Americans claim to be appalled by mass shootings. We talk about it, that’s all. But while gun deaths rise and media blathers on about gun controls, the problem is culture. Violence is interwoven into the fabric of American culture as an approved form for solving problems.
Where are we to be safe? Where can I go with my family and not worry about becoming more numbers on a page no one reads, part of more statistics on violence in America? Statistics our leaders tell us not to overreact seeing, reading, or becoming. Nowhere in this country is safe. Not my church. Not the cinema. Not at the mall. Certainly not my children and grandchildren at elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. Nowhere is safe, not at my workplace, not at my church, not at the park or on the playground, and not even in my own home!
On November 18, 2012, a deranged young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and in a few moments killed 20 children and six staff members and we were horrified, but nothing changed.
Sandy Hook was only a moment in a never-ending parade of carnage and killing that has taken over American society and culture, but no one has the will or the courage to buck the flow of money from gun companies and others who profit from this violence and see it as a way of acquiring the means to amassing both money and power over the rest of us.
Since the Sandy Hook Elementary attack in 2012, the violence has continued to spread from Las Vegas to Texas, Florida, and into every part of our country. The violence, murder, and mayhem are more than you would expect to see or experience in several lifetimes. In the United States, it has become our new normal.
The first image I saw from Florida after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 was two mothers sharing the grief of their collective loss. I looked at the TV and my computer screen and saw mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters crying and in angst.
In February 2018, a shooter killed 17 people and injured 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I saw students holding each other, crying, and terrorized just for going to school! What is going on? What is wrong with us? We are SICK!
The responses that followed were entirely predictable. First, some cried for more controls and restrictions on being able to have and acquire these weapons. The second was from those who advocate fewer restrictions on guns and suggest the solution is to arm everyone. The truth is more complex. It isn’t only about guns. It is about a culture of violence, a culture that sees violence as entertainment. We are a culture in which entertainment from morning until night is about violence, violence, violence. We Americans are addicted to it. We lust for it. If you don’t believe me, go to any theater complex, look at what’s playing and watch what people are paying to see.
In the late 1980s, the nation was shocked and sickened by the brutal barroom rape of a young woman in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Later our attention and anger were refocused on that outrage when the local Portuguese community came out to support and defend those responsible. The men were found guilty at trial and were subsequently sentenced for the crime. I was glad to see these men received what they deserved, but I was confused and angered by strong community reaction and support in their defense. Why did the community condone this violence, and why did this outrageous act turn into an ethnic issue?
Rape should never have become an ethnic issue. While I am not familiar with all the facts of the New Bedford case, it seems the ethnic issue was introduced through the reporting of the various print and broadcast media. It is difficult to see the relevance the defendant’s ethnicity had to the crime, or how reporting it made us better informed. Hopefully, it was a case of bad judgment, but it is tempting to conclude the issue was raised not to inform but to sell more newspapers and raise interest in the network and local evening news shows.
How is it possible to make criminals into martyrs and heroes? Is it because minorities having suffered through long periods of injustice and oppression and are accustomed to harassment by the authorities? They come to believe their convicted brothers are innocent victims of the oppressive majority. The Texas case of Lenell Geter comes to mind. A young black professional, Geter was accused of committing an armed robbery at a fast-food restaurant nearly an hour’s drive from his work. It took national public attention and lawyers working over sixteen months to finally free him from prison. Now the authorities say they know Geter was innocent, and they have another suspect. Perhaps there is a clue to why over 6,000 Portuguese Americans marched in the streets of New Bedford in protest of the convictions in the barroom violence.
Violence is the issue, although most of us don’t want to admit it. Violence and how we learn to live with and use it as an acceptable method for solving life’s problems is the pith of the matter. Violence is so interwoven into the fabric of American culture as an approved form of behavior for individuals, groups, and nations; we scarcely notice how much it is part of us. It is part of our attitudes about sex, race, and our everyday interaction with others. As Americans, we are fascinated with it. Our entertainment industry glorifies it. The toys, video, and computer games our children play are dominated by it. We measure our strength as nations by the size and sophistication of our military hardware.
Until the Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Michael Moore’s documentary, I believed strong gun controls would help solve the problem. Moore showed me I was wrong. It isn’t about guns. Canadians have more guns per capita than do Americans. They don’t go around shooting each other for sport the way we Americans do. What is different about Canada and Canadians is that they don’t have the culture of fear we do in America. Our culture of fear goes back to our founding and the introduction of African slaves. The slave owners needed ways of keeping people afraid, so the institution of slavery could flourish. American politicians have used fear as a primary weapon ever since.
Our lust for an insatiable appetite for violence is more recent. It is another form of control, but this one has gone awry. We Americans, as journalist, essayist, satirist, and cultural critic H.L. Mencken reportedly said, “have a positive lust for the hideous.” Look how violence permeates every nook and cranny of our culture and our lives. It is the TV we watch, the movies we see, and the sports we watch. Mere boxing wasn’t enough for us. We had to invent new forms where men or women put themselves in cages with essentially no rules and beat each other senselessly. WE ARE SICK!
