Perspective: Cain in America

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Cain slew Abel, and henceforward we knew violence. He killed out of jealousy, and from then on, killing has had all kinds of justifications – some more convincing than others. Starting in the eleventh century, European crusaders went to war for God. The American colonists cried for freedom in their revolutionary war. The French peasants called for equality in their revolution. Today, the U.S. kills abroad to “fight terror.” And killing in self-defense, along with killing for property, has timeless popularity.

Today, the civilian population of the United States is responsible for approximately 16,000 homicides every year, 11,000 of which are carried out at gunpoint. Given humanity’s propensity for annihilating itself, a reality that is supported by overwhelming historical evidence, it is hard to take seriously the media personalities, writers, and pundits who claim our proclivity for murder originates from violent movies and video games. This idea was fervently articulated in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting by gun-rights advocates looking for answers somewhere outside of gun-control legislation.

The assertion that we have a violent culture in the United States is not inaccurate – we most certainly do. But the notion that this violent culture is primarily reinforced or normalized by video games and movies distracts attention from what is actually happening all around us. The most powerful image reinforcing violent culture is in our own minds; we glorify real violence.

Strangely, the glorification of real war and violence are never included among the violent corrupting influences that beset the American culture. And it’s no wonder why. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre said this while advocating for armed guards at schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. In the U.S., we laud the “good guy with a gun.” He’s the quintessential hero. We love that idea, Hollywood loves that idea, and mom loves that idea.

Even though the “good guy with a gun” is a violent image, you’ll never see it besmirched in an effort to purge the American culture of its violence. Right after gun-rights advocates say that shootings are influenced by a violent culture that should be changed, they will defend, praise, and perversely fetishize the idea of an American defending himself, his home, and his family with a gun.

There is no recognition that this idea itself is a violent one, because the NRA and gun-rights advocates don’t actually have a problem with violence – only with specific kinds of violence. For them, the problem isn’t that we have violence in our culture, but that we are promoting the wrong kinds of violence. American wars don’t fit the category of “bad violence,” because they’re a “legitimate use of force” and, maybe more to the point, the “good guys” are fighting those. Our praise for the Founding Fathers is unequivocal, even in the face of terrible acts of violence, such as tarring and feathering their fellow countrymen during the American Revolution. This violent birth is never seen as a cause of violence in our culture, because these men were heroes. And gun rights and ownership similarly can’t contribute to the reinforcement of violent norms, because they’re used for defending one’s home and family – good, clean, American things. “See,” the NRA might say, “these acts of violence are justified.”

But Cain probably said the same thing. In fact, if I were a gambling man, I would stake all I had on the assertion that the vast majority of those who perpetrated last year’s nearly 11,000 gun homicides thought they were justified, too. I’m talking about the gang member who retaliated after his brother got shot; the girl who shoots two men as they illegally enter her home; the mother who shoots the man who raped her daughter; the guy who feels like life stiffed him for 23 years, tries to rob a store, gets scared, and shoots the manager in the process.

From that very first biblical killing through the millennia, we’ve had all kinds of excuses and justifications. For the person who decides to extinguish the existence of another, his or her reasoning perfectly justifies the murder. They are the “good guy.”  We never see ourselves as the bad guy.

If we are all doomed to assume our own righteousness in every violent altercation, regardless of our actual rightness, we must truly break down our violent norms and violent culture. While gun control legislation alone cannot change this reality, the proliferation of violent tools serves to help legitimize the use of violence as a solution to bad situations.

To truly address the 16,000-per-year body count, individually, collectively, and as a nation we must begin to rethink our relationship to violence as a tool for solving our problems in any circumstance. Whether it’s in wars abroad or in “defense of our homes and families,” we must come to delegitimize and de-glorify all forms of violence. We must truly be our brothers’ keepers and know that if we kill, their blood will cry out to us.


  1. “We never see ourselves as the bad guy” Is life truly this black and white?

    But that’s just the thing, who considers themselves as the bad guy? In everyone’s mind they are justified in some way shape or form, and while the loss of human life is tragic, what’s even more tragic are the situations that led to these three scenarios – the brother of a slain gang member, the woman shooting in self defense in her own home, the man who wasn’t cutting it through life- all the products of a deep socioeconomic divide.

    Violence is the product of systemic divides – have’s, have not’s and everyone inbetween. The true focus should be on building a constructive society where needs are taken care of, so that gangs aren’t a necessary ’employment’ path, so that the men don’t feel a need to invade that poor woman’s home, so that that man doesn’t feel like life has screwed him for 23 years.

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