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We Are All Guilty

December 5th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

culture of violence

As I was drawn into the conversation about the event in San Bernardino I found myself caught up in a well-rehearsed dialog that leads to paralysis. We are too often compelled to debate gun violence. It is a difficult subject because it contains so many facets. We focus on so-called “mass shootings” (a shooting in which 4 or more people are killed) because they grab the headlines. But mass shootings occur for various reasons. Some are driven by ideology, some are driven by revenge, and some are driven by motivations we can never discover. So our knee-jerk reaction varies depending on what we learn.

For example, last week there was a mass shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The perpetrator was a white male. If we can believe reports in the mainstream media (and it’s a big if), he seems to have been motivated by an anti-abortion agenda. So the response centered around conservative hyperbole about Planned Parenthood, baby parts, and Christian extremism. A gotcha moment for liberals that left conservatives momentarily disoriented in their response.

Then there was the massacre in San Bernardino, perpetrated by two Muslims (one US born and the other an immigrant). We still don’t know the full story of what motivated them (and may never know), but we have a different script when Muslims are involved. What happened in Colorado was not terrorism, it was an insane act by a troubled individual, but what happened in California was terrorism, part of a worldwide conspiracy to impose Islamic law, abetted (incredibly, I actually saw people openly argue that Obama was to blame) by the President of the United States.

I don’t have to go into the details of the arguments, we all pretty much have them memorized. If we were to look at each one rationally (rationality being an ingredient in grievously short supply in American rhetoric), we would find most of the arguments ridiculous. But rationality no longer matters. We are scripted. The scripts are written by political hacks and media pundits and repeated parrot-like by partisans on either “side” of the national discourse.

One way we can realize the extent to which we are manipulated is by the fact that we react to mass shootings but don’t bat an eye at the fact that close to 100 people a day are killed by guns in the United States. We have to wonder whether if those 100 deaths all occurred in a single event our response would be so muted.

But anyway, I found myself getting caught up in an argument about statistics. It is a pointless and unwinnable argument because we can always find statistics to confirm what we want to know, and even if not we can make some up, which occurs far more often than we would like to admit. But arguing about statistics misses the point entirely. What arguing about statistics does is draw people into unwinnable arguments that they eventually tire of, and gun violence continues unabated.

So, rather than falling into the same old pattern, let’s try something different. Rather than pointing the finger at those we live to disagree with and obfuscating, let’s see if we can agree on anything.

Can we agree that gun violence is a problem? Leave aside whether guns kill people or people kill people. Leave aside whether more or less than 100 people are killed by guns every day in any other country. Is it acceptable that close to 100 of our fellow citizens are killed every day by guns? If you think that’s OK, then the conversation is over. If there isn’t a problem, then why waste any effort trying to solve it?

If we agree that gun violence is a problem, can we agree that we must act to solve the problem? Leave aside, for a moment, what the solution might look like, but just consider whether it is worth our time and attention to try to solve the problem. If we believe the problem is insoluble, then the conversation is over. Let the blood flow.

But if we can agree on these two things: gun violence a problem, and we should act to solve it, then the next step is to have a dialog about what the solution might look like. Not a finger pointing contest, a dialog.

Many believe restricting or banning access to assault weapons is the solution. Others see any attempt to restrict access to guns as a violation of constitutional rights. Neither one of these is accurate (assault weapons account for about 1.5% of gun deaths per year, and the Second Amendment has never been interpreted by the Judiciary to guarantee unrestricted access to weapons), but if we entrench on these points, we can never find common ground.

The dilemma we are facing has little to do with law and much to do with heart. We condemn mass shootings but probably never stop to consider how many people are killed every day in our entertainment media. Nearly every television show ends with a car chase and a shootout. If the good guys win, what’s wrong with gun violence? Youth culture venerates violence, from gang motivated music to increasingly realistic “games” where players can live out bloody fantasies. No, TV shows, youth music, and video games aren’t the problem. They are symptoms of the problem, which is that as a culture we glorify violence. If we are going to address gun violence, we are going to have to address the overall culture of violence. Which means a cultural change of heart.

At first glance it seems impossible, and no doubt the undertaking will be daunting. But Americans have been able to address destructive attitudes in the past. Americans have been able to come to substantial agreement and make real strides in reducing deaths related to tobacco and drunk driving. Americans have erased from law and have been able to make substantial progress in erasing from fact the stubborn racial prejudices that have plagued our nation from the beginning. None of these problems have been “solved,” but as a people we have agreed that they need to be solved, and acted on that belief, and made progress.

There are things we can do to address gun violence. We will not be able to “solve” it but we can make progress. Indeed, we are compelled by concern for our own and by our concern for humanity to address this issue. Wake up people. As we hide in the comfort of our ideological trenches, our fellow citizens are paying the price in blood.

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