Red State America and violence
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - may 05 ]
It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on a cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. - Mahatma Gandhi, in Nonviolence in Peace and War
Red State America, also called Red Neck America, voted for GW Bush in 2004. Red Neck: a white member of the laboring class, now including White Trash and Good Old Boys.
The novelist Jane Smiley in Slate excused the 58 million people who voted for GW Bush in 2004, explaining that they are full of ignorance, hubris, bloodlust, hatred and virulent racism because of their traditions of “knock-down-drag-out” violence, a consequence of the root-hog-or-die competition on the frontier. For example, in Kansas and Missouri during the guerrilla violence on the western front of the War Between the States, a raid on Lawrence, Kansas in 1863 left 183 men and boys dead, many publicly executed for being “jayhawkers”, anti-slavery guerrillas. It was not an isolated incident.
Quantrill’s Raid in Kansas was typical of the American experience.
Modern guerilla warfare against civilians, with its destruction of private property, got its start on the American frontier. Warfare in Europe had been stylized, formal and polite, with armies fighting battles like rule-governed games, a sort of deadly sport. Ladies and gentlemen even went to watch the set battles on occasion, taking along picnics and telescopes. Banditry and destruction was not yet legalized as warfare. Violence against ordinary people, in the form of horrors like Sherman’s march to the sea, the shelling of Paris, the firebombing of Dresden, and the obliteration of Hiroshima were unthinkable.
Then on the American frontier, free people had the impunity to fight each other over property, and so there was insurrection and rebellion about how they were going to live, a quarrel that became a war, the War Between the States. It grew out of the violence of the frontier, and culminated in Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864. After his burning of Atlanta, there was total war, the scorched earth and devastation of a swathe ten miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah, the livestock killed, the houses burned, and the railroad tracks wrapped around trees, illustrating Sherman’s notion that in war it is necessary to break the spirit of the whole people in order to win.
In 1863 the town of Independence in Missouri, which was a free state, as opposed to a slave state, had fallen to the bandit, murderer, and horse-thief WC Quantrill, who was then made an irregular captain of the Confederate Army. His violent ways anticipated such outlaws as Frank and Jesse James, and Cole and Jim Younger, infamous in folklore and films. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, one of Quantrill’s Raiders wore a necklace of Yankee scalps.
Violence had been common on the frontier. In the previous century the French and Indian wars had created great animosity toward the British and consequently toward the invading, revolting Americans. The ‘Hair-Buyer’ Col Henry Hamilton, governor of Detroit, paid Indians for the scalps of American settlers in the Ohio Territory in order to discourage their living west of the Appalachians. Indians used the captured pioneers as porters for carrying furs and other valuables to Detroit before they killed and scalped them.
In 1782, Pennsylvania settlers at Gnadenhutten massacred nearly 100 Christian Delaware Indians, mostly women and children. They did not do it for nothing. In the same year, the last battle of the Revolution, after Yorktown, was fought at Blue Licks, Kentucky, when Canadian British regulars and Indians from Ohio defeated 180 Americans, killing 70, including Daniel Boone’s son Israel. Consequently, American General George Rogers Clark destroyed five Indian towns in Ohio.
War is politics by other means. It is sanctioned violence, killing people without murdering them, with malice aforethought but lawfully, with lawful malice.
At least 618,000 people died in the American Civil War, among them Abraham Lincoln, the best-known casualty.
Violence is a reality in American life, and it has been so before and since Europeans took the land from the aborigines. Just listen to the news about violence, read about it, watch it represented on television, just like the detective magazines we used to read while waiting at the barbershop. Catching and punishing offenders, violators of the law, is a major, necessary activity in the US, its prison population exceeding two million people in 2003, including more than 10% of all black males in their 20s. Some of those murdered were sellers of drugs on the streets, an occupation that earns on average the minimum wage, but suffers a seven per cent annual death rate. The moral to Americans: Don’t sell life insurance to crack dealers.
