Why We Americans Are so Violent …

… it’s a local matter, and none of your damn business.


Are we a violent people?


The slaughter at Virginia Tech on April 16 forced Americans to think about themselves again. An exercise this nation of intellectual lard butts doesn’t particularly enjoy. But here we were once again trying to puzzle out this latest act of wanton violence that left thirty-three dead and many more lives scarred. And for about a week or so we seemed genuinely concerned about the level of violence this country are capable of generating at any given moment.


When it became clear that Seung-Hui Cho, the murderous student who killed all those people had, shall we say, serious issues, Cho himself and his act of violent self-assertion were dismissed as madness. And we were off the hook once again.


Nuts, of course he was — way around loony bend.  At the same time, crazy people generally are not violent. If criminologist Lonnie Athens is to be believed, violence has less to do with insanity than what he calls “violent socialization.” In other words, the world and family in which he grew up.


Based on Cho’s videos and the comments of those who knew him, Cho was deeply disturbed. His mental illness, however, is not the key to his crime or the reasoning process that brought him to seek release through violence anymore than mental illness explains Timothy McVeigh or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.. The FBI investigation labeled Cho a "collector of injustices," an assessment that gets far closer to the truth that perhaps investigators realized.


The perception of injustice, of being wronged or threatened, are often important preconditions for violence. A profound sense of right and wrong is critical to any society. How it is reinforced, though, can undermine the very goals and values that moral sense seeks to establish and maintain. What makes America a violent nation, in short, is the degree of violence its citizens have inflicted upon one another over it several hundred year history as a British colony and an independent nation.


Our violent heritage is not about the violence we committed elsewhere in the world. The issue here is not about foreign wars. The issue is about domestic violence. The violence we perpetrate upon one another. And in that pursuit we have a bloody history.


As historian Richard Hofstadter, who came late to the realization of our violent, conflict-ridden history, recognized the oddity of our lack of cultural traditions of violence despite our spectacularly violent history. He got this wrong. Wild Bill Hickok who went west to make his name by killing people might have found his conclusion quaint. From gunslingers and vigilantes, mobsters and mountain men, and a host of Hatfields and McCoys, we have vivid folk traditions of both personal and collective violence.



"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer."

— D.H. Lawrence


But first things first …


What do we mean by ‘violence’?


Hofstadter offered several definitions. “Acts of violence, he wrote in American Violence, (1970) “are those which kill or injure persons or animals or do significant damage to property.” This broad definition includes storms and other natural events not perpetrated by humans.


We’re not especially concerned with those, until a tornado strikes our home. Then it because a national tragedy, or should be. Winnowing out acts of nature still leaves us with dog bites, bee stings, and being dismantled by sharks. None of which are pleasant. All of which constitutes acts of violence. Again, we’re not as concerned with this sort of violence until we ourselves are the victims.


It’s violence or the threat of it to prevent “normal free action or movement of other persons” that poses the problem. We sometimes refer to this latter as “force” – threats of violence designed to influence or dissuade.


Threats of violence or outright violence when perpetrated by humans can take on many forms and do not have to be physical. Force or violence may take place in many contexts. When it comes to understanding to true nature and impact of violence, context is everything. There are three basic types of violence: war, criminal and social. Sometimes a fourth is thrown is, political violence. It makes sense not to include it with social violence. But it’s not crucial. What is crucial is appreciating how different the use of force and violence becomes in each of these three (or four) categories.


War ought to be self-explanatory. General George S. Patton probably had the best description of war and its purpose. No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” He also said this, which is not so much out of place here: “Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. … Americans play to win at all times. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor ever lose a war.”


(What can one say, except that it was true when he said it?)


While it’s true that we have inordinately high rates of violent crime. We rank fifth or sixth worldwide behind South Africa, Russia, and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, of significance to us is social violence. It has several names: civil, social, collective, group, anomic, domestic and extra-legal violence and can include all of the following: (more) A history of the following is what makes America a violent nation.


1.      rioting

2.      lynching

3.      white capping

4.      vigilantism

5.      labor strikes

6.      gang wars

7.      range wars

8.      political assassination

9.      insurgency

10.    terrorism

11.    entertainment & sport (No, this doesn’t include football, hockey or even Ultimate Fighting)



Why is our history filled with social violence?


If you were to boil all the myriad factors, conditions, distinctions, foibles, tics and idiosyncrasies that account for the violence that is part of our national character, one trait stands out among all others: localism. The vaunted tradition of allowing individuals, families and local jurisdictions to settle their own affairs is a hallmark of American history. It is one of our most traditional values. It’s even written into the Constitution in the little cited but important Tenth Amendment, the last, but as our history shows, not least of the Bill of Rights.


