Where O Death Is Your Victory

By David

The Swimwatch blog has seldom, perhaps never, addressed a subject that is not related to sport. True, on a number of occasions, we have strayed from swimming. Boxing, running, hunting and even All Black rugby have been discussed. There may be some who would argue that the pages spent on Swimming New Zealand politics are not really sport – and they could well be right. Certainly many of those involved in New Zealand swimming have little understanding of sport the way it was taught to me.

However, today that will change. This week an event occurred that is so repulsive, so devoid of humanity, that I feel justified in using the pages of Swimwatch to express my disgust. I refer, of course, to the shooting deaths of parents, teachers and children at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I have lived in America for some time – one year at High School just outside of Green Bay Wisconsin, two years coaching in the US Virgin Islands and five years also coaching swimming in Delray Beach, Florida. That’s long enough to know that the United States is way too complex a subject to support any generalization. “Americans are horrible” ignores the millions of good people who live productive lives there. I know a host of them – Tiffany and Andrew, Jonathan, Larry, Skuba, Michael and Linda and John and Barbara. Republican or Democrat, and there are both in that list, these, and many others, are kind and generous people who treated me well during my time in their country. “America is a God-fearing nation” – and yet there are more strip clubs (3829) in the US than any other country on earth. Sex in the United States generates $12 billion dollars annually. “America is the richest county on earth” – in Miami and Los Angeles it is also home to some of the saddest sights of poverty I’ve seen. Even parts of Delray Beach, Florida, are called the ghetto with some good cause. “America’s health care is the best in the world” – and yet in the year 2000 a report by the World Health Organization put the United States in 37th place in healthcare outcomes, including mortality rates, immunization rates, and the number of people currently fighting disease, just behind Costa Rica. The USA is well known as the only industrialized nation that allows its citizens to go broke just by trying to stay alive. “America is a land of huge diversity” – even that’s not true. Can you tell me the difference between a McDonalds, a Staples, a KFC, a Walmart, a Starbucks, a Home Depot or a Target in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago or Miami. There is enough of the same blandness in the US to drive the average European crazy. “America is home to the world’s best athletes” – is that right? What about Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, the 1919 Black Sox, Tonya Harding, Danny Almonte, Bill Belicheck and Rosie Ruiz of Boston Marathon fame? No the USA is not a place that lends itself well to short generalizations.

And so with my disclaimer in place here is a generalization on the factors that I believe have influenced so many Americans to take a gun into a mosque, a movie theatre, an office, a restaurant, a University, a shopping mall and a school and gun down the innocent.

The United States is a country that nurtures violence. In a hundred ways violent behavior is supported and admired – even institutionalized. It is easy for an outsider, as I have always been, to see how a deranged and stressed mind could quickly resort to killing as a means of release. Let me list some examples.

American society still kills its worst offenders. One of the primary reasons the civilized world stopped capital punishment was because it brutalized its people. To the deranged mind it is an easy step – if my society kills those who do it harm, why shouldn’t I? US lawmakers, take a bow.

Recent American history is drenched in the blood of foreigners their government has justified killing – in Iraq 109,032 – in Afghanistan 13,000. US military take a bow.

Life in America is a constant parade of adulation for those whose job it is to kill others. No Presidential speech, football, baseball or hockey game would be complete without the spectacle of soldiers carrying guns and regimental colors. War, death, invasion and guns are more than normalized, they are revered.

Even their national anthem is about the glory of war – the lyrics come from “Defense of Fort McHenry”, a poem written by Francis Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Navy in the War of 1812. The anthem’s official website tells Americans, “The words should stir emotions that the National Anthem should be invoking in all of us today.”

Religion too gets in on the act. Former Arkansas governor, Presidential hopeful and darling of the evangelical, Mike Huckabee, claims that mass shootings are the result of the separation of church and state education. Because America has removed Huckabee’s God, from public schools, Huckabee told Fox News we “should not be surprised that schools would become a place of carnage”. I have no idea how he explains the absence of monthly massacres in the UK, France, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada who all have the same separation of church and education (it’s called secular education). Some leaders in the United States are fruitcakes.