Guns are often the instrument of choice for committing violence, being merely part of the technology of violence, more impersonal and efficient than arrows, darts, swords, cudgels, bludgeons, clubs, tomahawks, or shillelaghs, and fairly comparable in frequency of use to automobiles as takers and wasters of life. We are not more violent today, simply more efficient. Why walk when you can ride is the best excuse for using a firearm. Modern firearms, poisons, ordnance, explosives and airplanes do the job of killing better than spears, knives, and hammers.
Automobiles don’t kill people. People do. Similarly, guns don’t go off by themselves. Like cars, knives, and baseball bats, they have no selves.
In the United States of America an epidemic of violence that continues to this day broke out in 1983. For example, in the year 2002 nearly a million young people aged 10 to 24 were injured in violent acts, a third requiring hospitalization. Homicide was the second leading cause of death among them, after automobiles. In 2001 on average 15 youths a day, totaling 5,486, were murdered, 76% with firearms. According to the 2001 Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General, “This epidemic left lasting scars on victims, perpetrators, and their families and friends. It also wounded entire communities and, in ways not yet fully understood, the US as a whole.”
At the same time, in contrast, the general crime rate decreased, violent and property crime rates falling 50% between 1993 and 2001. Some have attributed the overall decrease in crime to the effects of perhaps a million abortions of unwanted children per year since the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. Such speculation is the stuff of economics, which, like sociology, is another social discipline devoted to the study of the incomprehensible.
There have been 28 school shootings in the US in the last nine years, from Moses Lake, Washington, in 1996, in which three perished, to Red Lake, Minnesota, in 2005, in which 10 died.
So what else is new? Please forgive the sarcasm, but epidemic is an exaggeration in the statement above, and the violence did not come on suddenly. Violent acts by youths are committed against a background of violent acts by grown-ups.
Is there an acceptable, ordinary level of violence against which we gauge the amount and type that is committed? Apparently so, for if American youths had not been violent in the past, there would be no special report today. They are unfortunately bucking the general trend. It seems that violence is an essential part of the system, for in the American mind such acts are instances of good struggling against evil. People always have reasons for what they do.
While we may forget the particulars of the recent killing of a Judge in an Atlanta courthouse, the murder of a judge’s mother and husband in Chicago, the intimidation of judges by Republican politicians, and the murders at a church in Milwaukee, we cannot forget the outstanding perpetrators of public violence, the personally and politically alienated or simply outraged and perhaps insane (a vague legal term) like Eric Rudolph, who blew up an abortion clinic and a lesbian bar, and bombed the Atlanta Games in 1996, or Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh and their 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that took 168 lives. Similar are Ted Kaczinsky, the Unabomber, author of Industrial Society and its Future, David Koresh and his Branch Davidians at Waco, 76 of whom were killed by the FBI, or Jim Jones, the untrained preacher from Indiana whose congregation of 911 Americans perished with him in 1978 in Guyana. Remember Charles Whitman shooting 17 from a bell tower, or Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, or Jeffrey Dahmer, and so on. It is difficult if not impossible to draw a line between types like Vlad the Impaler, who eliminated poverty in Romania by killing the poor, and John Wilkes Booth, who hated tyrants.
In Canada over the past 20 years there has been only one killing in a high school shooting - in Alberta, the cowboy province, the most American, the Reddest of the provinces, in 1999. However, Valerie Fabrikant, a Russian immigrant, shot to death four abusive engineering colleagues at Concordia University in Montreal in 1992. He was on to their quasi-criminal scheme for getting money, and so they had denied him tenure. His pistols are not to blame.
Similarly, the student Marc Lepine went berserk, killing 14 girls and wounding 13 others, frustrated because he had been denied admission to the Ecole Polytechnic in Montreal in 1989, while dozens of girls had been admitted to the school, the public reaction to his selfish act of violence costing the Canadian taxpayers a billion dollars for a useless gun-registration scheme. We might as well license the use of butcher knives and carpenter hammers and then register them. The problem is not the hunting rifle Lepine used when running amok but the feminism, preferential treatment, and affirmative action that drove him to it. People always have their reasons for doing what they do.
