Two Strains of Violence, Part Two: Two Cultures of Violence

Mexico and the United States are both known as violent countries, but there are important differences in the style—and the incidence--of criminal violence.  Both are complex countries with varying ethnic and regional traditions.  For example, the states of the American South are proverbial for their high homicide rates, but, in contrast with the large cities of the North much of the killing in the South is done, as my friend John S. Reed showed years ago,  for personal motives.  Crimes of violence in the US can also be broken down by ethnicity: Black and Hispanic Americans account for well over half the violent crimes, while the rate for white Americans is in line with those in Western Europe.  

In 1999, the US homicide rate, over all, was 5.7 per 100,000.  This is a high rate compared with most countries in Western Europe: Italy (2.25), Belgium and England/Wales (1.41), and Ireland (.62), but America seems safe when compared with Mexico, which despite very strict gun laws, has a homicide rate of  17.58---over three times the US rate. 

It is difficult to make comparative generalizations, but according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (a “federal advisory committee” whose mission is to advise Americans on security issues in foreign countries): “In the categories of murder, rape and robbery, Mexico's Distrito Federal (Mexico City and the surrounding region) posts 3 to 4 times the incidence of these crimes than does New York City, greater Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.”

In Europe, America is condemned as a nation of homicidal cowboys, but, as Roger McGrath has shown in  his classic Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, the well-armed Old West was a peaceful place.  The old America had its share of tough-guy heroes, but for the most part they did their own killing in what were regarded as fair fights.  Men like Jim Bowie and even John Wesley Harden did not have men shot in the back, seal off trains in tunnels by dynamiting both sides, or terrorize whole towns—some of Pancho Villa’s more notorious escapades.  Even the revenge-crazed Bloody Bill Anderson, in his raid on Lawrence, spared women and children.  

The violence of the Old West has been celebrated, with considerable exaggeration, in John Ford’s magnificent films.  But when American film-makers developed a taste for capricious violence, they seem inevitably to head south.  Leo Carillo plays a charming “Frito Bandito” in Rouben Mamoulian’s The Gay Caballero, but despite his good heart and friendly manners, he kills in cold blood.  There is no charm to the badgeless bandits in John Houston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but they are closer to the Brothers Cheeruble than the bad guys in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or The Wild Bunch.

Mexico and the United States share a reputation for political violence, but while America’s ill fame rests (until the BLM outbreaks) largely on four assassinated presidents and several well-publicized riots and police crackdowns (Haymarket riot, Kent State, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago), Mexican history is awash in blood.  Among the more famous political killings in Mexico, one might name the last two Aztec rulers, Mochtezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the two clerical leaders of uprisings against Spain (Fr. Hidalgo and Fr. Morelos), Emperors Augustin de Iturbide and Maximilian, Presidents Madero, Carrranza, and Obregón, to say nothing of a more recent string of high-profile killings that includes: a Catholic cardinal murdered by drug lords in Guadalajara in 1993, a PRI presidential candidate (Luis Donaldo Colosio) in 1994, a PRI secretary general and majority leader elect of the lower house (Jose Franciso Ruiz Massieu) killed by the brother of President Salinas in 1994, a congressman implicated in drugs and murder (Manuel Murloz Rocha).  

These few names do not begin to exhaust a very long list that includes rival political candidates murdered by the PRI, journalists killed by drug lords, thousands of students gunned down in demonstrations 1968 and 1971, and the massive suppression of the Chiapas Indians in the 1990’s. 

The most celebrated victims of political violence were the two outstanding military leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa.  General Villa is one of the most remarkable men produced by Mexico.  A reckless and daring cavalryman, he was nicknamed the “Centaur of the North” for his exploits in the saddle.  He and his lieutenants also acquired an unsavory reputation for cruelty.  Even before Woodrow Wilson decided to recognize Villa’s rival Venustiano  Carranza as the legitimate president of Mexico, Villa had made a habit of killing gringos.  Outraged by what he regarded as American treachery, he launched a surprise attack on the people of Columbus, New Mexico, that is still recalled with bitterness by the townspeople, though the Federal monument exonerates Villa completely.

Despite his many acts of wanton killing, including (probably) the murder of Ambrose Bierce, Villa is unquestionably a great hero in his own country.  In Chihuahua, his house has been turned into a museum of the revolution, and although the cruelty of his lieutenant, Fierro is several times mentioned, the General of the Division of the North is treated with the respect he demanded in life.

There is no hero quite like “Pancho” Villa in American  history.  To match his career, one would have to combine the cavalry exploits of Bedford Forrest with Andrew Jackson’s harsh temper, and the postwar activities of the Jameses and Youngers, but this hybrid would still lack Villa’s homicidal volatility.  

Our mass killers are of a different stamp from either American gunfighters or Mexican bandit-revolutionaries: Villa was unquestionably brave and resourceful, admirable in his own way.  Our greatest homicidal maniacs are typically respectable men like William Tecumseh Sherman and the president who sent him on his mission, men like  Harry S. Truman, who dropped the big ones, not on the Japanese politicians and officers who deserved it, but on civilians.  Ours are men with clean hands who kill with a few words.  