Many average Americans are gun and military obsessed. Tom Gurley is the best example of this phenomenon. He was the President of the Aqua Crest Swim Team in Delray Beach. He had a relatively mundane job, managing a tree planting company. His wife was strange. I once took her on a swimming trip to Spain. She spent most of our week there searching out McDonalds, KFC and Subway fast food stores so she wouldn’t have to, “eat any Spanish food.” Tom’s daughter is a good swimmer who has not fulfilled her considerable potential. All in all a pretty typical American family – including the fact – Tom collects guns. In the middle of Delray Beach, Florida, one of the most densely populated portions of the United States, where there is no possible use for a gun, Tom lives absolutely delighted that the Second Amendment to his country’s constitution entitles him to arm himself with a range of semi-automatic weapons that any Afghan warlord would be proud to call his own. Sadly Tom is not alone. Adam Lanza’s family, in Connecticut, was equally well armed.

While I was in Delray Beach, Tom’s tree planting took him down to the Port of Miami. He came to the pool later that day positively buzzing with excitement; the ample hair on his chest was bursting from his shirt. “You know,” he said to me, “I’ve just seen ten US warships sail into Miami. We are the strongest country in the world; makes you proud to be an American.”

I do wonder if he is as proud today. But probably he hasn’t made the connection.

Editor’s note: I used to live in a house with as many as six or seven guns. The person I lived with liked them and “collected” them. I tried to ignore their presence, but as they became a larger and larger part of our lives, that became ever more difficult. The guns’ owner seemed to believe that he needed these weapons for self-defence. Along with an engineer’s fascination with taking them apart and putting them back together, he was convinced that they made him safer.

From whom, I was not sure.

But I’ll tell you what – when camping in the bush in Idaho where bears, moose and cougars are common and towns aren’t, I did feel safer knowing that one person in the party had a shotgun. Cougars especially are horrible animals, and the forests were relatively full of them. But that’s it. In a small flat in Seattle? Walking on Capitol Hill? Going to QFC? You need your concealed carry permit for that? You need assault rifles sitting next to your gym equipment? You actually carry the paranoid belief that you need arms to protect yourself from not only your fellow citizens, but from the city police, the state and the federal government?

The longer I spend outside of the United States, the more ridiculous all that sounds. And if any of it is true, it’s a situation they created for themselves by arming each other. Everyone is armed. The cops are armed because civilians are armed. Civilians are armed because the Second Amendment allows them to protect themselves against the government.

I spend a lot of time online and I am watching Americans defend their gun rights. They say alcohol kills people. Cars kill people. Trains kill people. Should we ban drinking and public transport?

Are you blindly ignoring the fact that cars, trains and booze were not created for the specific purpose of killing? I have no comprehension how these people, many of whom are my friends, can sit around and celebrate their nation’s free ownership of machines designed only to kill. It would be more understandable if these legally owned weapons were never involved in mass killings.

Legally owned guns are routinely responsible for these deaths. By proxy, I was a legal gun owner. I watched an otherwise sensible person become more and more convinced of his sense of security and control based upon seven weapons, some of which were semi-automatic, locked in a cabinet in his small Seattle flat. I lived in a 500 square foot apartment with three assault rifles. Even I can’t believe that.

Sometimes I think this country (the UK) goes too far in the other direction regarding self defence; until recently, people were being prosecuted for inflicting harm on burglars confronted in their homes. But the US’s celebration of militarism, weaponry and killing startles and confuses me as much now as it did when I was removing flyers for semi-automatic guns and ammunition designed to break apart in a victim’s body from the junkmail in my letterbox on a Saturday morning.

We could all write forever about gun laws and fallacies and mental health, but let me say as someone who lived in a home with these guns, they are abhorrent. They made us a lot less safe. We both knew how to use them, clean them and lock them away, and yet I never felt so vulnerable than when we were storing machines designed to kill us in our own home.

People ask me all the time why I left the US. The list of things I love about the country is long, but so is the list of reasons I left. Not sending my kids to schools where guns are kept or brought to was pretty high up there.