If we object to revolutionary violence, perhaps we should stop celebrating it.
The thought was unavoidable after reading a moving essay by Andrew Lam in the online journal Boom: A Journal of California (h/t to Charles H. Featherstone for sharing the piece with me). The essay is titled “Give Me the Gun” and was inspired by the anniversary of the Boston marathon bombing. Lam engages the topic “because I am still trying to understand what happened when two bombs went off and killed three people at the Boston Marathon and seriously wounded dozens of others.”
The thing that most interests Lam is the fact that, like him, the perpetrators of the violence, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were once both refugees. “I couldn’t help but wonder how much of a scar does being a child of a war-torn country leave? And why do some old scars turn back into open, festering wounds?”
It’s a powerful piece of reflection on refugees making or failing to make the transition into being “successful” Americans, and I encourage you to read the piece in full. I came away wondering just how much the bombing in Boston represented a rejection of American values, and how much it represented a sort of perverse celebration of them. Consider this paragraph:
Often, the successful border crosser will find ways to articulate and redefine himself; his revenge over his wretched past is his successful transition in America, his newfound status—a boxer, a scholarship boy. But when access to America’s grandeur is blocked or denied, especially for children from war-torn lands, old memories have a way of resurfacing, of reaching out. Inherited trauma, ever-present in refugee homes, becomes seductive, something on which to latch one’s identity. In fantasy, in search for a new myth, some even fantasize themselves fighting their father’s lost war or defending a land long lost. Old loyalty demands an old-world, strict ethos: blood debt must be paid by blood.
Seen in this light, the violence of the Tsarnaev brothers looks like “old-world” violence flaring up in a distant land. And yet the “new world” culture into which the Tsarnaevs had tried but ultimately failed to fit, to adjust to, and to thrive within is the culture in which human freedom and violence are routinely linked. The linkage itself gets sacralized in American civil religion and becomes a secular, nationalist, and violent version of the Christian doctrine of atonement—American freedom has been purchased, not by the blood of the nonviolent Christ, but by the blood of our violent soldiers (a characterization of American civil religion that’s been advanced by secular sociologists as well as by Christian theologians and ethicists).
On the same day that I read the piece by Lam, I also read about Cliven Bundy in Nevada, who’s quite prepared to defend at the point of a gun his “freedom” to graze BLM lands without paying to do so. The fact that the BLM has, in the face of armed supporters of Bundy, backed down from trying to round up Bundy’s cattle, seems only to have convinced Bundy and his supporters of the relationship between their guns and their freedom. I also read about Georgia passing a so-called “guns anywhere bill”, allowing for guns in some bars, schools, and even churches—yet another sign of the deeply held conviction that violence or the threat thereof is the perceived ticket to human freedom and flourishing.
Seen from this perspective, the violence of the Tsarnaev brothers is arguably as much “new world” as “old world”. It’s rather deeply American, as uncomfortable as that might make us feel, and to see that you don’t have to be an outsider or a political refugee or a left-wing liberal or a right-wing conservative in America to imbibe the linkage of liberty and violence and to turn it inward against other Americans, one need only remember people like Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma bombing, on the one hand, and the environmental activists-turned-eco-terrorists who once lived right here in Eugene, Oregon, on the other.
The National Anthem is often sung to remember tragic events like 9/11 or the Boston marathon bombing. Near as I can tell, it is sung without any trace of irony, despite the fact that our public singing of the anthem does as much as anything to enshrine the sacral linkage between our liberty and our violence: “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Is it too much to hope that a growing number of Americans will start to wonder about the wisdom of singing such a hymn in response to such episodes of devastating violence?