The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth …”How could you?” she gasped.
I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
—”I, the Jury,” Mickey Spillane
“It was easy.” That’s what an uncle of mine said, too, when he talked about his experience of hand-to-hand combat in World War II. He thought that anyone who had killed someone, even in the line of duty, should be isolated on an island somewhere. Once you find out how easy it is to kill, he said, you should be kept away from the rest of humanity. And when you do it in close quarters, with a knife or garrote, when you can feel your enemy’s last breath on your skin … he didn’t finish the thought.
My uncle’s idea was extreme, of course, and no doubt reflected an inner struggle, since he was more sensitive than most. But when you’ve been involved in more than one act of uniformed violence, it certainly warrants some sort of intervention. Derek Chauvin stayed on the street, a gun at his hip and the power of the state at his back, until he slipped up and killed on camera.
And there’s the bigger question: What do we do with a nation that keeps killing?
“The masked and booted troopers on our streets are showing us our secret faces, our innermost selves.”
Why do we tolerate the killing? Perhaps it’s because, in white American culture, we’ve been programmed for it.
Many in my uncle’s generation came back from war flush with the feel of the kill. Spillane’s novel was written in those postwar years, its revenge fantasy built around the murder of the hero’s best friend, “the guy that shared the same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the jungle.” Once discovered, the woman takes off her clothes and tries to seduce him, but he shoots her in an explicitly para-sexual way instead.
The same conflation of sex and murder informed other postwar noir novels, like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, a tale so extreme I’ve could never finish it. It was in the magazines I saw in a Rust Belt barbershop as a little boy, like True Detective (“No Mercy For Mary! Pretty Chicago Brunette Loses Her Fight Against a Killer”) and Police Gazette (“Little Girl With An Arrow Through Her Heart”). It was there in all the movies and TV shows that sacralized violent revenge as the highest, and most pleasurable, expression of the self.
The police ranks, it’s now clear, are filled with people who lust for this sexualized violence. So is the right, from the White House down.
It’s easy for self-described liberals to disdain such things. Then we watch the same movies, cheer the same acts of vengeance. Writer and entertainer Spike Milligan described his feelings as a victorious soldier at the end of World War II:
“Here was I, anti-war, but like the rest of us feeling the exhilaration of the barbarian.”
How many of us are publicly anti-war, but secretly yearn for “the exhilaration of the barbarian”—for the thrill of victory, or, more precisely, the joy of seeing our enemies broken and humiliated? It doesn’t have to be physical; a political defeat or public shaming will feed the yearning. Republicans are masters of this vengeful individualism, but there’s plenty of it on MSNBC, and in social media cancellations.
We’re all Spillane’s children.
Why else would we do nothing, or too little, while our country props up brutal dictatorships and fights endless wars, as people of color die at home—of bullet wounds, of unequal healthcare, of poverty in all its death-dealing incarnations? Why else would we watch passively as our police forces are turned into occupying armies infiltrated by white nationalists?
We’ve sent our children into alien lands, over and over, to kill and terrorize. Now, the alien land is our own.
We’ve seen the kind and progressive sheriffs and deputies taking the knee, or marching with protestors. It’s gratifying. But they’re the exceptions—and they’re not exceptional enough to stop the killing. Humane policing is useful to the system, if it’s administered in homeopathic dosages.
Look at those videos again: We like ’em mean, and we like ’em dumb.
Why else does our system produce walking hand grenades like Derek Chauvin, then protect them as if they were Fabergé eggs? What else explains a liberal mayor’s waffling when his own police officers ram demonstrators with an SUV? What else explains the martial movement of a tank and soldiers down a residential Minneapolis street, and the “light ’em up” order to fire a projectile at people on their own front porch?
“Light ’em up.”
That’s a line from the video that Chelsea Manning released, and Julian Assange published—spoken as Americans in Iraq killed civilians, including two journalists, from a helicopter. Manning and Assange revealed the truth, and we’re torturing them for it. Now, military helicopters hover over US demonstrators while cops target journalists on the ground.
“Light ’em up.”
A line that reveals the skull beneath the face.
“Maybe this time we’ll change. Maybe we’ll demand the death of empire and the birth of community. One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, this world will get even darker and uglier.”
These tin soldiers are the violent, cowardly, bullying products of a dying empire, the death dreams of a sybaritic system breathing its last. They are America’s Id.
Don’t believe it? As cities slash their budgets in the wake of Covid-19, gutting social services and after-school programs, police departments aren’t being cut at all. That’s the act of an empire protecting its elites from the coming chaos.
Why do we let this happen? Some of us get off on the violence, Mickey Spillane style. Others just don’t care enough to lay their bodies on the line to stop it. That isn’t any better, is it?
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe we’ll purge our national heart of its love for state violence. But that would mean admitting the problem isn’t “rogue cops,” but rogue hearts. It would mean admitting that our history is a thin red line that runs from the slaughter of the Native Americans, through the torture of the enslaved, all the way to the deaths of despair and the killing of George Floyd.
It would mean feeling what we don’t want to feel: the suffering of others.
The masked and booted troopers on our streets are showing us our secret faces, our innermost selves. Maybe this time we’ll change. Maybe we’ll demand the death of empire and the birth of community. One thing’s for sure: If we don’t, this world will get even darker and uglier. And someday, when our children ask us why we failed them, we’ll have to tell them the truth:
It was easy.Print