Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A history of violence

I don’t think many Americans would characterize their country as the militaristic, violence-prone super-thug of the global neighborhood. We’re the good guys. America is about keeping the world safe. Unfortunately, our distorted view of ourselves does not come from looking in the mirror, but from images projected at us from behind screens, both big and small.

I experienced mixed emotions this past Memorial Day weekend. On the one hand, watching the news about the latest wave of death and destruction in the Middle East provoked a sense of regret for those lives lost to terrorism and war, especially the utterly senseless conflicts like Vietnam and Iraq.

On the other hand, I went to see the latest Tom Cruise commercial, Mission Impossible III, and it served to prod me further toward the realization that as a nation, we embrace violence as a major part of who we are. Denials aside, we take pride in being a violent people.

Look, the United States was at war, officially and unofficially, virtually the entire 20th century. And for those of us not actually fighting, we had violent entertainment to keep us occupied, from the war movies of John Wayne to the rock’m sock’m cowboy and crime shows of the fifties and sixties to the graphic slasher films of the seventies and eighties to the latest generation of horror movies that have turned everyone from your dentist to the Gingerbread Man into depraved killing machines.

Although MI:III was not about gore, it was about unrelenting violence. Duh. Ya think? Yes, I knew it would be two hours of explosions, gunfire and Cruise facial tics, but it was the ending that gave me pause to think.

Cruise is in love with a nurse, who, until the very end of the film, doesn’t know her soon-to-be-husband is a secret agent. Based on what we learn about her, it is safe to assume that she has never touched a revolver in her life. As the film careens to its bullet-riddled climax, Cruise rescues his love, but is quickly incapacitated, leaving the poor girl at the mercy of approaching assassins. Tom gives her a ten second lesson on how to load and fire his revolver, before he kills himself (temporarily), and she is forced to shoot it out with the bad guys. Lo and behold, it turns out she has a knack for killing, a previously untapped talent to quickly and accurately empty a clip into the body of an enemy combatant. She’s a natural born killer.

This is where it gets icky for me. We in the audience are relieved that she has suddenly gotten in touch with her violent side. She saves Tom, and the rest of world, by killing more effectively than the dull-witted thugs. Oh joy of joys.

Her transformation in the movie is from a sweet, good-hearted nurse (lifesaver) to a savvy assassin (life taker). The movie tells us this is a good thing. It is not. What it tells me is that this is one more example of how we are conditioned over and over again to see violence as a solution to a problem, in fiction and in real life.

On Memorial Day, we weep for the soldiers who die, yet we unhesitatingly send our sons and daughters off to war whenever anyone in power says we must. Americans blindly accept the need for violence as a solution because it has been a part of our mythology since the birth of our nation, and it continues to sell tickets at the box office. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good action movie as much as the next guy. I just want to know why.

Vietnam. Iraq. Iran? It’s past time to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize our addiction to violence, and then begin the long road to recovery. Preemptive strikes in foreign lands are not the answer. Let’s start by generating and embracing new American myths that revolve around peace, justice and equality instead of murder, mayhem and carnage.

Mission Impossible IV: Peace comes to Darfur

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