“The powers not delegated to the United Sates by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."




The fundamental American value. Remember Tip O’Neil’s famous line, All Politics are Local? Or the green alternative, Think Globally, Act Locally. Well, how about Life is Local? In other words, we get to deal with our own problems, and the outsiders, especially the government should butt out. Even in our earliest decades, our national and state governments were not too weak or ineffective to collective violence. They were unwilling to stop it. Why? Because our traditions, our social and political ethic considered it a matter best resolved by the people most directly affected. Nothing was further from the minds of concerned citizens, even during intensive period of mob action in the 1830s and 40s than inviting the federal government in to put a stop to it. Most areas were reluctant to invite the state government in, and didn’t. It was a local matter and you wouldn’t invite outsiders in anymore than you would to help solve a murder. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the state police or national guard were used to put down riots, or stop lynchings.


The ramifications of localism are profound and enduring. What has flowed from this simple yet ineluctable truth is a pattern of “lawlessness on behalf of lawfulness” or “private enforcement of the social order," as historian Richard Maxwell Brown has explained. We're speaking here of extra-legal violence. Violence, such as a group of private citizens stringing up a cattle rustler, that is perpetrated illegally but in the name of law and order.


Two major problems explode from this: the violent actors are almost always private citizens. And they take it upon themselves to defend their own version of law, order and decency. In other words, the local populace or elements of it have often decided the nature of local order and morality and have imposed this version with impunity. This perhaps is the central feature of our violent culture. The American Paradox: the co-existence of constitutional stability and social violence. Or, put another way, social order enforced illegally but with public consensus.


You don’t always hear it put in such a way but in fact civil society requires the consignment of violence to the government that, when necessary employs it through its military or law enforcement establishment. An essential requirement to the process of nationhood is the centralization of violence. At some point citizens or subjects have to agree or be forced to stop settling matters on their own. Anything short of this means sporadic, arbitrary and random standards of "justice." This defines feudal society where just about everything is localized and arbitrary. The result was brutality, public torture, vengeance, vendetta and retaliation. Only the "King's Justice" ended such chaos and even that was an uneven process. Many were the governments that resorted to public torture and execution to keep the peace and provide a little diversion to the brutish and short lives. As barbaric as these practices were, I would argue, they were preferable to allowing local leaders a free hand.


Thus civil society removes law enforcement from private citizens, tribes, clans, mobs, vigilantes or warlords all of whom see themselves as the "good guys" ridding their locale of "bad guys."


Here’s an example of how that worked in our own history. No less a great citizen Theodore Roosevelt himself often waxed eloquent about vigilantes and about the glorious job they did maintaining order on the Dakota frontier. He claims to have ridden with them at one point, even punching out a bad guy on one occasion. Yet, he was not allowed to joining the Dakota vigilantes because these good guys, wearing white hats no doubt, thought his big mouth might get them all caught! A tacit admission that what they were doing was contrary to the law. They need not have worried. In the 19th century, no jury ever convicted vigilantes of anything.


When you understand that vigilantism is by definition illegal, you can begin to understand the nature of American civil violence. Like it or not, vigilantism is one of our traditional values. Private citizens acting as police, judge, jury and executioner. Remember the lynch mob in Walter Prescott Webb’s great frontier fable, The Ox-Bow Incident, lynching innocent men? Or, what if the "bad guys" are black citizens resisting the tradition of racial segregation by trying to vote? Or, ten Sicilians who may have been in the Mafia that were hung from one tree in New Orleans in the 1890s? This is why violence has to be centralized and can be used only as art of a wider system of justice. The myth that frontier justice wasn’t strong enough was developed by locals whose views of right and wrong often ran contrary to the established law.


Our largely conservative history (punctuated by periods of liberal reform to clean up the excesses) stresses order, place, liberty and equality. Violence has often resulted when the latter two come into conflict with the first two. This clash has provided our violent heritage, the lingering effects of which surface from time to time in places as disparate as at Virginia Tech, Columbine, the Matthew Shepard lynching in Wyoming, or the Rodney King riot in South Central LA.


But the mere fact that Americans have a history of settling things themselves doesn’t explain why anything needed to be settled in the first place or why it took violence to do so. What is established is that local populations often resorted to violence to end disputes, to enforce law and maintain moral order. This is because of local social controls are either absent or, more likely, other social values arrive or develop that conflict with those already established.


