With preventable deaths escalating to all-time records, American exceptionalism is no longer what many Americans think it is, as Alan Austin reports.
LAST WEEK, four-year-old Kendal Lewis was playing in her mother's car in DeKalb County, Georgia, USA, when she found a handgun and, according to police, shot herself while playing with it. The week before, an eight-year-old girl in Baltimore was shot and killed by her elder brother. These were two of 688 children under the age of 12 killed or injured by firearms already this year.
Projecting that rate for the full year indicates the annual total will be above 1,100 - the highest ever.
Small children shot is one of many categories of escalating fatalities in which the United States of America has now become an outlier in the developed world.
The delusion of American exceptionalism
Many Americans regard themselves as exceptional. Fifty years ago, much of the rest of the world would have agreed with them and they were probably right.
Americans believed they had rescued Europe from dictatorship, resisted the spread of Communism in Korea and Vietnam and produced leaders of the free world in Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. They produced giants in literature, music, sport and the sciences. They sent men and women into space, landed a man on the moon and dispatched cameras to explore distant galaxies.
They had the world's largest economy with the greatest export values and the highest incomes and wealth per person.
This supremacy was often described in spiritual terms as a nation uniquely blessed by God. Their God, of course, was the deliverer of Israel who smote its enemies in order to expand national wealth and prosperity, not the suffering servant who died on the cross.
Recent shifts, however, particularly over the last five years, have dramatically changed this perception.
The gruesome facts and figures
Hate crime murders and manslaughters, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are those 'motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity'.
While numbers have historically been low, there has recently been a dramatic escalation. See grey chart, below.
(Data source: FBI)
Mass shootings are defined by monitoring organisation Gun Violence Archive as incidents in which four or more victims are killed or wounded, not including the perpetrator. These reached an all-time high last year of 691 and are on track towards a similar tally this year. See blue and white chart, below.
(Data source: Gun Violence Archive)
Multiple fields of killing
Other areas of preventable gun deaths, besides children shot, teenagers shot and random mass shootings include police officers shot on duty, health care and social workers shot at work and school shootings.
The reality that the USA is "exceptional" in all these categories is seen starkly in country comparisons.
These are the comparative numbers of police shot on duty since January 2021:
- Japan: 0
- Canada: 0
- United Kingdom: 0
- Australia: 0
- New Zealand: 0
- South Korea: 0
- Germany: 2
- Netherlands: 0
- Denmark: 0
- Spain: 0
- Singapore: 0
- Sweden: 1
- Switzerland: 0
- Malaysia: 0
- USA: 712
Other areas of mortality in which the USA is in a class of its own include COVID-19 fatalities, deaths from other preventable illnesses, fatalities during political protests, farmer suicides following loss of markets, total suicides, suspects killed by police, deaths in custody and murders and manslaughters by means other than guns.
The USA suffered the worst decline in life expectancy of any OECD country in 2020, falling 1.51 years from 78.79 years to 77.28. The USA now ranks 32nd out of 38 OECD members, with only Mexico and five Eastern European countries heavily hit by COVID having shorter lives on average.
For most of the 1970s, Americans ranked 13th or 14th in the OECD, well up in the top half.
Only one of the 38 OECD member countries has experienced a fall in life expectancy over the last ten years. That was the USA with a decline of 1.26 years, or 15.1 months. This increased everywhere else. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Estonia and Colombia improved longevity by more than two years while South Korea and Turkiye gained more than three years. See yellow chart, below.
(Data source: World Bank)
Causes of despair and death
Factors underlying these grisly outcomes are multiple, complex and often difficult to discern. Individual acts of violence are usually associated with hatred, racial prejudice, drug abuse, poverty, mental illness or the alienation of troubled youth. But all countries have citizens experiencing these human conditions. Why is it only in the USA that these lead to deaths in such extreme numbers?
Some commentators have drawn the link between the escalating killings since 2015 and the rise in political intolerance.
Trump's calls to personal physical violence
Yes, other leaders routinely encourage political and moral "struggle" and "fighting for justice", and some have used metaphorical expressions such as "you don't bring a knife to a gunfight".
But no leader has called for direct bodily attacks such as these:
- "I'd like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.";
- "Maybe he should be roughed up a little.";
- "You know, part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?";
- "The audience hit back. That's what we need a little bit more of.";
- "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?";
- "Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!"; and
- "The U.S. Marshals killed him and I will tell you something, that's the way it has to be. There has to be retribution."
Yes, there are other factors. But this one can be fixed. The mainstream Republican movement in the USA must repudiate Trumpian violence clearly and finally. Some have already. Those that haven't must do so now.
Then the nation can proceed to deal with the other causes of its rapidly worsening social decay.