The Magazine

American Murder

A theory why we’re prone to kill one another.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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But this indirect measure of identification does not adequately explore the difference between faith in government institutions at the local level, where most policing occurs, and at the federal level, where policymaking prevails. Contradictory impulses can coexist. It is possible to place great faith and legitimacy in one’s local police force while simultaneously harboring serious doubts about a particular president or members of Congress. You can love Barney Fife but mistrust Barney Frank.

As well, although Roth is concerned with the legitimacy of political institutions, he says little about the role that media or culture plays in encouraging or discouraging faith in government. Cultural historians have offered many arguments for the role newspapers and other media have played in shaping Americans’ attitudes toward their government and its institutions over the past two centuries. Roth’s work would have benefited from a more sustained engagement with that rich historiography. 

Finally, Roth spends little time exploring another important yet impossible to quantify thing that is nonetheless integral to a well-functioning society: the character of a society’s citizens. The self-control, emotional maturity, and ability to delay gratification vital to creating nonviolent, active participants in a society is not (for Roth) as central as trust in political institutions. But these qualities of good character are surely the building blocks for broader feelings such as patriotism. And as psychology and sociology have taught us, these vital traits must be learned at an early age, preferably within the context of stable families and communities. 

Is distrust of government really the main force driving homicide? If it is, then Roth’s argument might provide fodder for the powerful to suppress dissent. Who could argue with an administration that cracked down on anti-government protestors in the name of lowering homicide rates for all? In this climate, perhaps Nixon-style enemies lists would be viewed as more effective prophylactic measures against homicide than our current culture of Americans angrily sniping at each other from the virtual safety of their respective partisan political websites or on cable news shows. 

In the end, whether or not we embrace Roth’s thesis as definitive, his provocative and wide-ranging history persuasively argues for the benefits of a less divisive and polarized political culture. After all, if Roth is right, it just might be killing us.

 

 

Christine Rosen, a senior editor at the New Atlantis, is the author, most recently, of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of Divine Girlhood. 

 

 

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