In the Line of Fire

The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six bystanders has again cranked up the old discussion about the real "American exceptionalism," our addiction to violence.

Certainly, in no other developed, democratic country on earth do angry, alienated people roam around armed to the teeth with military-style automatic weapons. Explanations of American violence often point to the frontier experience in which settlers lived without the protection of police and courts. In that environment, the theory goes, every man was personally responsible for the defense of himself and his household, and for exacting justice from wrongdoers. And the theory isn't entirely useless. The frontier experience is certainly not ancient history in Arizona, which only became a state in 1912. And many of the most dangerous cities in America for violent crime are in the old frontier territories of the South, Midwest, or West.

Political assassinations are a constant theme in American history, too. Four American presidents (Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield, and Kennedy) have been murdered in office. One (Reagan) was seriously wounded. Someone took two close-range shots at Andrew Jackson, but the gun misfired both times. Twice President Gerald Ford was saved, at the last moment, from gun-wielding assassins. Then there are the other major cultural and political figures gunned down in the 20th century -- Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, even John Lennon.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2011
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