Real Fear, Fake Politics: How U.S. Gun Culture Looks To A Foreigner Living There
U.S. politics around gun control can be confusing to Americans but outright bewildering to foreigners living there. For Azahara Palomeque, a Spaniard who just left the U.S. after 12 years, the country is governed by a "necropolitics" that doesn't value life.
MADRID — On the day of the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old boy gunned down 19 children and two of their teachers, I was at the Philadelphia airport, ready to leave the country that had been my home for more than 12 years. As I read the news from the boarding gate, I murmured "again, another f*cking time the same thing."
I prayed that the plane would take off as soon as possible and that the journey would make me forget not only that massacre but all the deaths that happen gratuitously in the United States on a daily basis, preventable were it not for the greed of its politicians, almost all sold to the big lobbies that finance their careers.
Obviously, I was not able to get that carnage out of my head, nor do I think I will ever be able to despite living in Spain. That's simply because that culture of weapons is already part of me. It has shaped my personality, molding me through fear and desolation (also in criticism), which has happened to many in the "land of freedom." There is damage in that daily violence that pierces you inside and it takes a lot to heal; I speak from that damage, the one that still eats me from inside as I write.
Not even two weeks had passed since Uvalde when the media announced yet another massacre, this time in an Oklahoma hospital: five dead, including the presumed murderer. Minutes later, some newspapers spoke of a "triple simultaneous shooting." Since, similar incidents were added: one in a school in California and the other in a supermarket in Pennsylvania. The headline, as spectacular as it is worrying, was, however, false, since some of us know perfectly well that shootings are daily events and not an extraordinary event.
Living with fear
Due to their frequency, only the most serious "incidents" are reported. It depends on the number of deaths, age, race, area: life value keeps its hierarchies. However, only in Philadelphia, the city where I lived until a few days ago, the historical record for homicides was broken last year: 562, most by firearms.
Together with the increase in other types of crimes, this is why I recently changed my habits completely: not going to festivals or concerts, generally avoiding crowds. If I met someone in a bar, I immediately located the emergency exit; sometimes, I would ask my companions "do you also think about it?," and the answer was always yes.
Given the numerous notices I received from the university, warning of some danger on campus, like "robbery with a pistol on X street, police in the area," I increased the hours of teleworking. In the end, I was confined to my house more often than I wanted to, breathing a kind of a ubiquitous alarm, close to panic but not there yet every time I crossed the threshold and ventured out into the street. That was a daily occurrence, and I'm not exaggerating. The perception of inhabiting a constant tension, like the rubber band of a slingshot that is about to be released. A war. And still, I strived to build a minimal sense of normality.
Rule by 'necropolitics'
The United States, with some 330 million inhabitants, has 400 million weapons in the hands of civilians alone, a figure that has increased greatly since the pandemic began. This is a phenomenon exclusive to this country, as is its dubious honor of having the biggest incarcerated population and the fact that it has the most expensive healthcare system in the world.
To understand the permissiveness when it comes to carrying and using weapons — military weapons in many cases — it is necessary to take into account how crime contributes to the lucrative work of private prisons, and how the health business conglomerate benefits from the destruction of bodies. In fact, it is not uncommon to find online campaigns of those injured in these "incidents" begging for donations that allow them to pay their medical bills.
This systemic problem, from which it follows that death is a big business, is inherent to the socio-political functioning of the United States. In other countries, life is worth something, and even money: A state that has to bear the health costs of its sick population will invest in disease prevention, but the United States is governed by "necropolitics," where a ruling class gets to decide who lives and dies. An example of this is also the more than 100,000 fatalities in 2021 caused by the opioid crisis, from which Purdue Pharma has particularly benefited.
If these causes explain the underlying scenario, it is necessary to resort to the omnipresence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the financing of the different electoral campaigns to understand the aberrant statements of many politicians who advocate these days for arming even more the population, including teachers. Supposedly, with the objective of defending themselves from the "bad guys," as Trump claimed.
That former president has received almost 16 million dollars out of the total of 148 that, according to an investigation by The Boston Globe, has been disbursed by this powerful lobby since 2010 almost exclusively in favor of Republican representatives. It goes without saying that nothing will change while Congress still needs a large majority to pass any legislation restricting gun ownership and one of the two parties is bought by the NRA.
A view on the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where 19 children and two teachers were killed
Finally, over the decades, the Supreme Court has updated the collective right to bear arms in the context of a militia that protects the states, included in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, until it has become an individual right.
In the miraculous case that some federal regulation was implemented to put limits on the ease to acquire weapons, the highest judicial authority would knock it down. Hence the absurdity of speaking of the "weapons debate." (The latest decision on Thursday established the Constitutional right to carry weapons in public.)
There is no such debate; there are, though, offerings and laments, putrid flowers that lie on the altars dedicated to avoidable victims, disjointed prayers and a lot of sensationalism, attempts at political profitability and a rise in arms sales with each massacre, but there is not a debate.
Life only acquires value the closer it comes to death — it's the market, my friends! Out of fear of a bullet, I grabbed my things and escaped from that nightmare. I, who can still tell the tale. I, who can still say that in Spain children are not taught how to deal with bullet shots, to seek refuge from the constant threat. As in a nursery in the U.S., where not so long ago these words could be read on the blackboard:
Close the door.
Turn off the light,
don't say a word.
Under the desk,
to your hiding place!
Open the door.
There's no danger now,
you can go play!*
*Translation of a song used in a shooting drill in a nursery school in the United States. It is included in my book "Año 9. Crónicas catastróficas en la era Trump" (Year 9: Chronicles of Disaster in the Trump Era).
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