BY umair haque
I woke up to a horrific headline today: a man in Philadelphia raped a woman on public transport last week after she rejected his advances. The attack went on for 8 minutes — but the train wasn’t empty. There were multiple bystanders. And yet, for 8 minutes, no one stopped this man, until a public transport employee — a woman — saw what was going on. What did the bystanders do instead? They took video. Some uploaded the video to social media.
It strikes me that America is a uniquely violent, a uniquely rapey society. Nowhere else in the developed world would something like this happen. Hell, this would barely happen in many poor countries. (If you don’t believe me, a man tried to attack a woman on the London tube the other day, and passengers rushed to her aid.)
(I want to warn you that you’ll find this essay quite horrific, so I urge you just to skip it, if you’re the kind of American who can’t bear a single grain of self-criticism, which is too many of us.)
America is a uniquely violent society. But more than that, it is a deeply rapey society. I don’t mean that in some light way, I mean that violation and violence is deeply ingrained in American institutions, norms, and culture. A rape on public transport — while bystanders watched. A Louisiana school had two school shootings in the space of a week.
A sitting Supreme Court Justice — Brett Kavanaugh — who was confirmed despite being accused of gang rape.
A congressman — Matt Gaetz — is involved in a sex trafficking investigation.
And a former president — Donald Trump —
who won the presidency despite being found on camera,
saying “grab em by the pussy.”
The Supreme Court. The GOP. The former president, whose return is looking more and more likely by the day. What are we to make of all this? Is it just — as American pundits go on crowing — it’s just a few bad apples?
Is it really just a few bad apples when a country’s entire power structures are… rapey? Is it really just a few bad apples when a woman can be attacked on public transport and bystanders do nothing? I can go on. The media is notoriously rapey — from Weinstein to Cosby. Silicon Valley’s if not rapey, then at least absurdly misogynist. Wall St — anyone’s who’s come within shouting distance of an investment bank knows how rapey finance is. Then there’s college. Frats, my friends, are incredibly rapey.
America has a problem of rapiness. Sure, every country and every culture has a problem of rape, because male violence is a problem. But America has an especial problem of rapiness, given the simple and incontrovertible fact that its power structures and institutions, from the top down to the bottom, all seem to be rapey.
But not just rapey in any kind of way. Smugly, like frat-bros. It’s done with a grin and a sneer. To the sound of applause. Not rapey and ashamed. But proudly and unabashedly capable of the deepest kind of violation. To the point that a man can rape a woman on public transport and bystanders will upload it to social media instead of helping.
And what’s worse, weirdly, is that a large number of Americans seem to think that all this is just fine. More than that, in fact. They are among the throngs cheering all this on. Take the by now canonical example, one of the things that made America a global laughingstock. Trump was happily elected as President after he smugly said,
“just grab em by the pussy.”
So we have to ask difficult questions. The problem is much bigger than the way it’s simply portrayed. It isn’t about men versus women, and it isn’t about right versus left, though those distinctions certainly carry water. Still, there is a larger problem in America. Even many women ardently support too much of the above, and seem to think it is their rightful place in society. Many men, in turn, place obtaining this license as their highest priority in life.
But what are we talking about exactly, when we say “rapiness”? When I think about problems, I do the opposite of what American pundits do. Instead of zooming in, I like to zoom out. And in this case, when I zoom out, here’s what I see. That America’s come to be ruled by rapiness, isn’t just part of a rape culture — though there certainly is such a thing. I think that even the way we think of rape culture is still too small. Rape is a profound and terrible kind of violence — which I’ll come to shortly — and American has a violence problem, not just a rapiness problem.
Now, I don’t mean what pundits do when I say a violence problem. I’m not going to shower you with statistics about crime. That’s not what I really mean at all.
I mean something much bigger, truer, harder to see. Something about America being the kind of society that built the world’s most perfect killing machine — but not a functioning healthcare system. What kind of a society does that?
Violence is something like America’s God, it’s graven image. It is the altar at which Americans worship, and are told to sacrifice both themselves and their kids. Violence is the one constant in American life, culture, society. Guns, shootings, reality TV shows, endless cruelty, denying your neighbours healthcare, traumatising kids by making them do “active shooter drills.” Violence permeates America like a terrible fog, blemishing the soul. In that context, rapiness is just sacrificing virgins to the Gods.
Let me make that concrete.
America is the world’s most violent society. Not just in the way we are told it is — the easy way. Murders and homicides so forth. In the hard way, the uncomfortable way. America has spent 225 out of its 245 years of life at war. It is the country that over the last hundred has destabilized and invaded nation after nation. America is the country with the world’s most guns, most sophisticated weapons of death and destruction — and the one most ready to use them, at any and every opportunity. How many countries is America bombing with drones at any given moment? Do you even know? Nobody does, really. See my point? The world’s most perfect killing machine.