An historical and personal note: Our immigrant ancestors came to America looking for the good life. To move around easily, to “go West,” is still our tradition, the departure and journey made easier by the lack of social ties. Like nomads we feel free to pull up stakes and move our tents whenever we need to or feel like it, fleeing our past experiences, and looking forward to our future adventures.
Think of Abraham Lincoln. Born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, he walked to Illinois with his family. Think of my great-grandmother’s grandmother, who was born (probably) in Virginia. In 1802 as a child of about two years of age she was found by rangers among the bodies and remains of a wagon train on the Cumberland Trace in Kentucky, called the “Dark and Bloody Ground” because the Red Indians had refused to give it up. She had been scalped and left for dead with several others. The men who found her made a chewing-tobacco poultice for her bloody head, and then they carried her along for two days until they found a German immigrant family walking towards the Louisiana Territory (Missouri) and willing to take her along. They named her Missouri Ann Meyers. Scalpless, she wore a cap and bonnet all her life to hide the scars. Three children survived her in Illinois where they settled.
Most Americans living outside the cities are a generation or two away from being peasants without villeinage or serfdom. They were hillbillies or dirt-farmers who lived off the land, share-cropping, market gardening, hunting and gathering, bartering, mining, just earning a living, with makeshift, jury-rigged communities providing purpose and meaning to their lives. Towns on the frontier were incomplete imitations of towns remembered in the old country or back east. Civilization, a situation of urban comfort, did not obtain there.
We think of small-town life on the frontier as a play like Our Town where every character fills a necessary role, each person belonging to a vital community - the preacher, the merchant, the sheriff, the mayor, the schoolmarm, the editor, the rancher... But that kind of ideal American society existed only in tradition and in the imagination, only in New England, where the play Our Town is set, and in the slave and plantation life of the Coastal South. When the rest of the land was laid wide open for the taking by new settlers, communities were to a large extent very much like what we picture in our minds when Western films govern our thinking. Life was precarious and contingent upon good luck, good crops, and clever settlers outwitting thieves and charlatans. Social conflicts were often resolved by the use of firearms, as in the movies.
In America since the pioneer days and the settling of the West, firearms have been cherished. Before the 20th Century, firearms were among the most expensive manufactured items a family or an individual ever acquired. Picture the scene: the lone farmwife in long skirts and an apron, the family shotgun under her arm, greeting a mounted stranger or a pair of migrants carrying bedrolls and rucksacks, looking for a place to sleep; Che Guevara’s father discreetly giving him a pistol as Che starts out on his motorcycle trip around South America. Guns mean protection, security, and comfort. They are great equalizers.
The pistol under the front seat of the wagon or carriage was often wrapped in oiled paper to protect it from moisture and wrapped in a rag for concealment. Today plastic bags and nylon holsters have replaced paper and rags. The glove compartment in the “dashboard” that used to keep mud and snow off the driver of horses is a handy place to keep a pistol. When you borrow an automobile in the US, it is polite and usual for the owner to remove the pistol first.
As a child, and there were visitors at home, I brought out the family guns one at a time to be admired. People did not have much, but they all had guns, the workaday shotgun, and the little rifle used to kill sitting rabbits and squirrels, and the old military rifle too big to be used on small game. The old rifle was generally useless. There were few deer or bear left to kill then. But the powerful rifle was a reminder of military service, the old gun that grandpa fetched home from Concord, busted. On occasion an Atticus Finch might despatch a rabid dog with one.
During the Bonnie and Clyde days, my father Granville Palmer was arrested in Chicago because he looked like John Dillinger, the famous bank robber who had killed 16 people, just before the cops shot Dillinger coming out of a movie theater. My father carried a Colt .45 automatic for years, especially when buying fresh-water pearls from fishermen and produce from farmers, part of his business. After my adopted brother stole the pistol, commandeered a delivery truck with it, and drove away, leaving a young, pregnant wife behind, my father replaced it with a Ruger .22 automatic.
