1980s >> 1987 >> no-998-october-1987

A Culture of Violence

On a summer day in August, Michael Ryan took to the streets of Hungerford armed with an assortment of lethal weapons and embarked on an orgy of terror and violence leaving in his wake a trail of dead and injured before, finally, turning a gun on himself. The media had a field day—a sensational story in the middle of the “silly season”. After the sickening accounts of Ryan’s massacre, came the instant diagnoses, remedies and pop psychology: Ryan was a madman, under the influence of too much violent television and films, with too easy an access to firearms. The “solution”: ban violence on television and stop madmen from getting hold guns.

But the “solution” proposed not only does nothing to deal with the problem of violence but also fosters a dangerous illusion — that this incident was an exception, something out of the ordinary, the product of a deranged mind. Michael Ryan may or may not have been schizophrenic, psychotic or paranoid; he may or may not have been over-protected by his mother; he may or may not have had sexual hang-ups (there is, in any case, something grotesque about engaging in posthumous psychoanalysis), but some of this explains why the particular form his disturbance took was so violent and anti-social.

It is, no doubt, very comforting to some people struggling to make sense of what happened, to simply label Ryan as “mad”. To do so gives the impression that his violence was an individual, pathological problem and in no way connected to the society in which we live. But in fact although the scale of the violence in this case was perhaps exceptional, the violence itself was not. It is part of a continuum of violence with Saturday night pub brawls, child abuse and wife battering at one end and war and genocide at the other. Each and every day numerous acts of violence are committed: they are so routine as to go largely unnoticed. In a violent society it takes a massacre for violence to hit the headlines.

Ryan, we were told, was, at the time of his attack, dressed in Rambo-style combat gear complete with headband. Doesn’t this, they argue, prove that he was acting out a fantasy inspired by the film? Shouldn’t we then ban depictions of violence in films and on television? Although the causal connection between violent images and violent behaviour remains unproved, what is clear is that films like Rambo and Death Wish, and television programmes like Miami Vice and the A Team are tremendously popular. Why? Could it be that, rather than causing the violence that exists in society, they are a part of, and contribute to, a culture that allows violence to flourish? The same newspapers that screamed “shock, horror” from their headlines the day after the events in Hungerford, routinely encourage and romanticise xenophobia, militarism and war and glorify “heroes” of the Rambo ilk.

And then, to add to the hypocrisy, having dismissed Ryan as a madman, they then call for gun laws to be tightened up to stop other lunatics from getting their hands on sub-machine guns. But gun laws, however restrictive, necessarily presuppose guns and guns are, by their very nature, weapons of violence — despite what the gun lobby might say about their “sporting” uses. The same culture of violence that makes films like Rambo successful also creates a market for real live guns that are manufactured and sold for profit through gun shops, arms dealers and mail order magazines, who have little interest in the state of mind of the buyer, or the use to which they might be put. There is after all money to be made from violence, as the state which permits and encourages arms dealing knows only too well.

The massacre in Hungerford might, momentarily, have shattered any cosy illusions that people might hold that we live in the best of all possible worlds but the “instant” analysis and irrelevant “solutions” quickly papered over the cracks with reassuring pap about it being an isolated incident, the actions of a crazed man who should never have been permitted a firearms certificate, allowing people to fall back into the complacent belief that “something” is being done. Gun laws are to be reviewed, television schedules were altered. Well that’s alright then, isn’t it?

Janie Percy-Smith

Leave a Reply