Robertson Allen is an independent scholar and ethnographer who researches digital games, war and violence, and food cultures. His book America’s Digital Army: Games at Work and War (Nebraska, 2017) is an ethnographic study based on his years of behind-the-scenes ethnographic fieldwork within the work environments of the video game developers, military strategists, enlisted soldiers, and defense contractors who produced the official U.S. Army video game, America’s Army.
There is a tendency to think of civilizations like the Aztecs, the Maya, the Celts, the Chinese of antiquity, and other past groups of people as savage “others” because they engaged in human sacrifice. We would do nothing of that sort, we say. We are different, we are civilized.
I would make the case that in the contemporary U.S. we also engage in ritualized human sacrifices. Though our sacrifices happen on a localized and arbitrary level within our schools, our workplaces, and at public events, they occur on an almost predictable basis, played out with a terrible frequency on a national scale through news and social media coverage.
These sacrifices are, of course, the seemingly random mass shootings carried out by unconnected individuals, almost always men. Their individual motivations vary and the way we classify the broader causes of their acts of violence changes depending on whether they were white and young (“mental illness” and “video games”), white and old (“religious extremism”), black (“gang-related”), or brown (“terrorism”). But the national stage through which these shootings play out brings us together to witness their aftermath in a collective, public, and ritualized way.
Many cultures sacrificed their own to reconcile the contradictions within their society, either to appease the gods and bring favor (often in the form of good weather or abundant harvests) or to affirm the appropriateness of the existing social order. For example, the eminent comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell writes in one of his volumes, Occidental Mythology, that the Greco-Persian form of human sacrifice was an “optimistic affirmation” of a “creative force, since out of death, decay, violence, and pain comes life” (1964:258). Campbell traces the source of other Occidental traditions, which culminated in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, to sacrificial practices that sought to be not world-affirming, but “world-improving.” The victim, couched as “the savior” here, was “declared to have taken on his shoulders the sins of mankind” (258-59).
Perhaps that is why our own dreadful sacrificial rituals in the contemporary U.S. contain a hint of hopeful public deliverance, that something can change. These media spectacles accentuate the cultural dissonance at the root of an American colonial settler society founded, so we are taught, on the idea of democracy and equality. This democracy and equality is always achieved, however, through the pointing, and often shooting, of a gun—at African and American-born slaves, Native Americans, and American colonial subjects, to name just a few.
If there is any god to be appeased by our current sacrifices, it is the false idol of the gun itself that is demanding our blood offerings in increasing amounts. Enshrined for devotees in an ideological, quasi-religious way by the U.S. Constitution, the sacredness of the gun is something that is uniquely American. Of course, there is a long history of weapons being used as apparatuses of war, or as a legitimate means of sustenance or self-defense in culturally specific ways. And a handful of other countries like Guatemala, Mexico, and Haiti also have constitutional guarantees to the right to bear arms. I do not argue against nations deciding for themselves that citizens should have such rights. As a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on digital media, the U.S., and violence, however, I find it a salient moment to point out that one aspect of American culture that makes us unique is that only in the U.S. has the gun been elevated to the position of a deity.
How else to explain the unwavering ideological positions held by politicians, organizations like the NRA, and enthusiasts in the face of hard evidence that the increased presence of guns leads to more deaths and injuries by guns? How else to explain why the only logical solution to the problem of school shootings is, to devotees of this god, bringing even more guns into schools?
The now ritualized vilification of media, especially video games, as well as murmurs of “thoughts and prayers” by those not wanting to challenge this vengeful god are all part of a public liturgical response that disavows causation or responsibility. The individualization of actions to demonized murderers who are “mentally ill monsters,” even as funding for mental illness treatment is dropped by the same people blaming mental illness, is part of the pattern of disavowal that has led to the predictable scapegoating of video games. This pattern has been happening since at least the 1992 Congressional hearings on Mortal Kombat and ignores how societies such as Japan are able to maintain a relatively low level of violent crime despite playing mostly the same games as us. These moral panics are part of a long history going back to the sins of the theater, the indecency of dancing the waltz, the Satanism of playing Dungeons & Dragons or listening to Nine Inch Nails; all they accomplish is a disavowal of responsibility that obstructs the ability of people to reach a better understanding of social issues and therefore enact actual solutions to them.
Gun violence is not due to “human nature”—an oversimplifying, nihilistic, and ahistorical position that some are prone to make when searching for a root cause in the aftermath of mass shootings. It is culturally-specific, as the morbid humor of The Onion captures in its re-posting of the same article (with only names changed) after every mass shooting. Cultures can and do change, and in that we should take heart. Maybe one day the United States will break the bonds of thralldom to the gun deity, and this awful series of sacrificial offerings will cease.