My father’s brother Donald shot himself to death at age 80 with a .22 revolver built on a .38 frame that my father had given him.
Our cousin Jeraldine bled to death on the front porch of the old homestead after a deputy shot him while he was trying to rob the bank in Monroe City, Indiana. Perhaps his unfortunate name drove him to despair.
My father’s father Jesse Darwin was a gambler and racketeer, working with both the Birger and Shelton gangs in Herrin, Illinois, and St Louis, Missouri. Ever clever, he died of natural causes in a veterans’ hospital in Peoria at age 80. In 1950 he still dressed in camel’s hair coats, tattersal vests, homburgs, and spats.
My uncle Nile Johnson shot a man to death when he caught him stealing fish from Nile’s trot lines. A trot line is a long rope strung with baited hooks, left overnight in a river.
My father’s grandfather Abraham Heacox killed a neighbor John Ready with a pistol in a quarrel, after Ready had testified in court that Abe was a bootlegger. Self-defense was the judgment.
My Grandfather Pearl Miley kept a .44 horse pistol stuck in an argyle sock on the front seat of his automobile next to him. A horse pistol was a sort of emergency brake necessary for the training and driving of horses, for slowing down runaways, and useful in case of assault, a tool he was used to. He also kept a baseball bat leaning near the front door of his house in Indianapolis, and a sap hanging from the inside doorknob. Almost all the Negroes in Indiana lived in Indianapolis, and he feared them. His moonshine dealer, a Negro bootlegger, came to the front door every two weeks, delivering Grandpa’s booze from Kentucky in Mason jars. Grandpa Pearl used his pistol to kill himself at age 80.
My Grandmother Delta Catherine kept a small .32 caliber pistol in the nightstand. When she drove her car to church and school assemblies where she gave dramatic readings, she carried the pistol with her, fearful of thieves and immigrants. In great demand as a performer, in her act Grandma recited James Whitcomb Riley’s ‘Little Orphant Annie’, Robert W Service’s ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ and ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, and always ended her show with a prayer. When Grandma died, my dad threw her pistol into the river, saying “Now that pistol won’t hurt nobody,” a sensible act millions would like to emulate today.
To my cousins and me Grandma read tracts about the villainy of Catholics, and how when they took over the world they would cut open the bellies of pregnant Protestant women. She was a modern Know-Nothing, a nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, patriotic American. Stemming from the early Republican Party, the Know-Nothing movement (1843-60), whose members were sworn to secrecy, promising to “know nothing” about the movement, and precursors of the Ku Klux Klan, were allied with Whigs and became the American Party in 1855. The Klan is alive and well.
Grandma, a Klanswoman, was raised by people who still believed the old, vicious Know-Nothing Party line against Catholics and foreigners, spread by, among others, Samuel Morse [inventor], Lyman Beecher [puritan preacher], Millard Fillmore [13th President of the United States], Maria Monk [pseudonym] and her Awful Disclosures about the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal - who held that the Pope was trying to take control of the United States by sending the Irish and German immigrants to outnumber the Protestant population. They claimed that Catholics were going to build another Vatican in Cincinnati.
The descendants of those Know-Nothings are today’s Red State voters. Clever politicians have manipulated today’s gullible Know-Nothings in order further to negate, avoid, or destroy the humane fruits of the Civil War, which was not only about slavery, but about whether a nation dedicated to the rights of the individual, “all men are created equal,” could long prevail.
Abraham Lincoln wrote: “If the Know-Nothings get control, the Declaration of Independence will read: All men are created equal except for Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.”
The Red State voters have the mind-set of exploiters, a frame of reference that excuses and even condones violating, capitalizing upon, and using people, and depleting the land and natural resources, just like their pioneer forebears. They include income-tax haters, racial bigots, survivalists, private militias, and crazies who believe The End Is Near.
The tyranny of the majority, the primary drawback of democracy that de Toqueville warned us about, has arrived.