Europeans can be forgiven the belief that they are confronted by what the American president might call an axis of violence. Bush administration officials are hunched over maps of Iraq, planning an invasion with or without European support. In recent months the United States has repudiated all obligations to the International Criminal Court and announced that it will not help prosecutors working for that court. At home, Americans have eagerly revived the death penalty and increased incarceration rates more than threefold in the last twenty years. The Attorney General believes that the American Constitution protects an individual right to own guns, and tens of millions of his fellow citizens agree. Meanwhile, in global culture the United States exports violence-drenched movies, video games, and music that have become icons for discontented young people from Eastern Germany to Sierra Leone, where young paramilitary murderers have themselves photographed in the dress and poses of American hip-hop stars. The United States is giving Europeans the impression of a cowboy nation, comfortable with violence and answering to no one in the way it metes out rough justice.
European anxiety is apparent in protests against American foreign policy, but it is most poignant when Europeans express fear that they are catching the American virus of violence. When a nineteen year-old student in Erfurt killed seventeen people before shooting himself, editorialists, police officers, and ordinary Germans worried aloud that the country was coming to resemble America. An earlier shooting in Paris brought the same response from French onlookers. It is a remarkable and unsettling fact that Europeans' major military, economic, and geopolitical partner is also their symbol of random, terrible violence. Rather like the mandarins of imperial China, Europeans must feel that they are trading with barbarians.
Is it true? Are the two great North Atlantic powers growing apart into separate, even mutually hostile civilizations, one exemplified by the errant cowboy and the other by the EU bureaucrat? In a phrase, the answer is, Not yet. American violence, in all its faces, reflects deep historical facts about the country but also political trends that are only incidentally related to American identity, and may be reversible. Moreover, in the trajectory of violence Europe and America are coming together as well as growing apart. Both should emphasize what they have in common, which is still more important than what separates them.
First, though, they have to get past self-righteousness to understand the origins of their differences. Let us begin with foreign policy. Here, longstanding American habits have intersected with more recent political developments. From the early Puritan settlements in Massachusetts to the present day there has persisted an idea that America is the universal nation, whose fate is identical with human destiny and whose mission is to lead the forces of light against the forces of darkness. This strain of political attitude has special affinities with evangelical Protestantism, and it is prominent in the Bush administration. Talk of battling evil is a distinctly American idiom that unsettles Europeans, to whom it suggests both cultural and historical naivete. The American attitude lends itself naturally to unilateralism and the dangerous belief that one's own violence is divinely sanctioned and so innocent.
But there are political reasons as well. From the middle of the nineteenth century into the Cold War, American elites cultivated a comfortable Anglophilia that made them skeptical of France and Germany but tied American sentiments to European affairs. Many came from the old schools of New England, in the twentieth century particularly Yale, and they treated the State Department as an extension of their social networks. They understood that they were at odds with the nationalist, often isolationist spirit of many ordinary Americans, as well as the ethnic loyalties of Irish, Armenians, and other immigrants who wanted the United States to intervene on behalf of their distant homelands. As long as the traditional elite retained control, its members didn't care. American foreign policy was not democratic.
In the last forty years that old elite has gone into terminal decline. Demographic pressure and principled meritocracy have pushed it out of its old colleges and swamped it in the foreign policy establishment. From a clubby consensus, American foreign policy has gone to a chaos of competing ethnic groups and activist networks. American support for Armenia and Israel has much to do with well organized and well funded ethnic lobbies. American pronouncements about China and Sudan reflect pressure from evangelical Christians concerned about the condition of Christian minorities in those countries. What reads abroad as American self-righteousness or ethnic favoritism is often just the play of American domestic politics broadcast on the big screen of international relations.
Since September 11 the larger sweep of American foreign policy has also become a topic of domestic politics. In responding to the attacks on New York and Washington, politicians have tried to define national purposes abroad in relation to crises at home. That has meant playing to a population that, while by no means uniformly chauvinist or militarist, has little sophistication about world affairs. The American place at the center of the world has long had as its paradoxical twin American ignorance about the larger world, and the paradox has a special salience today. Americans are not themselves markedly unilateralist, but most of them are not prepared to sortie arguments against unilateralism when the president portrays it as the flower of patriotism.
