A few weeks back I was watching the Sons of Anarchy season finale with my cousin and her friends, when I quickly put my hands over my dog’s eyes and told her not to look. The guys from SAMCRO had stumbled upon a dog fight — pitbulls were ripping each other apart. We were all aghast, as were the guys from SAMCRO. They even took the losing pitbull home — dog-lover and straight-up-psychopath Tig, saved the dog from the owner who was about to kill it — stitched him up, and now the guys of SAMCRO (murderers all!) apparently have a new club mascot.
Now, let’s be clear: this is a violent show, where minor characters die is ghastly ways all the time, and where major characters often reach heartbreaking ends. In this past season we saw the daughter of a major character get burned alive, and then another major character get his head bashed in while in prison (this after his wife and father died at the hands of “the bad guys” in his beloved club). Yes, we were all horrified by these scenes, but we also cheered when villains finally met their makers at the hands of the people they’d wronged. (Some people even make mildly deranged YouTube videos about it.)
The people in this show are awful human beings who often operate by a “code,” which serves to make them more likable to the audience — which can’t get behind things like killing women and children… or, apparently, dog fighting. This reminded me of a scene in The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, where a soldier (clearly suffering from PTSD) shoots a water buffalo. We know that this soldier has recently watched his best-friend blown to bits while they are both in-country in Vietnam.
I remember talking about this scene in college. I remember crying while reading it. And mostly I remember arguing with a supremely stupid girl (I also had to fight with her when she insisted “Hills Like White Elephants” is not about an abortion) about how this juxtaposition — the death of the water buffalo vs. the death of the friend — is intended to show us how numb we can be to violence. After all, I cried when the water buffalo died, but barely flinched when the friend was killed.
At least I understood how dumb my reaction was.
I’ve been thinking about this today, mostly as I’ve read one rumination on race and violence in America after another:
The basic question here: What would the reaction have been if instead of Newtown, this had happened in Hartford or New Haven or Bridgeport? Or, for that matter, Chicago, or the Bronx, or Los Angeles? Do I think the reaction would have been exactly the same? No. The media is filled with stupid people who seize on simple narratives, and shape the American perception of news events.
One night, many years ago, I was heading home after celebrating a friend’s birthday in Harlem. A gypsy cab pulled up and offered me a ride, but I don’t trust those creepy cars. I said something like, “I’ll end up dead.” My friend looked at me and said, “They don’t kill white girls. If you get killed you’ll be on the front page. If I get killed, no one will notice.” Of course this was an over simplification, but the basic premise is right. (I chose the subway and I made it home just fine. I credit my Fight Face.)
But while some are choosing to focus on race in discussions about the school shooting in Newtown, I keep coming back to the issue of desensitization.
What does it take to really get national attention focused on the epidemic of gun violence in this country?
Well, apparently, twenty dead children, seven dead women, two injured, and one dead, disturbed gunman. Apparently a movie theater shooting, a massacre outside of a Sikh Temple, and Christmas-time mall shooting in one year weren’t enough… Certainly the murders of countless children across the country at the hands of drive-by shooters, stray bullets, and “run-of-the-mill” (as if there is such a thing) violence hasn’t been enough.
We idealize the most violent parts of our history and our culture. Think about the Wild West. It was a bloody time in our history — terrifying in its violence, really — and yet Clint Eastwood keeps making movies about it. America loves its mob movies. They adore a serial killer. Even I — lover of Friday Night Lights and Northern Exposure — get together for a weekly viewing party of what is basically Biker Hamlet and chuckle when Gemma hits some girl in the face with a skateboard.
Why is it that on a show where just about everyone has killed someone — where even the good guys are murderers — the quickest way to show how evil someone is, is to make them dog fighters? Well, of course, we often consider animal cruelty to be a precursor to other violent acts. More to the point, we haven’t been desensitized to this particular kind of violence. We don’t dismiss it as the result of poverty, or gang-culture. It’s not a side-effect of the drug trade. Animals — innocent, defenseless beings who depend on us for everything — are a stand in for children, in many ways, and so it gets our attention in a way that the kind of violence we’ve grown so used to on our news and in our entertainment cannot. So is it surprising that we’re at the point where the mass murder of children is what it takes to really shake us up…
And this has got me thinking about The Wire. The show was, no doubt, violent, but what it did so well was to humanize the urban violence that so often gets ignored in this country. When Wallace died, we all wept:
Of course, Wallaces die all over the country every day. And if anything good can emerge from the tragedy in Newtown, let us hopes it’s that our citizens are galvanized to make real change when it comes to gun violence so that no more children will have to die this way… no matter where they live.