Comic book author Alan Moore wrote a comprehensive critique of American culture's preoccupation with violence. The critique became a smash hit, sold record numbers of copies while in production, continues to sell millions in reprints, and was made into a box office hit film.

The critique is called Watchmen.

Most people my age and older have seen or read Watchmen, and many of those people have entirely misconstrued the message. Part of the reason for that is that Moore is an extremely intelligent man who presents moral issues as they are - complex and nuanced - rather than as we would like them to be - dichotomous, discrete choices between "good" and "evil."

In reality, it is pathological to American culture to simultaneously engage in dichotomous moral thinking and to conclude that the proper solution to any major policy issue is put the largest proton blaster into the hands of the side you're cheering for. Thus, the perceived solution to illegal immigration is to "shoot them." The perceived solution to mass shootings is more good guys with guns. The perceived solution to terrorism is a never-ending war and constant drone-bombings. And so on.

As my fellow libertarians are quick to point out, all laws are essentially violent threats against non-compliance. A gun control law is a threat to shoot anyone who attempts to own the wrong kind of gun. An anti-immigration law is a threat to shoot anyone who attempts to cross the border without "papers, please." If you ever doubt that laws are violent threats, then consider how many people are shot by police for "resisting arrest." A law against resistance is a threat to shoot anyone who tries to resist.

The reason I bring this up is because many people believe that the solution to our culture's violence-obsession problem is more laws. They fail to realize that the proposed solution is a reification of the problem itself. Everyone seems to think that if bastards will just do what I say then everything will be fine!!! This is violent thinking. It's authoritarian thinking, for sure, and that might be a problem, but I think the more serious fact is that this kind of thinking is inherently violent.

Thus, every policy dispute tends to turn violent, if not in actual fact, at least in overall emotional content. This is why Twitter is such a toxic medium; there are so many violent opinions that level-headed discourse is impossible. This is why politics has become so polarized in America; we're given a choice of competing violences and asked which we prefer. The option of non-violence is neither requested nor given. Nobody wants it, and nobody gets it. It's easy to blame the political system for this, but that blame is misplaced. Politicians can only succeed by making us offers that seem to appeal to us. Non-violence does not seem to appeal to Americans.

You could say that "not all Americans" feel this way, and you'd be right. After all, I'm an American, and I don't feel that way. But look around you. We are in the minority.

The violence inherent in the political system means that any policy change that attempts to reduce the number of mass killings will not solve our underlying violence problem, even if it does reduce mass shootings. You might be passionate about gun control, but I am passionate about violence reduction. I would like to see a concrete reduction in Americans' obsession with violence. But how?

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It's clear that our violence problem is cultural. I don't merely mean to say that it's "culture-wide" (although it is that, too), but rather to say that our preference for violence is hard-baked into American culture. This might seem like an incredible claim to you, so I'll offer a few points to help make my case.

First, consider the entertainment media. Consider how we arrive at movie content ratings. As long as violence is not depicted with blood or presented in an anatomically correct way, it can make its way into any PG-rated movie, and even plenty of G-rated movies. By contrast, non-sexual depictions of female nipples are basically an automatic PG-13 rating. Even sexual content without nudity can get a film an R-rating. Whatever your opinion on the appropriateness of sexual content ratings, you can't deny that there is a bizarre disparity between how Americans rate movie violence and how we rate movie sex. If you've ever seen American films in foreign countries, you know that foreign countries rate these things differently. The point here is a simple question: is it really safe to say that violence is more appropriate for children than sex is?

N.B.: I'm not arguing that children should be exposed to more sex, I'm arguing that they should be exposed to less violence. But our entertainment media is keen on giving violence the lowest possible rating, while giving anything remotely sexual the highest possible rating. Sex might not be appropriate for children, but it is at least a non-violent expression of positive emotions.

Next, consider the phenomenon of road rage. I am unable to find reliable international statistic on road rage, but the statistics presented at The Zebra are sobering. Road rage violence isn't just an American problem, it's an American problem that is getting worse as time goes by. The Zebra's statistics show us an ever-increasing problem that younger generations are increasingly susceptible to. From my perspective as a late Gen-Xer, I can remember first hearing accounts of "road rage" in the 1990s. For a while, it was a much-discussed topic. Because I seldom read or hear discussions of road rage as a concept anymore, I was surprised to learn that road rage itself has been steadily increasing for 30 years. I shouldn't have been surprised, though. It stands to reason that a culture obsessed with violence would express more violence on the roads.