America is violent in the most violent ways. Not just violent in little ways. It isn’t just petty criminals who represent the problem of American violence. It is permanent war. It is militarization. It is a nation that’s quicker to draw a gun than read a book. It’s high schoolers who kill their classmates out of frustration. It’s drones raining the inferno down from above. It’s the world’s most lethal killing machine, something beginning to resemble Skynet. It can kill anyone, anywhere on earth, without asking any questions, without hesitation, in moments, from the quiet comfort of a screen in an air-conditioned room a world away — and you’ll never see it coming.
I want you to see the point I’m making. America is the world’s most violent society in the most violent ways. Not just with pistols, but with bombs and missiles, with the most powerful system of violence that any country has any built ever, in human history. Can you imagine what the Romans…or Dr Strangelove…would have thought about a sci-fi machine that let you literally kill anyone on earth by pressing a button — like human life was a video game?
Ah, but there’s a price to being this kind of a nation, my friends. The one that values human life so cheap that it built human history’s most efficient killing machine — one so spectacularly, staggeringly powerful that I can press a button, and take a life anywhere on earth, all while slurping my Coke and munching my Doritos. One which lets me kill anyone, anywhere, anytime — without having to think a single thought at all.
Can you tell that price yet?
America owns the most perfect killing machine ever made. It is the most violent society that ever existed, by a very, very long way. Is it any surprise, really, that the world’s most violent country — history’s most violent society, ever — ended up being run by fascists, rapists, and pedophiles? Shouldn’t we have expected precisely that? Won’t the most violent of all rise to the top of the world’s most violent society? How else could things end up?
At this point, if you’re American, I’d bet you think I’m overstating things, or you’re a little angry, or you’re bewildered — maybe all the above. But if you’re not American, I’d bet you’re nodding along.
That tells us something even truer. America’s the world’s most violent society in the most violent ways.
But it doesn’t know it is. When you say that to Americans, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. They’ve been taught to see themselves as brave, peaceful superheroes. A little bit like Spider Man, maybe, or Super Man. Violence? We never start a fight! We break them up! Alas — talk to Chile, Argentina, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mexico…an endless list of countries.
So Americans don’t understand in any real way whatsoever that they’re the world’s most violent society in the most violent ways, and a natural consequence of being such a society is that it ends up ruled by the most violent. They can’t connect the dots, because their mythologies teach them that they’re noble peacemakers, not aggressive, domineering bullies. The idea of the perfect killing machine never enters the American mind as a problem — only as a solution.
The result is that Americans go on thinking they can have it both ways. Maybe not you, enlightened and gentle reader — but certainly enough Americans, not just the extremists and fanatics, but even the good ones.
Americans go on imagining that they can do things like start endless wars against half the world (and then leave them to pick up the pieces), bomb country after country, overthrow any democracy they don’t like…that they can conduct endless violence as a country…and not pay any price themselves.
No one has taught them that there is a price to being history’s most violent society.
The price of being such a violent society is that the most violent end up on top. They are the ones whom institutions and norms and rules will select for. That is how the fascists, theocrats, and kleptocrats rose to power in America.
Do you see my point?
Let me make it crystal clear.
There was a price to being the kind of society that built history’s perfect killing machine.
But Americans think they can have it both ways. That they can be the society that does the most violence in the world, by a very long way, not just to itself, but to others — and never pay a price. They’ve been told there is no price to be paid. So half of them cheer it on, roughly, this project of bombing the world, of dominating the world’s poor, of perfecting the perfect killing machine — and the other half happily turns a blind eye to it.
But there is a very real price to being the world’s most violent society, a society so violent it built the perfect killing machine, instead of, say, functioning hospitals. That price is that the most violent men of all will rise to the top. It will take decades, probably, for that competition to select the most violent of all. But that competition is precisely what will happen. And in the end, such a country will be ruled by men that are not just capable of doing the unthinkable — but revel in it, flaunt it, demand it. The price of violence is rule by the violent.
Being the world’s most violent society means that the world’s most violent men will rule you, too. You. Not just them — those dirty, filthy, scary people you bomb with drones and abandon when it suits you. But you, yourself, in your pleasant suburb and cul-de-sac. The violent men will come to do something to your democracy. Your future. Your freedom. History. Truth. Decency. Your personhood, in the end. The thing that violent men love to do the most.
They rape all that, just as they rape everything else. Rape. Not the horrific physical, sexual act. But the consequences of it. The act of transgression against the most fundamental and inalienable things a person can be said to have — for power, for a thrill, for a kind of orgasmic feeling of supremacy. The body politic is being raped in America, the body social is being raped. The delicate womb of the future is, too. Decency, goodness, truth, meaning — all violated by the most violent men, left in tatters, demeaned. It is all the bodies we don’t see. The collective and joint bodies we inhabit, too.
America is being raped, too. But that’s not a surprise, really. America became the kind of society that was happy violating nation after nation — half of America, cheering it on, the other half, in blissful denial.
Think about what it takes for a train full of people to ignore a woman being raped. Something went badly, disturbingly wrong with Americans. The Police Superintendent in Philadelphia, when speaking about the rape on the train, had this to say: “It speaks to where we are as a society.”
How right he is.