When reporters began grilling Donald Rumsfeld about possible war crimes and abuses, his stock response was that Americans don’t do things like that.  Indeed, Abu Ghraib probably is exceptional.  (The so-called Mylae massacre is one of those things that happen in war and does not stand comparison with the torture and humiliation suffered by American  POW’s.) Nonetheless, the United States government has an appalling record of what would be called war crimes if they were committed by any other nation. 

Let us set aside the violence of the Indian wars, in which two violent peoples decided the fate of a continent.  There is no such excuse for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the Spanish-American War, the unexplained disappearance of German POW’s at the end of WWII, the decision to use nuclear weapons twice against Japanese cities, the completely unjustified bombing of Belgrade, the Gulf War and embargo that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, to say nothing of the total mess we have made of Iraq, which begins to make the reign of the merciless Saddam Hussein seem peaceful.  (His only serious crime against his people was his war with Iran.  The rest is the petty thuggery practiced in every Middle Eastern state, whether dictatorship, monarchy, or democracy.)

American violence was summed up for me by the words of a little girl playing fire control officer on a submarine during the bombing of civilian centers in Yugoslavia.  She explained to the cameras that she just sent the missiles and did not think about where they landed.  Judges and politicians display a similar insouciance in not thinking about the tens of millions of infants murdered with their permission.  Mexican-American immigrants, by contrast, are generally more pro-life than American natives, and some even refused to vote for their would be Democratic patrón, John Kerry, because of his outspoken support for a woman’s right to kill her child.

Some American Catholics think we should welcome the hordes of pro-life Catholics swarming across our southern border, but this is a mistake.  Mexicans have a hard enough time holding onto their values in border towns like Juarez, and they quickly become acclimated to America’s culture of consumerism and infanticide.  What they do not appear to relinquish is their own traditional style of violence.  And I think I can predict that their fondness for violent revolution and women in bondage will eventually make themselves felt in the cultural mainstream.  

Unfortunately, Americans, who have lost faith in their traditions and in their God, are as likely to resist the invasion from the South as they are to combat Islamic terrorism.  Liberal to the core, we seem lack the most basic survival instincts.  Nearly twenty years after September 11, we are still “fighting terrorism” in the Middle East and Afghanistan and refusing either to defend our borders or contain the spreading virus of Islam in our society.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Roger McGrath says:

    Tom’s concluding line says it all–we fight overseas wars of no consequence while “refusing either to defend our borders or contain the spreading virus of Islam in our society.” I can think of nothing else to call it other than suicidal. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Mexico and it is thoroughly corrupt and criminal, and most of it’s dirty and impoverished, but suicidal it’s not.

    I think Tom meant to say the Gay Desperado, the movie in which Leo Carrillo played a bandito. Carrillo always said he was purely European and of Spanish and Italian descent. Who knows. All the descendants of the old ranchero families, which Carrillo was, liked to claim pure European descent. Makeup artists actually worked to make him look mestizo in some of the movies. People today think they are highly knowledgeable and correct by pronouncing his name the Mexican way, Cah-ree-o, when Carrillo himself pronounced it the Castilian Spanish way, which was more like Cah-rill-yoh. Like his ranchero ancestors he considered himself apart and separate from most Mexicans. He lived about a mile from the house of my childhood in Pacific Palisades. He was a regular around town. In our annual Fiesta Days he would always ride a blooded horse in the parade and throw candy to the kids. He was a member of the Uplifters Club in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of the Palisades. The Club had all the amenities of a fine country club but members were all male and most of them had a wild hair and a lot of money. The motto of the Uplifters was “Keep It Up,” and they fully intended the double entendre. Carrillo said he liked his women blond and “I don’t care how they got that way.” We kids knew only about the tennis matches, swimming meets, charity events, and galas at the Uplifters and nothing about the gambling, drinking, bawdy shows, and hi-jinks favored by club members. To us kids Leo Carrillo was Pancho because that was his character’s name in the serial, The Cisco Kid, that played at our local theater.

  2. theAlabamian says:

    Awesome article!

  3. Aetolian says:

    Kudos. Very well written article!

  4. Vince Cornell says:

    I’ve never understood how there can be an American chain of Mexican Restaurants called “Pancho Villa.” There aren’t any “Sam Austin Steak Houses” or “General Pershing Delicatessens” down in Mexico, I don’t think.
    Thank you also to Roger McGrath – I only know Leo Carrillo from some episodes of the Cisco Kid that I saw a long while back. Never heard of the Uplifters Club. I confess, ignorant of anything else and relying on my High School Spanish, I would’ve guessed “Cah-ree-o,” too.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I too loved the Cisco Kid, when I was a boy. I’d probably still like it–I am even fonder of Hopalong Cassidy today than I was in childhood. Roger and I may have talked about this at some point, but, as I recall, some of the scenes of One-Eyed Jacks were filmed in Leo Carillo State Park (or some such name.) It’s not a perfect film by any means, though there are wonderful scenes, written by Calder Willingham, a good Southern novelist who used to subscribe and donate to “the magazine”.

  6. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Leo Carillon State Beach, Malibu. The movie is available on Amazon Prime.

    Just purchased a couple of used Willingham novels and recorded The Strange One from TCM for later viewing.