Monday, December 17, 2012

Explicable School Massacres—Violence is American as Apple Pie

The horrific tragedy at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School last week sickened the nation and was particularly appalling, as most of its victims were between the ages of 5 and 10. AFL-CIO Boss Richard Trumka lamented the “inexplicable horror” of the massacre, while President Obama called for “meaningful action” to stop the seemingly endless wave of violence (e.g., Wisconsin Sikh temple, Colorado movie theater, and California’s Oikos University massacres earlier this year).

Even though the shooter’s motives are not yet known, there is much that is explicable about the incident, contrary to Trumka’s claims to the contrary. For example, it is probably safe to generalize that a person who walks into an elementary school and slaughters twenty young children is disturbed, if not insane. Apparently, there is some indication that family members were aware of his emotional troubles.

Whether or not they had tried and failed to get him the help he needed, the fact is that it is unnecessarily difficult and expensive to obtain behavioral or mental health care in this country. There are long waiting lists to get into addiction treatment centers. There are millions of Americans who have no health insurance and millions more who have such poor quality insurance that they cannot see a competent practitioner for such routine conditions as depression or anxiety.

While we are unlikely to ever eradicate mental illness, we could significantly reduce the rare acts of violence and relatively common fear, depression, anxiety and relational problems that accompany mental illness with a comprehensive health care system that provided free and accessible physical and mental healthcare to everyone.

Another simple solution would be to enact stringent gun control laws. The U.S. remains the only wealthy country in the world in which guns can be so cheaply and easily obtained, and it continues to have the highest rate of gun deaths because of this. According to the New York Times, American kids are 13 times more likely to be gunned down than kids in other industrialized nations. Overall, there are 30,000 gun-related deaths each year in the U.S. The Connecticut gunman apparently walked into his mother’s home, grabbed a few of her numerous weapons, killed her and then let loose in the elementary school—something that would have been far more difficult if guns were not so readily accessible.

It is ironic that Obama made his most recent school massacre address from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, named for Reagan’s press secretary who was shot and permanently disabled in a 1981 assassination attempt. Brady has since become a strong advocate for tougher gun control laws. Yet during Obama’s press briefing, his own press secretary, Jay Carney, said this was “not the day for a debate on gun control” and, as president, Obama has consistently refused to make any serious attempt to strengthen gun control laws. Furthermore, Obama is the first U.S. president to assert the right to assassinate anyone anywhere in the world, including U.S. citizens, having killed well over 3,000 people, mostly civilians, with drone attacks under his watch--hardly the actions of a president who wants to take meaningful action to stem the wave of violence.

Also not on the table for discussion are the numerous other national social dysfunctions that that contribute to violence in our communities. For example, pundits and advocates for children often decry violent video games, movies and music videos, but there is no evidence that any of these things increases the chances that a child will be violent toward his peers or as an adult. However, there is considerable evidence that adults sent into battle sometimes come home and behave violently toward their families, coworkers or random individuals. Yet, rather than increasing diplomacy and decreasing warfare, the U.S. has been doing the opposite over the past few decades, attacking Granada, Panama, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, just to name a few. And while there is increasing acknowledgement by the military of the causes and consequences of PTSD, suicide rates in the military and wait times for access to VA services remain high.

In addition to the occasional acts of violence that can be directly linked to the post-traumatic stress that often accompanies combat, the cultures of the military and police are about social control through physical coercion and, if necessary, lethal force. Soldiers and police are trained to shoot to kill. Suspects and enemies who do not cooperate fully and quickly are physically assaulted. Thus, it should come as no surprise that rape in the military occurs far more often than in the general population. In 2010, 19,000 soldiers were sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers and an estimated 20% of all female soldiers are sexually assaulted during their service in the military. In the general population, rapes are estimated to occur at a far lower rate (some studies suggest fewer than 1 per 100,000 people annually).

However, even for civilians, violence is often a normal part of life. For example, the majority of cases of violence and sexual assault against children are perpetrated by adult members of their own families, often on a regular and ongoing basis. Equally banal is the violence and threatened violence faced by women, people of color and gay and transgendered people—violence that is rooted in bigotry, but that is facilitated by lax law enforcement and prosecution and by right wing punditry and religious intolerance.

Capitalism, itself, also contributes to violence. For example, corporations weigh the costs of litigation versus potential profits when determining how safe to make their products, with the consequence that consumers are often killed or maimed by defective products. Some corporations—particularly those operating in poorer countries—facilitate or participate directly in violence against their employees and community members (see here and here for just 2 examples). However, U.S. corporations have a long and sordid history of killing American workers in the name of profits (e.g., Ludlow Massacre, Homestead Strike, also see Modern School’s Labor History Timeline for many more examples), while they often kill and maim their employees through speed-ups, poor maintenance and law safety precautions.

Regardless of whether one has a good job, or a job at all, the capitalist system creates a division of wealth and power that leads to want, privation and uncertainty for the majority. This frequently makes people feel cheated and angry, though their anger is often misplaced and directed against fellow workers or family members instead of the bosses.

In response to this most recent school shooting, the only change we are likely to see is increased vigilance by school districts (indeed, we are already seeing this), with improvements in their protocols for dealing with intruders and other emergencies. While this is an important precaution that can reduce the amount of harm done by an intruder (or a violent insider), it will not end school rampages if the other causes of violence are ignored and weapons remain so accessible.

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