Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is now in her ninth term as the Congresswoman for the District of Columbia. Named by President Jimmy Carter as the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she came to Congress as a national figure who had been a civil rights and feminist leader, tenured professor of law, and board member of three Fortune 500 companies. Ms. Norton also had been named one of the 100 most important American women in one survey and one of the most powerful women in Washington in another. Recently, Michael Shank, a doctoral student at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution interviewed Congresswoman Norton on America’s cultures of violence.
Michael Shank: Our response to the Virginia Tech shootings involved calls for background checks, early warning systems, enhanced campus security, etc. We weren’t talking about our culture of violence; the focus was on the person, not the society or the culture. The person was at fault, campus security was at fault.
Congresswoman Norton: The culture of violence is national and it has been there since we settled this country. When you come into a country and you settle it by shooting your way across, guns become a part of the culture. And we’ve never lost that, even when we no longer needed guns.
You will find nothing like [what happened at Virginia Tech] in any large city. That’s the kind of insanity that comes out of suburban, middle and upper class. The kids out in Colorado, the biggest one of all, there you’re talking about upper-middle class white people.
That’s where the gun culture started in this country. White settlers were the only ones who had guns and they shot their way across the United States. Now, however, this gun culture is not what the big city gun culture is about.
Shank: So there are two separate gun cultures?
Norton: Yes. In the big city, you will not find a middle class black or white boy toting a gun. Here’s where the link to poverty, to illiteracy, all matter. Guns become a way to get what you have to get, to get what they have. And you get what they have by robbing, stealing and using a gun. That’s a very practical kind of use – just like the immigrants used it, just like the Italians used it, the Irish used it.
What we’re seeing in Columbine, that is a truly sick emergence of the gun culture, because it involves people for whom there is no possible excuse, upper middle class boys.
Shank: So what enflames that culture, is it our entertainment?
Norton: Yes, entertainment.
Shank: Video games?
Norton: Video games, exactly. Now obviously it enflames these other kids too. But an average middle class and upper-middle class kid is not as likely to be peaked to have a gun unless it just taps into something. And the gun culture is so pervasive, so insistent, that unless you are truly resistant it can penetrate a kid because kids are so impressionable.
Whereas a kid in the ghetto does not get his gun stuff, unfortunately, simply from the games, he gets it from the thugs on the street that carry guns, who have one, who seem to be the only ones in the community with money, who have bling, who seem to have what nobody else has. So they don’t simply pick it up, it is reinforced by the same gun culture that the white middle class kids have.
Shank: Thinking about the urban gun culture for a second and the thugs who have money. If you want a job, it’s more lucrative to hang out with them. It’s the same with the Taliban in Afghanistan; it’s more lucrative if you’re living in Afghanistan to get a job with the Taliban. Our response to gun violence in the US is the same, almost, as our response to the Taliban which is to crackdown with more troops, more officers.
Norton: At least the kids in the ghetto don’t have an ideological underpinning to their guns. It’s just to “get yours .
When you have a society where most people look like they’re doing pretty well and a very small number of people not doing very well, particularly when they turn out to be people of color deliberately and intentionally held back, then those people don’t have a lot of respect for those who seemed to have achieved.
They assume their achievement has more to do with white skin and white privilege. They assume that they will be as entitled to it and they will get theirs with a gun – a very different kind of sub-culture of the gun culture.
Shank: Regarding the other gun culture that we’re talking about with Virginia Tech, Columbine.there are those who are skeptical of claims that video games and violence in film is exacerbating and escalating gun violence. They say that 50 years ago when you started seeing (perceived) immorality on television, society responded similarly and that this is no different…
Norton: Wait a minute. The fact is that even the Bush Administration just issued a report, I read about this in the last two weeks, indicating that the video games, the media culture, has become so intense, so pervasive that it is having the effect of behavioral change on children. Now look, it is one thing to say that the kids went to shoot-em-ups, it’s another thing to encounter guns and gun culture. Look, cowboys and guns is nothing new. The mafia, that’s nothing new.
Shank: So what’s different?
Norton: What’s different is [that now] it bombards the young psyche, the developing psyche, the developing child who is developing a mental capacity, developing a sense of right and wrong. That’s very different from having to go to a movie, having to listen to the radio.
The notion of guns and the glorification of guns.in a country where you can’t even, because the NRA [National Rifle Association] says no, get the assault weapons ban back. You’re sending very powerful messages about how important guns are in your culture.
Shank: The US may be unique to other countries with similar gun ownership rates in that it’s part of our identity; you grow up with two-hundred years of gun ownership.
Norton: That’s right, two-hundred years of guns.
Shank: Are we exporting that at all? Are we changing how other countries are thinking about guns?
Norton: Exporting is the all important point here. To take the more traditional example, the examples from societies which are developing societies that are very close to where we were, societies where church and church doctrine essentially set the standards, that’s where they are. Although we never experienced what they experienced because for them religion and what it commands are all-enveloping. It’s a very different and more intense understanding of what is commanded by their version of God.
Here comes the ultimate in a secular society, guns are only a part of it. It is the nudity and near nudity, it’s the language, it’s the crudeness of the society because at times it’s not just rough and tumbling, it’s crude. And they say, oh my god these must be evil people; in any case, we don’t want any of that.
So the exporting of it is the most injurious part, it seems to me, exporting the worse of your culture. [America] is a society that produces great artists, great musicians, great original works, but no one’s ever heard of them.
Shank: What are the primary mechanisms for that exporting?
Norton: It’s because we make all the TV [shows], it’s that we actually make them. The rest of the world shows our movies, shows our CDs, our DVDs. It costs so much money to make these things that other societies put their money in other places. Even those that can afford to, they put their money in other places.
Our society, not our government of course, pumps the money into making these things. But what in fact gets out there is not simply what other western cultures would normally look at -it’s what we export for them to look at.