The most important fact about American foreign policy at the moment, then, is that the president happens -- and after an indifferent election with a dubious result, "happens" is the right word -- to represent the most unilateralist and jingoistic strain of American culture. George W. Bush also evinces disdain and resentment toward a Europe and Europhiles whom he perceives as effete. In response to this, Europeans and concerned Americans should look to the American constituencies that do not share these attitudes. American liberals tend to value multilateralism. So do the international business classes, who take for granted their freedom of movement among interlinked countries. They, however, often forget that international linkage has a political as well as an economic history, and can be lost by politics. They are complacent about unilateralism because they do not understand that it could wreck their comfortable world. European objections to American unilateralism, if it is emphatic enough, may yet wake up these Americans and remind them that multilateralism is expedient as well as principled.
What about the American obsession with guns and violence, now being exported abroad. American attitudes toward firearms are old and deep-seated. There have been recent academic debates about the prevalence of gun ownership in early America, but the central fact is that having guns and hunting were not aristocratic privileges, as in much of Europe, but part of the ordinary freedom of citizens. Early Americans contrasted the liberty of a republic of voting freeholders to European "aristocracy" and "feudalism," and national myth keeps this spirit linked to guns. For many Americans, particularly rural and suburban men in the South and West, the gun is an icon of personal liberty, self-reliance, and masculinity. The sentiments of gun-lovers are a mystery to many city dwellers, especially members of the liberal cultural elite, but the gun-owners are sincere, and most of them obey the law. The notorious (and mostly defunct) militias of the American West are an extreme outpost of gun culture, but they have little in common with the main run of American gun owners.
The power of the American gun lobby, though, does not only depend on national myths. It also reflects the structure of American politics, which gives disproportionate effect to small groups with strong views. Every state elects two senators, although state populations range from thirty-four million in California to less than half a million in Wyoming. Many gun-owners live in sparsely populated Western states, while many of those who find the love of guns unintelligible are in California, New York, and other large states. As Hendrik Hertzberg has recently pointed out in the New Yorker, if black Americans were overrepresented at the same rate as voters from small states, 42 of 100 United States senators would be black; in fact, none is. Because a state's weight in the arcane system that selects American presidents is determined by its combined representation in the two houses of Congress, the distribution of senators also gives rural voters disproportionate weight in filling the White House -- one reason that gun enthusiast George W. Bush was elected in 2000 despite receiving a million fewer votes than Al Gore, who was cautiously friendly to gun control.
The role of money in American politics also gives a boost to the National Rifle Association, the leading pro-gun group, which together with the firearms industry supports its friends and punishes its enemies. The NRA spent $4.4 million in the 1998 Congressional elections, and in 2000 it combined with gun-makers to give $370,000 to the campaign of just one senator, the same John Ashcroft who is now arguing for the rights of gun owners as President Bush's attorney general. NRA spokesmen have claimed responsibility for Bush's victory in the presidential campaign, and the group's intense efforts in a few hard-fought Southern states may in fact have been enough to tilt the election away from Gore.
The political facts about America's gun culture are an overlay on deeper habits of American violence. Norway's rate of household gun ownership is thirty-two percent, compared to thirty-nine percent in the United States, but its gun homicide rate is one-tenth of America's, and its overall murder rate is lower than those of other European countries where gun ownership is much rarer. Switzerland is similar. The difference is not only in guns as such, but also in attitudes toward violence in general, with guns being the favorite tool of the violent.
But this is not only a matter of atavistic American values. American murder rates, which are five to six times higher than European countries', reflect deep racial divisions in the United States. Between ages fifteen and forty-four, black men in America are seven to eight times more likely than whites to be murdered. Adult Latino men are three times more likely to be murdered than whites, and for Latino boys and men under 25 the murder rate is as high as for black Americans. Most of those murders are by members of the same race or ethnic group. The American incarceration rate for blacks is almost six times as high as for whites.
White Americans are murdered and imprisoned at rates several times higher than Europeans. The figures among the country's largest minority groups, however, are closer to the most violent countries of Latin America than to anything else in the North Atlantic. Despite the growth of a black middle class in recent decades, many millions of black Americans remain in poor communities where crime and drug addiction are common and intact families are few. The high murder rate for young Latinos suggests that many immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador, are being assimilated not to the American middle class -- the path of most Irish, Italian, and other immigrants early in the last century -- but into the American underclass.
