Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown: An Etiology


Perry Miller: “There is nothing so idle as to praise the Puritans for being in any sense conscious or deliberate pioneers of religious liberty—unless, indeed, it is still more idle to berate them because in America they persecuted dissenters for their beliefs after they themselves had undergone persecution for differing with the bishops. To allow no dissent from the truth was exactly the reason they had come to America. They maintained here precisely what they had maintained in England, and if they exiled, fined, jailed, whipped, or hanged those who disagreed with them in New England, they would have done the same thing in England could they have secured the power. It is almost pathetic to trace the puzzlement of New England leaders at the end of the seventeenth century, when the idea of toleration was becoming more and more respectable in European thought. They could hardly understand what was happening in the world, and they could not for a long time be persuaded that they had any reason to be ashamed of their record of so many Quakers whipped, blasphemers punished by the amputation of ears, Antinomians exiled, Anabaptists fined, or witches executed.”


Richard Slotkin: “In American mythogenesis the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather, they were those who . . . tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness. . . . Regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”

In describing the evolution of the myth of regeneration through violence, Slotkin describes the hunter character as a type of hero whose “starting point is the commonday world, that part of reality which we know well and over which we have established our dominion and power.” For Slotkin, the key to understanding the myth of the hunter is the fact that “the myth of the hunter…is one of self-renewal or self-creation through acts of violence.”

The_Pioneers_Ch_1Slotkin: “In the hunter myth, the emigrant’s sense of guilt for having broken the family circle by his departure is seen as the grounds for establishing a spiritual kinship with the Indians. But this kinship is justified in that it makes the hunter more effective as the destroyer of the Indian, as the exorcist of the wilderness’s darkness. He comes to know the Indian only in the act of destroying him. Beyond the exorcism, there is further explanation in the fact that the destruction of the Indian makes the hunter obsolete. His final atonement with society may take the form of voluntary exile [such as suicide, as occurs in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers] . . .  or a marriage with a white woman. With the Indian’s vanishment, the dialectic of the hero’s history ends, and the masculine rifle is hung on the wall above the feminine hearth. But the cycle of the myth never ends.”


Slotkin: “Guns are not simply tools or commodities; they are instruments of social power. And social, economic, and demographic changes over the period 1865-1925 led to a series of complex and often violent struggles for power. The industrialization of the economy threatened the status and well-being of workers and farmers; worker discontent seemed to businessmen and conservatives to threaten revolution; and the demographic transformation produced by new immigration and the migration north of southern blacks threatened social hierarchies. In response, cultural and political leaders at both national and local levels began to advocate a new approach to the administration of violence in American life. They called for more coercive measures against the new forces of disorder, from restricting the ballot for immigrant and racial minorities to an increased use of the military against organized labor. Gun manufacturers marketed pistols to the public for self-protection in a time of fear. But to governments and corporations they offered a new weapon, the machine gun, which was designed to allow a small professional force to outgun a conventionally armed mob.

“The number of guns in circulation is certainly an element in the modern gun culture, but the cultural ethic that sanctions private violence is the critical element. Switzerland and Israel, where army reservists maintain their own weapons, have comparable levels of distribution. Yet those weapons are rarely used for private revenge or crime. Nor can we put all the blame for gun violence on the excesses of the contemporary media. European and Japanese audiences consume violent American films as avidly as we do, and their own studios produce highly successful ultraviolent movies without comparable national homicide rates. What makes the difference is not just the availability of weapons but the ethic, rooted in our cultural history, that teaches the people how, when, and on whom violence may be used.”


Klaus Theweleit: “The soldier male murders differently. He’s not altogether present. One might say he’s intensely absent. . . . The perception of the ‘bloody mess’ doesn’t take place within a relation of observer to observed object in which both are clearly separated from each other. . . . It is hard to say what is seen, and what is hallucinated as an object. . . . They want to wade in blood; they want an intoxicant that will “cause both sight and hearing to fade away.” They want contact with the opposite sex––or perhaps simply access to sexuality itself––which cannot be named, a contact in which they can dissolve themselves while forcibly dissolving the other sex. They want to penetrate into its life, its warmth, its blood. It seems to me they aren’t just more intemperate, dangerous, and cruel than Freud’s harmless ‘motherfucker’ Oedipus; they are of an entirely other order.”


macbethMacbeth dares “do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none.”

Cleanth Brooks: “Under the weight of [Lady Macbeth’s] reproaches of cowardice, however, he has dared do more, and has become less than a man, a beast. He has already laid aside, therefore, one kind of ‘manly readiness’ and has assumed another: he has garbed himself in a sterner composure than that which he counsels to his fellows—the hard and inhuman ‘manly readiness’ of the resolved murderer.”


R.D. Laing: “We have our secrets and our needs to confess. We may remember how, in childhood, adults at first were able to look right through us, and into us, and what an accomplishment it was when we, in fear and trembling, could tell our first lie, and make, for ourselves, the discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects, and know that within the territory of ourselves there can be only our footprints.”


William Butler Yeats, “The Magi”:

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,

In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones

Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky

With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,

And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,

And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,

Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,

The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.


Miller: “Puritan opinion was at the opposite pole from Jefferson’s feeling that the best government governs as little as possible. The theorists of New England thought of society as a unit, bound together by inviolable ties; they thought of it not as an aggregation of individuals but as an organism, functioning for a definite purpose, with all parts subordinate to the whole, all members contributing a definite share, every person occupying a particular status. There was, it is true, a strong element of individualism in the Puritan creed; every man had to work out his own salvation, each soul had to face his maker alone. But at the same time, the Puritan philosophy demanded that in society all men, at least all regenerate men, be marshaled into one united array. The government of Massachusetts, and of Connecticut as well, was a dictatorship, and never pretended to be anything else; it was a dictatorship, not of a single tyrant, or of an economic class, or of a political faction, but of the holy and regenerate.”


Robert Calasso: “Violence is the expedient of whatever has been denied an audience.”

David Shields is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently, HOW LITERATURE SAVED MY LIFE (just published by Knopf). More from this author →