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The Emblematic Death of James Gifford

Editor’s note: Voices is a weekly column that provides a platform for Central New Yorkers to comment about the issues of the day. If you’d like to submit a column, email Larry Dietrich at [email protected] times.com.
The Sept. 21 attack on James Gifford, 70, hits close to home. Home for our household is Syracuse’s South Side. I was born here nearly 70 years ago.

Most mornings for the past 18 years, we’ve taken our black Labs for their morning run in Elmwood Park, a stone’s throw from the 7-Eleven parking lot where Gifford was beaten to death.

Like most people, I can’t fathom such bullying, nor what makes the perpetrator tick. But bear with me a moment while I explain why such bullying isn’t so far from our lives as we might like to think.

I know little of the accused’s background, his conditions of life, his family situation. My guess is that few reading these words would choose those circumstances—whatever they might be. I know I certainly wouldn’t.

However, it’s all too easy to make “poor parenting” the scapegoat for street violence, as some seem to do. No doubt such parenting might sometimes be a factor. But if so, what’s behind “poor parenting”?

One element might well be the utterly inadequate minimum wage forcing some moms and dads, if employed at all, to work multiple jobs, entailing long hours away from home. In any case, such parenting is just one factor creating our nation’s climate of violence. Other factors, often more potent, include:

  • Drug consumption and the drug economy, in which drug lords and their protectors in high places take the lion’s share of profits, leaving crumbs for the small fry menacing our streets.
  • Paramilitarized law enforcement agencies suffering from poor accountability. These can make minority neighborhoods like ours sometimes seem like occupied territory.
  • The Jim Crow legal and penal system with its spurious “war on drugs” designed to disempower and keep the “lower orders” in line. That bloated system breaks up families and fosters criminality, alienating from society those caught in its grip.
  • The National Rifle Association and the small-arms manufacturers, doing their utmost to impede the rational regulation of devices designed to kill.
  • And let us not forget the mainstream media that finds it easier to report on violence—“if it bleeds, it leads”—than to analyze and expose its social and economic causes. Too often, media normalizes violence and stokes the fear that, eroding community, fosters more violence.

Refracted through all of that is the elephant in the living room, invisible to many because it is seldom mentioned: militarism. Too often, our minds fogged by a misplaced patriotism, we avert our gaze from that beast. A vastly disproportionate share of our federal tax money finances a surveillance and war machine unprecedented in human history. Mean while, desperately needed jobs, schooling, medical care and crumbling infrastructure go begging.

In the United States, millions of impressionable young men have gone through military indoctrination and training, being drilled and skilled in killing and blowing up things. (On the impact of military training, see Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s 1995 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, published by Little Brown.) No society can escape the blowback that follows this systematic, wholesale devaluation of human life.

The U.S. war machine thrives on finding new enemies. Often on the scantiest or even fabricated pretexts, it thrives on finding peoples and nations to terrorize. Those targets (Vietnam, Laos, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. . . ) are—or seem at first to be—sparrows for our brave chicken hawks.

Whether or not these seemingly defenseless nations turn out to be pushovers, the war machine struts like a swaggering bully. Its tactics and its contempt inevitably trickle down to our streets. To be consistent, if we finance and glorify that bullying, let’s also glorify the killer of Jim Gifford.

Ed Kinane is an anti-war activist working with Upstate Drone Action. Reach him at [email protected]

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