American racial divisions not only add to the country's crime and imprisonment statistics, but also bolster the laws that reinforce European impressions of American brutality. The death penalty is historically concentrated in the American South, where most executions still take place today, and until recently blacks who murdered whites were by far the most likely killers to be sentenced to death. The "War on Drugs" that has guided American narcotics policy since Ronald Reagan's presidency has greatly increased black imprisonment rates. Some statistics suggest that black drug use is no higher than white use, but blacks are much more likely to be the low-level dealers whom police pick up on the street -- not infrequently in neighborhoods that wealthier whites cruise through to make their purchases. For this reason, some civil rights activists have called American drug policy "a war on black men," and they are not altogether wrong: white American fear of black crime during the crack plague of the 1980s was one reason that Reagan's drug war was a political success. Talk about crime in America almost always carries a racial code, and tougher punishment is partly racial punishment, born of dislike and fear. Racial distance and a background culture of violence combine to coarsen personalities and social life.
There is a lesson for Europe here. What should worry Europeans now is not the influx of American video games and movies so much as the question whether fifty-odd years of European personal liberty and social democracy have rested on racial and ethnic homogeneity. It is easier to achieve a humane society alongside people one expects to have more or less the same values and habits than when one's neighbors are strangers, even alarming strangers. The xenophobic turn in some quarters of European politics, although not admirable, is an unsurprising reaction to the demographic shredding of the commonality that several generations of Europeans have taken for granted. The question is not whether some Europeans will feel put out and alarmed as the ground shifts beneath their feet -- that is inevitable -- but what European electorates will decide to make of great disruptions.
The United States provides both a cautionary model and an attractive one. On the one hand, the long American history of slavery and white supremacist politics, which finally yielded only late in the last century, created what threatens to be a permanent underclass. Europeans who want to keep immigrants "in their place" might recall that the same attitude among generations of white Americans produced today's racial divisions in the United States. On the other hand, the American genius for absorbing most groups of immigrants, even abruptly and in large numbers, is not a bad model for an increasingly mobile world. Collective American identity, as its critics love to point out, is thin and superficial. We do not share refined traditions in the arts, polished manners or rituals, or any form of esoteric High Americanism. Moreover -- and this has also exercised critics of American culture -- we are a mobile people, drifting and racing from place, forgetting within two generations who our ancestors were and where they lived. The special gift of a thin and transient culture, though, is that it can absorb immigrants without feeling traumatic change or imposing such change on the newcomers. Anyone who is willing to express a rudimentary patriotism and participate in the free market can come, count as an American and raise American children. The relative social peace and tolerance of that situation is a hopeful sign of the kind of modernity that the North Atlantic countries might hope to share.
Choosing that future would require both Europeans and Americans to give up some of their characteristic political indulgences. Europeans' instinctive ethnocentrism, from the German expectation of living among Germans to the aggressive French denunciations of American cultural exports, is probably not compatible with living in a time of great migrations. The sooner Europeans stop expecting public culture to be defined by deep and elaborate common inheritances, the less discontented they will be. That is a sacrifice, but one that the time, not the immigrants, is asking.
As for Americans, they cannot afford the devil-take-the-hindmost policies that have defined economic life since the early 1980s. American tolerance of falling wages for lower-income workers is a major reason that many Latino immigrants are not entering the middle class but staying in poor neighborhoods and, often, watching their children join the American underclass. It is also a reason that the white and black workers who compete with the new immigrants are vulnerable to anti-immigrant resentment in economic downturns. One decent principle for immigration policy is that a country should take as many people as it can assimilate to its civic and economic life, allowing that immigrants will necessarily change the country's religious and cultural habits. European worry about cultural integrity and American indifference to economic inequality both represent a failure to live up to this principle, and both promise bad results.
Being German, French, or Texan is a matter of culture. Belonging to liberal modernity is a matter of civilization, which America and Europe have in common. Their family dispute, though, is a reminder that civilizations can divide against themselves, lose hold of their sustaining values, and fail to meet new challenges. Each continent has qualities that the other will need if it is not to become a bleaker version of itself, in a more dangerous world.