This lament by Lisa Belkin in yesterday’s Huffington Post is self-evidently true. Our hearts have been broken over and over — at Columbine, in Denver, in Colorado, just a week ago in Portland; yet the litany goes on. According to a study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, the gun murder rate in the U.S. is almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined. Evidently the ‘copycat’ effect of mass murders that have lead up to this great tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School — elementary school! — is stronger than the grief those of us who are not simply benumbed endure.
What will keep this from happening again? The only answer — which we have yet to consider — is to identify the underlying cause behind such tragedies, and resolve it. This won’t be an easy fix; it will need some soul-searching; but it will feel a lot better than our present helpless drift punctuated by these unbearable, numbing shocks.
Let’s begin with the fact just mentioned: that the gun murder rate in our country is an order of magnitude higher than that of all comparable societies. This statistic should sound familiar. Our country also has a shockingly higher rate of incarceration than comparable nations (and is one of the very few holdouts that still practices execution). We also spend more on war fighting and weaponry, and do more cross-border killing with all that weaponry, than most of the rest of the world combined (and are one of the few holdouts still practicing torture — though we’ve begun backing a way a bit just recently). Seeing this pattern it is hard to gainsay the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he bemoaned the fact that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” was his own government.
Unfortunately, violence is the kind of goods where the greatest purveyor is also the greatest consumer. That is a law of life and no amount of misplaced pride or arcane ideology can help us avoid it. We cannot rely on violence to save us from violence — that is the elementary logic gun advocates dare not face. We cannot go on relying on violence to keep our streets safe, or our nation safe, or our schools safe, without more and more of us dying by the same sword.
For when we “buy into” the logic of violence, we buy it at a deep, cultural — we might almost say spiritual level, namely by buying into the myth that we are separate, physical objects, and ignoring the deep, spiritual connection that in fact makes us human. We now know the exact caliber of a weapon the deranged killer used to kill his mother and take a swath of young life with her, and we are trying to ascertain his motive. But the caliber of the weapon is irrelevant and the motive that the police will be looking for is secondary. What we need to know about Adam Lanza is that he was deeply, deeply alienated and that he lived in a culture that is alienating every one of us. For him, other people were not people, but ciphers in his own tortured drama; but we who have been practicing violence in so many ways created an environment that not only failed to win him back to reality but resonated with his illness — and gave him all the weaponry to act it out.
So if we want to honor our grief in a way that’s truly meaningful, by doing everything in our power to stop the epidemic, we must:
- enact powerful gun-control legislation at every level, state and national, to bring us in line with other civilized countries, and
- not stop there.
We also have to liberate ourselves from the alienating climate of violence that has crept up on us to the point that it now pervades everything from our “entertainment” media to our foreign policy. Wherever it has come in, we need to push it out: if it’s in movies, boycott them; if it’s guns flooding the nation, outlaw them; if it’s barbaric incarceration rates and death penalties, educate, lobby and protest — and if it’s pilotless drones, “secret renditions” and policies of endless war, never, never vote for candidates that support them.
This amounts to a total, inspiring campaign. It doesn’t require us to live in a cultural vacuum, though it may feel like that at first — or make us defenseless. On the contrary; none of these hydra-headed manifestations of violence can really be removed unless we first show people alternatives. And fortunately, these are many, and they’ve worked beautifully where they’ve been tried. Personally, after seeing every violence-free movie available and still hungering for some legitimate entertainment I found that studying nonviolence — the history, the theory, the heroes and heroines — filled any void that might have been left by action movies. As for incarceration and executions, we can be effective exponents of what’s called restorative justice. And for foreign policy, we can not only nurture peace candidates (yes, there are some) but promote alternatives to warfare like nonviolent intervention (tips on all of these on our website).
These are big changes, but this is not a time for little ones. I predict that if we get underway energetically, some of the worst manifestations of violence, like what happened this week in Connecticut, could wind down fairly quickly. Maybe in my own lifetime. And in any case, now that even elementary schools are not safe, we don’t really have a choice. We can’t keep turning out people who massacre our own children; and we don’t need to. We can get to the root of this problem – violence — and build healthier alternatives within and around us.