Should I be surprised a sick individual armed for war entered an elementary school and executed, yes executed 20 children and 26 people in total. What is it that makes us believe we have the right to seek resolution of our deranged grievance by entering an elementary school and executing the innocent? More importantly, why is it we talk all around the problem, the issue, by diverting attention to gun control or the mass arming of everyone instead of examining the culture that created this monster? How long are we willing to continue sticking our heads in a hole and pretending there is nothing wrong with allowing the promotion and worship of violence?
I was in absolute pain watching the Sandy Hook Elementary event unfold and seeing the kids and the parents connected to this school react to what happened. It pulled at the very core of who we are as human beings living in a free and open society. A week before this tragedy I had gone to see Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln. I was moved to tears by the raw humanity of an individual who believed in our best and passionately believed what we were trying to build was worth the sacrifice of lives.
Somewhere we have lost sight of that vision. We have traded the vision of what we can be for the perversion of whom we have made ourselves.
Man has been practicing violence upon himself and his environment for millennia. Perhaps brute force once had a crude survival value. The first weapon was one of man’s first tools. Weapons were another use for those sticks and stones man first employed for more benign use, or was it the other way around? Philosopher William Irwin Thompson observed, “Our supreme excellence is often our tragic flaw.” Those things we used to build also destroy. It is the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang.
Violence may be judged to be a natural, normal, an inescapable part of human behavior. Few other species of this earth practice violence on themselves as we humans do, and none of the others have within their grasp the power and the tools to destroy all life. Our own special responsibility to life should be to find a way to put an end to the savagery we find so tempting.
What has all this to do with rape? Rape is but one manifestation of violent behavior. It is a small piece of a larger pattern that begins with the child. We all are aware small children can throw toys and hit playmates when angered. Perhaps this is an indication of our supposed innate aggressive nature, but I do not believe it. A part of parenting is recognizing unacceptable behavior and teaching our children ways of channeling anger and aggression into desired forms of expression. Bellicosity in young children is most often something felt for an instant and dealt with quickly. Anger is expressed, and it is gone. As we get older, we learn new and subtler ways of directing hostility. By the time we are adults, we are expected not to display inappropriate conduct. Custom, experience, and law carefully control our pugnacity. Only criminals and armies practice violence indiscriminately.
Violence, in any form, remains a short-term solution to a problem. Man has built marvelous machines, acquired mountains of knowledge and information, but his collective wisdom lags far behind. We are, maybe, a little wiser than the classical Greeks of 2,500 years ago. Our civilization, like the adolescent child, has acquired all the physical stature and knowledge of adulthood. Like adolescents, we lack the maturity that comes with the acquisition of knowledge and life experience. We act like maladjusted teenagers, rebelling against our parents (nature) and our own self-interests as we tempt the gods with the fire we hold in our hands.
Brain research has revealed the mind as a pattern-making device. Our minds make patterns based upon the kinds of experiences we have with the world, so when a similar problem arises, the mind invokes the appropriate pattern in response. In this way, we are saved from the costly and time-consuming process of constructing new patterns. It is very advantageous to the organism, but it also possesses a dark side. The patterns, once made, are hard to alter or change. We become locked into a particular way of thinking and solving problems. Without some way of being able to change the pattern, no amount of new information will help. We simply continue to use the old one to process information so that the result remains the same. As Albert Einstein noted long ago, we will not solve problems using the same thinking that created them. We need to change the way we think and perceive violence.
Violence is a potential within us as a part of our being, but it is an infantile quality. It is a reactive quality. As such, it is subject to being shaped and altered by learning processes. We need to find new ways of un-teaching violence as an acceptable form of problem-solving. It is time we advanced our collective wisdom out of the Stone Age and search for different ways of resolving problems and conflicts arising between human beings. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “The long journey starts with the taking of a single step.”
The growing number of shootings and mass murders following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School has continued. There have been numerous other shootings in every part of the U.S. Nothing other than empty talk has been done. There is no political will. So, let us not waste time arguing over gun control. Let us vigorously enforce the laws we have written but not be tempted by those who want to arm everyone. The only winners are gun and ammunition manufacturers and the funeral industry. There are sensible restrictions we should consider on certain types of weaponry. However, the more critical issue is culture. We need to change our appetites. We need to take the violence out of entertainment. I am not suggesting all violence, but certainly the gratuitous kind seen with today’s movies that have little plot, no character development, and are little more than on violent scene stacked on another. We can take the violence out of sports where it does not belong anyway. The alternative is a slow sinking into anarchy. How many children must die? Are the lives lost worth the money made? Are you comfortable knowing you, your children, or other loved ones may be victims of this kind of violence even at home in their own beds? Is this the life you want?