It’s hard to remember now, but three-plus decades ago when the phenomenon of steroids as a performance-enhancing drug for athletes first burst upon the American public’s consciousness, some people initially defended the practice and/or denied that it provided users with an unfair advantage.
After Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s astonishing world record victory in the 100-meter finals of the Seoul Olympics, there was a brief period in which some – including Johnson himself – attempted to deny that chemicals had made the difference.
At which point, as I recall, a veteran track athlete penned a powerful essay for a national sports publication that soberly reviewed the evidence, including Johnson’s remarkable and unprecedented rise to superstardom, and concluded with something to this effect: “Sorry Ben, but it was the drugs.”
Of course, Johnson was hardly the first person in a position of success or prominence who sought to deny or distract from inconvenient facts about their rise. For decades, the leaders of the American tobacco industry took every imaginable step to deny the deadly effects of their product. More recently, elements of the fossil fuel industry – perhaps most notably, the denizens of the Koch conglomerate – have done everything in their power to deny the connection between their products and the global climate emergency.
Indeed, the modern business world is chock-full of large corporations that today appear as paragons of establishment sobriety, but whose societal impacts are deeply problematic and whose roots are traceable to sketchy, and even predatory, characters.
All of these hard facts come to mind today in light of the latest propaganda campaign mounted by the American gun lobby and its allies.
As you’ve no doubt heard or read, in the aftermath of the recent horrific mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, the claim goes something like this:
There is a crisis of morality in our country today. The fact that so many of these terrible shootings were committed by disturbed young men is indicative of a breakdown in the moral order of society. Kids are rudderless today. They spend their time online and don’t go to church or synagogue anymore.”
As one exponent of this argument put it in a radio conversation in which she and I debated the topic last week, the problem is traceable to the demise of the traditional family structure that goes back to the 1970s.
You got that? The American gun violence crisis – like, one presumes, just about every other flaw that one can identify in the modern world, from COVID-19 to opioid deaths to the immigration dilemma – aren’t byproducts of ignorance, greed or inaction; they’re the result of a decline in “morality.”
In other words, it’s all the fault of those damn hippies. If they (and those uppity people of color, women and gays) hadn’t overturned our nice, comfortable mid-20th-century American world, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at this narrative, but one thing that that must clearly be done is to brand it for the hogwash it is.
While it’s certainly the case that many young Americans (and older ones for that matter) are struggling these days in a world beset by seemingly innumerable crises and constant, head-spinning change, this is true across the globe.
The kids in Canada, the U.K, Germany, and China (and even Iran and Russia) are struggling with many of the same issues that plague American young people.
They too, are coping with the rootlessness of a world in which families are more dispersed than ever.
They too, have turned away in large numbers from old, patriarchal religions.
They too, are living in a sometimes-toxic online environment.
But what they are not doing, in anywhere close to the rate we see in the U.S., is killing themselves and their neighbors with easy-to-obtain guns.
The mass murder epidemic in America is undoubtedly the byproduct of many noxious and deeply troubling forces. And it’s clear we could make some progress in curbing it if we invested vastly more public funds in mental health services, school counselors and psychologists, and a social safety net that would provide a measure of hope and security for everyone.
A concerted Republican campaign to condemn and marginalize the white supremacists and conspiracy kooks in their ranks would help too.
But ultimately, it’s undeniable that what sets our nation apart from the rest of the advanced world is the easy access we allow to firearms — even those of military grade.
And so long as politicians like U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and North Carolina’s Senate leader Phil Berger continue to block even simple and extremely modest gun safety laws – like those that would provide for universal background checks, easy-to-use and enforce “red flag” laws, limits on high-capacity weapons, and the widespread distribution of free gun locks – man-children like the Uvalde and Buffalo shooters will continue to get their guns.
And tragically, so long as this is the case, the killings will continue.