Now, it does surprise me that a nation whose majority religion is Christianity would become obsessed with violence. Say what you will about Jesus Christ, he is a peaceful figure in the history of religion. He turned the other cheek, he let the centurions take him, he was arguably quite radical in his pacifism. Perhaps other religious figures are more pacifist than Jesus, or perhaps not, but at any rate, anyone who considers himself a Christian should probably have a bias toward peace and non-violence. It is quite a surprise that a nation founded by Quakers and Puritans would become a nation dominated by displays of force.

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From within the culture is hard to see. Batman is awesome, I mean come on. He beats up bad guys. He's got all the best tech. He lurks in the shadows and then pounds criminals into oblivion. It's only when we see this image reflected back to us through conduits such as Watchmen that we begin to understand.

In the movie version of Watchmen, there's a scene in which Dr. Manhattan walks in slow motion through a Vietnamese battle field, zapping Viet Cong soldiers one by one. He points a finger and they are vaporized, torn apart in a way that does not look like flesh and blood. It looks more like paper, or smoke. One zap, and that's the end of them.

This scene is powerful for a variety of reasons, but the one relevant here is the contrast between the act of human killing and the utterly fantastic, unrealistic depiction of death itself. Those who are not copacetic to the underlying social critique of the story will tend to view this scene as a display of Dr. Manhattan's might. Look what he can do! He single-handedly won the Vietnam War! But the juxtaposition in this scene was a deliberate choice. The Vietnam War was, after all, the first televised war, the first time Americans had to confront the brutal reality of wartime violence face-to-face. There is actual video footage of actual Viet Cong soldiers being blown to bits. Americans old enough to have been alive at the time remember seeing the footage on the nightly news.

Moore's point is that we sanitize violence by making it seem like "comic-book violence." It's less real that way. The good guys in a war movie always die while sputtering a heart-felt message to their squadmates, "Tell Donna Mae I love her!" Not the bad guys. The bad guys just explode. No need to dwell on that, after all, they're bad guys!

This is the reason why police body-cam footage of violence causes such controversy among the "back-the-blue" crowd. They find it offensive to be reminded that police have gunned people down as they begged for their lives or shouted messages for their loved. They are vexed to know that "bad guys" don't die in real life the way they do in the movies. Or that sometimes the police are the bad guys. It is quite annoying to find that death cannot be so easily compartmentalized when you're staring it in the face.

Still, it's not enough to turn the tide. Twenty years of Columbine and 9/11 and drone bombs and beheading videos and body cam videos and all the rest of it. 20 years, and we've yet to recoil from all this violence. 20 years, and we're no closer to shutting down the torture chambers in Guantanamo Bay or the concentration camps at the border. 20 years of teaching preschoolers how to react to active shooter situations. If anything, things are worse now than they've ever been.

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I don't know what it will take to cure America's obsession with violence. What could be powerful enough to overturn our legacy of hunting down Native American scalps for money? Of torturing and killing African Americans for fun, long after having declared them "emancipated?" Of living in a state of perpetual war since the Pearl Harbor attacks? Of injecting deliberately Guatemalans with gonorrhea just to see what would happen? 

I don't think gun laws will change anything, although I concede that they may reduce the number of deaths, and that might help. I don't think more laws or changes to the education system will fix the underlying problem. 

Somehow, Americans need to unlearn violence on a cultural level. We need to become a nation of "lovers, not fighters." Imagine the American spirit of rugged individualism and independence combined with a commitment to peace and love. God, that sounds like hippy bullshit, but think about it. If we could somehow extract the best of American individualism and mix it with the best of peaceful humanism, we'd really have what the American system was supposed to produce.

Instead, we have this thing, this sad thing. We have a debt-driven war machine that cranks out drone bombings and road rage and mass shootings, and there is no end in sight. I don't know how it will ever be fixed, but if you've ever considered becoming a more peaceful person, I think now is the right time to start.

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