Conflicting views of tradition, morality, equality of rights, of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, challenges, in other words, to the status quo pushed community after community into corrective and in their minds justifiable action.


Local control also helps explain why so little collective violence has been against government, whether it be local, state or national. Americans holds an historic belief of government as a “necessary evil and are distrustful of it.  This despite the fact that this necessary evil had until the end of World War II largely stayed out of local affairs. Local whites, say, could break bad on uppity blacks and problem solved. The social order was maintained while the federal government remained high and dry.


The legacy of that extra-legal violence continues.


What are the causes of conflict that lead to unregulated violence?


Joseph S. Himes argued in “Conflict & Conflict Management" that “American life has always been characterized by violent conflict, involving virtually every sector and group at some time.” This sure does give a new slant on that hackneyed conceit, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” Not.


What follows are preconditions or causative factors for violence, violence that may occur given the right confluence of circumstances and a trigger event.




The most violent region historically was the slave South. Slavery is by definition a violent institution. People don't volunteer to become slaves. They are forced into it and held there against their will. If it was to maintain itself, the slave-holding South relied on the unfettered violence that reacted swiftly against anything from a recalcitrant slave to runaways to uprisings. Otherwise, slaves would have overthrown the system and white-dominated society disintegrated.


Do you really think this tradition ended with the 13th Amendment?


Jim Crow followed slavery and produced even more repressive violence. There were no enforceable guarantees on the status of freedmen because government either sided with whites or chose to stay above the fray. They were theoretically free and equal. Not if the white South, or large portions of it vowed to prevent it. Hence, segregation laws and the brutal fact that during the latter years of the 19th century somewhere in the South white mobs lynched a black man or woman once every two and one half days.


These practices stopped only after public opinion — regional and national consensus — forced state law enforcement to put and end to it. The electronic media played a key role in this. Without radio and television, the Civil Rights Movement would not have succeeded to the extent it did when it did. Southern and many non-southern newspapers were ardent segregationist, as were most established whites churches. Still, in less than one percent of the thousands of racial lynchings was anyone ever arrested, lest alone indicted or convicted. No white man has ever been executed for the first degree murder of a black man. (Unless commuted, John W. King and his accomplice will be executed for lynching James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.)




Race is not the only factor by a long shot. Our “extravagant diversity” is actually part of a larger, wider source of heterodoxy.  Pluralism has put local restraint to the test repeatedly and with predictable results.


Please note, culture clashes produce violence everywhere in the world and have done so throughout history. At present note the sixty year religious/cultural clash in Kashmir. Or the religious/nationalist clash in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and Sinhalese. Over the past few decades, this latter has produced some of the worst terrorist violence of the 20th century, and has not one damn thing to do with us.


So, I'm not saying that America is any different. That, unfortunately, is the point.


With its open doors and welcoming arms, America has drawn people of differing cultures, ethnicities, religious and values from all over the world on a scale unmatched ever. We called it a “melting pot” when it was anything but. Only the earliest settlers blended in the melting pot, minus African slaves. After that we became more of a tossed salad, tossed, that is, by hand grenades. Especially in our cities, that’s we’re the shoulders rub and worldviews clash.


A Harvard Math professor/troubadour by the name of Tom Lehrer once concocted some of the damnedest little political ditties of his era (1950s to mid-60s, by which time history moved swiftly past his refreshingly innocent take.).  Here is a stanza from his song “National Brotherhood Week” that illustrates the problem presented by pluralism.


Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

Plug in white - black, white - Indian, white - Mexican, black - Korean, Native born – Irish or any eastern or southern European ethnicity. I might add, though, that the positive side of America is that historic animosities such as British-French, Japanese-Korean, Japanese-Southeast Asian (actually, Japanese - any other Asian group) and so on mean not so much over here where Asians have been crowded into one amorphous demographic group, a rather small price to pay considering the alternatives.


We’re really dealing with race, religion and culture, pretty much in that order.




Immigrant and domestic migration have made metropolitan centers the most violent locales within all regions in the country, as they continue to be. It’s an obvious fact that urbanization produces violence, everywhere, throughout history — even North America.


Rapid urbanization breeds rapid change. Change tends to shake established foundations, if not alter them entirely. Urbanization was a key factor in challenging the status of women, for example. Given that people are often inhospitable to change, especially those who think they have the most to lose, jobs, opportunity, status to a new group, change can lead those most directly affected straight to violence as a sure way to prevent or roll it back. Urban riots effectively contained many recent arrivals from blacks out of the South to Irish and southern Europeans off the boat to Mexicans across the border.



