July 16 • 08:28 AM

A lifetime of de-sensitization?

June 12, 2019
Perhaps you remember a couple of weeks ago when a gunman stormed a municipal building in Virginia Beach, VA and left 12 dead in his wake.

Twelve people went into work like any other day and never returned, all because someone with a gun was thinking God knows what. It was a tragedy that shook national headlines.

Until they weren't shaken anymore. I looked recently at the front pages of a few national newspapers and media sites, and I couldn't find any mention of it. (The local newspaper for Virginia Beach, of course, is still reporting on the aftermath; I had to dig a bit to find a related story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the paper of the state's capital.)

I half-wonder if this is because we have, unfortunately, become "used to it" to the point that such carnage no longer packs as much newsworthiness as it once did. I admit, the constant stream of shootings has even somewhat desensitized me to this horrible phenomenon. Ever since I moved to Vietnam, I couldn't tell you exactly how many mass shootings have occurred on my home soil.

But this column is not really about mass shootings, nor even about guns, but rather violence in general. I write this from a country where the above described atrocities never happen. In contrast to its infamous past, this is a relatively safe and secure country. Even homicide rates in general here are proportionately lower than those of the US (which has the highest rate among most developed nations). This can probably be ascribed to Vietnam's strict gun laws, which could likely be fodder for debate back home regarding political and personal freedom and whatnot, but still.

On occasion, I come across people over here who ask me whether it's safe to travel in my country, and I have to think about how to shape my answer.

All of this, however, only constitutes one side of the coin.

I went on Netflix recently to re-watch Django Unchained, the Quentin Tarantino film. For those of you who've never seen it, it's a rather violent movie that deals with our history of slavery. Quite on point with Tarantino's style, who has an uncanny fixation with mixing bloodshed and humor into dark comedy.

And I enjoyed it.

Somewhere within all the firing guns, all that flesh being shot to bits, I could appreciate it within the wider context of the film. The work draws smoothly from all the classic Westerns that take place in our country, which in turn are filled with good cowboys shooting down bad cowboys. Blood has always gone hand in hand with our perceptions of the Wild West, if not the actual formation and expansion of America.

It wasn't merely blood that I found so—dare I say it—refreshing. It was a reflection of grit. Vietnam, with its lingering poverty, corruption and shadiness, arguably has more grittier sides than the States, but it seems that the Communist government keeps its media sanitized of that reality. The majority of Vietnamese films shown in theaters look to be happy-go-lucky comedies and romances, or action films. I have yet to chance upon Vietnamese music that touches the themes of anger and rebellion (but then again, I don't speak Vietnamese, so it's hard to know for sure). There's not much appetite for stuff that affirms the darker parts of life.

But all this doesn't touch the fact that the movie was also cool. That's what stylized violence does: one begins to fantasize about outdrawing their rival and shooting perfectly from the hip, never mind who that rival might be. It's status, power, imaginary though they might be. Even weapons themselves attain a "forbidden fruit" sheen when viewed from a country that bans them: "Why don't I have a .44 Magnum?"

Or was it yet something else? Some carnal pleasure of seeing villains blasted away on the big screen, as I have throughout my whole life? Was I, at some level deep down, accepting violence as part of the fabric of American culture? Was I?

I don't know.

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