves to maintain the purity of their white skin, to prevent it being “mongrelized”. When I think of my black and Latino friends and set their accomplishments and characters beside “Build that wall” chanters and emboldened neo-Nazis, I can only quote Barney Frank: “What universe do you live in?” Yet the racist “vision” still is potent in the U.S., to the shame of the politicians who cultivate hatred and votes with racism’s coded rhetoric and destructive race-inspired policies.
We are so out of touch with reality that our escape from reality consists of immersing our senses in images of skin, blood, explosions, and celebrity idiocy, and endless media chatter that never matters. The news is a hit parade of unthinkable crimes and heart-rending tragedies interspersed with “human interest” stories and ads for corporate sponsors. TV shows present an endless sequence of mystery plays, dramas of sin and miraculous rescue and redemption, a bloodfest of the goriest crimes that culminate in salvation delivered by handsome and gorgeous heroes. Our movies are mainly cartoons and explosive kill-fests. Even the best dramas cannot resist fountains of blood, gory fight scenes, dismembered corpses, and lots of naked women with an occasional penis-shot to alleviate feminist ire.
Our nation has been at war for 16 years and our putative leader is a tool of Russian power-brokers who have been investing in him for decades. Millions of Americans still support Trump. They don’t know why. They think they do but all I’ve ever heard from them is “Give him a chance” “He’s a businessman” (countless bankruptcies and fraudulent deals); “He’s chosen by god” (speechless); “He says what he thinks” (as do the people who muttered to themselves on the subway before everyone started doing it); and “It’s about time something something something…” (I’d fill in the blanks but “something” makes more sense than whatever it is they say he’s finally doing). This too the system gave us.
To paraphrase Hyman Roth in Godfather II, “This is the system we’ve chosen.” A social system weaves countless individual decisions and actions into a coherent whole that, as conditions change, can evolve into something appalling. Our Martians, hovering in a 1947 Roswell WarpDrive Model Frisbee are so impressed with our endless devotion to violence, they might even file a report. They could call it “Benefits, Purposes, and Protocols of Earthling Violence: Creative Systems Design in 21st Century America”. Or perhaps: “A Religious Curiosity At Galaxy’s Edge: Rituals of Violence as Systemic Inspiration”. Yes, killing fulfills a need. And systems ‘R’ us.
The Martians would surely discern countless acts of a different quality: the kindness, courage, sacrifice, creativity, dedication and love that holds society together. But Thucydides, in his history of ancient Greece’s Peloponnesian War, written 2400 years ago, describes how things fell apart even in Athens, the “shining city on the hill”, the apex of civilized life. In 430 B.C.E., after a year of war with Sparta, a plague ripped through the city. Midst death and hopelessness civilization’s veneer proved thin indeed as formerly upright citizens preyed on the weakened and dying. Parents abandoned their children, husbands their wives, and corpses lay unburied in the street. The plague receded and order returned but the city never really recovered, sinking into decades of war that ultimately exhausted Greek civilization and left it wide open for conquest by Philip and Alexander of Macedon. That is what endemic violence leaves behind even if a society recovers: exhaustion, fear, desperate leadership, and retreat from the mutual empathy and concern that enable social systems to survive and flourish.
The fabric of a society can be torn apart with catastrophic results. Our own nation’s quickening pace of horrendous massacres, resurgent racism, endless war and paranoia, and increasing poverty is ripping us apart.
To adopt a phrase from Breaking Bad’s Walter White, “We are the danger.” We have never faced up to the fact that America’s success was nourished by the blood of Native Americans, slaves, exploited immigrants, and countless overworked and underpaid workers. “Facing up” to this history does not mean empty apologies or memorials to past victims. Rather, it involves dropping the pretense of moral righteousness and exceptionalism that encourages us to inflict our market values (i.e., corporate interests) on other nations via invasion, regime change, death squads, embargoes, and assassination. It means confronting head-on those who profit from the casual violence that afflicts us like a plague, as the #MeToo and post-Parkland gun control movements are doing.
Above all, it means recognizing that when violence explodes out of nowhere, time and again, and at such a cost – violence is the system, violence courses through its veins. Violence feeds the war economy, favors the corporations that consistently sacrifice humanity for profit and soaring stock prices. Violence controls the tens of millions of low-wage laborers world-wide whose blood, sweat, toil, and tears allow us to live in relative luxury. Violence keeps banks flush with cartel drug money. It numbs us and keeps us sedated and compliant. And it starves the United States of medical care, jobs, infrastructure, education, nutrition, and perhaps, finally, a future.
It is time to change the system. Because, you know, it is killing us.