Migrants to the cities tend to be young men. When unemployment or reduced opportunities are added to their statistical predisposition for violence, this does not bode well for cities with stagnant or declining economies. Lowered revenues often if not always meant lowered educational opportunities and diminished social services. Education breeds hope. Young men without hope are more easily drawn into violence. Add racial and religious/ethnic differences to the lovely mix and you’ve got problems.


Once people conclude that the possible benefits from violence exceed the potential costs, when, in other words, violence is worth the risk, you get criminal and anomic violence. Criminal violence is frightening enough. Anomic violence, wanton, seemingly mindless destruction of life and property in spats of “wilding” is the combustion of our waking nightmares. The black teenage “super-predator” emerged in early 1990s and frightened the bejesus out of white society. Which, one would have to concede, was more than half the point anyway, personal honor and manly respect being of prime importance to the American male, black, white, Indian, Hispanic, Asian or gay.


Frontier Ethic (No Duty to Retreat)


While Gilded Age cities rivaled or surpassed the violence in the “Wild West” with which it co-existed, the West, that vast triumphal stretch of America bounty east of the Sierra Nevadas and west of the Mississippi, was indeed home to gun battles, range wars, and genocidal slaughter. More important though, the West gave us the ethic of the lone gunman, silent and imperturbable until provoked. Our frontier heritage gave us the ethic of personal violence in the name of Honor. It actually originated with eye-gouging and dueling in the Ante-bellum South, but we remember honor killing as a frontier phenomenon, perhaps because the unassailably masculine gunman who is strong, silent, and righteous are such damned attractive qualities.


The heritage is known as "no duty to retreat." It is far more enshrined in our national archetype than it is in law. A man, a real man, a true-grit American, the cowpoke with all the right stuff doesn’t back down. He stands his ground, stands tall against adversity. To do otherwise would be unmanly and unAmerican.


The social consequences of no-duty-to-retreat are profound. No man is obligated to back down from a threat to himself or his family. He is not obligated to retreat from violence until his back is against the wall, and there is no alterative but to fight back by any means necessary.


Decline in moral and civil unity


Nowadays it is intellectually au courant to blame everything from the Rodney King riot of 1991 to the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 on the willful breaking of personal and public morality on the counterculture’s anti-establishment rack. The secular left’s inquisition in the name of human rights and personal liberty all but destroyed civil society and allowed — or summoned, as some would have it — decadence, chaos and idolatry. The results were predictable — or welcomed: rank immorality, the “repeal of reticence,” social and sexual deviancy “defined down,” loss the work ethic, and destruction of the family, all leading to the breakdown of society at the hands of all the usual suspects: abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, gun control, equality for women, multiculturalism, banning of school prayer, evolution in the classroom, and the scourge of anomic violence a idolatry to slither across our once Godly land.


Maybe so. But here’s the rub.


Far more often violence has been employed to maintain the social fabric. One has but to look back to history’s violent counterpoint to see the weakness in this blame-it-on-the-60s meme.


One of the most violent peacetime decades in American history was the 1890s. Actually the entire “peacetime” period from 1865 qualifies. But the tumultuous decade that was more red than mauve stands out. It was filled with riots, lynchings, vigilantism, gang wars, nativist harassment of immigrants of differing religions and cultures, and of course the final suppression of the Plains Indians.


Where was the counterculture and its decadent values in all of this? The answer of course is that in many ways the counterculture would develop partially in response to these sorts of things. Plus, excessive materials and the existential dilemma of being the first generation faced with the possibility of being the last generation.


But, never mind ….


In the Gilded Age violence was often a vehicle for stability. And it was pretty damned effective. Those riots, lynchings, white-cappings and the like were utterly successful it preventing the amalgamation into society of substantial portions of the population foreign and native-born. This was the age of Jim Crow.


These events and there were hundreds leaking into the thousands were universally treated as local issues and generally ignored. Or, when a blind eye wasn’t possible, as with the 1898 coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina, that overthrew the legitimately elected largely black regime in favor of a white one, investigated and then ignored.


Social violence helped maintain stability. Wide-spread social violence supported traditional values in the face of rapid and often incomprehensible change. Traditional values, mind you, are whatever we ay they are.


The local populace almost always sanctioned this violence as being crucial to social stability and their values. The legality of their actions were of secondary importance. Sounds odd, doesn’t it, an agent of instability as device stability. Sounds like moral relativism to me.


Nevertheless, outsiders and undesirables were contained or excluded and local society remained politically and culturally stable — and violent.