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  • A History of Violence
  • David H. Evans

In its noble dreams, the United States is a peace-loving nation, a land whose birthright was freedom from the endless dynastic struggles and religious conflicts that had defined the bloody history of Europe. In fact, as H. Rap Brown famously reminded us, violence is as American as cherry pie, and America never seems to get its fill. The nation was born in one war and “born” again in a second, far more traumatic one; its official anthem celebrates the national banner seen by the light of exploding bombs in yet a third. While the Founding Fathers may have established the political premises of the United States in words, in the most literal of senses the premises, the real estate of the new state, was purchased by, in Robert Frost’s grim pun, “many deeds of war,” from the extermination of the Pequot to the massacre at Wounded Knee. This sanguinary story has been chronicled by many recent historians, but I know of no more succinct exposition of the reality of violent and cynical expropriation that lay beneath the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny than a scene in Howard Hawks’s Red River, depicting an exchange between Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and a Mexican pistolero:

Dunson: Tell Don Diego, tell him that all that land north of that river is mine. Tell him to stay off of it.

Mexican: Oh, but the land is his.

Dunson: Where did he get it?

Mexican: Oh, many years ago by grant and patent, inscribed by the king of all the Spains.

Dunson: You mean he took it away from whoever was here before. Indians, maybe. [End Page 1]

Mexican: Maybe so.

Dunson: Well, I’m taking it away from him.

But America’s romance with violence is not simply a military affair; domestic violence has equally been an inescapable part of national life. Canadians, Europeans, and citizens of other industrialized countries know well the combination of shock and smugness with which we like to regard the appalling American murder rate, which routinely exceeds that of the rest of the developed world by as much as five times (Schmitt & Zipperer). It is a spectacle as guiltily compelling as the forensic pornography offered up each week by the various CSI shows, so long as we can watch it from the safety of a transborder perspective. D. H. Lawrence notoriously defined the essential American as a killer, and Mark Twain, in Roughing It, observed that in the west, “a person is not respected until ‘he has killed his man’” (178). In modern America, however, at least in the popular imagination, the merely piecework murderer seems like a quaint figure, a holdover from a bygone artisanal economy; the preferred contemporary homicide, as countless novels and movies attest, is the serial killer, working on an industrial scale and turning out disassembled bodies with the tireless and dispassionate efficiency of a Dell assembly line.

A fascination with the knock-down argument of violence is evident at every level of American culture. According to one widely disseminated statistic, the average child will have seen 200,000 acts of violence on television by age eighteen, including 8,000 murders, while for the more interactive, popular video games for adolescents like Grand Theft Auto or 50 Cent: Bulletproof (“50 Cent gets caught in a web of corruption, double-crosses, and shady deals that lead him on a bloody path through New York’s drug underworld”) offer the opportunity to get in on the action. And behind it all pounds the relentless soundtrack of our time, the percussive sonic assault of rap: “I caught him with a blow to the chest/My hollow put a hole in his vest/I’m ‘bout to send two to his dome/Cry babies go home!” (Ludacris, “Cry Babies”).

It would be wholly misguided snobbery, however, to suppose that an attraction to the pleasures of violence are exclusively a feature of commercialized mass culture, exploited by an entertainment industry that feeds off ever more elaborate spectacles of destruction. America’s intellectual elite has never found the prospect of [End Page 2] perpetual peace an especially appealing one. It was the most...


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