Mass shootings have become a regular occurrence. One response to such tragedies is to shake one’s head and accept that such things are simply inevitable in a complex and heterogeneous society. Another response is to re-examine why these tragedies have become so common and try to do something about it.
I fall firmly into the second camp. I can’t and won’t accept perpetual violence as the “new normal.” I view frequent violence (often involving guns) as one very unfortunate symptom of a pervasive and growing sickness in our culture: an embrace of violence as a means to an end. This embrace of violence seems to spring from an even deeper problem: a pervasive despair and inability to find meaning in today’s world.
Obviously, much of the violence that takes place in the United States doesn’t involve guns. Yes, guns are a big part of the problem, because they raise the potential for harm so high when compared to other forms of violence. I support sensible gun control, but I’m not going to focus on that issue here. Rather, I’m going to examine the broader issues related to violence that transcend the gun control debate.
We can’t ignore the international context of violence in our discussion. The U.S. has fought dozens of wars during its history, and our military actions have directly and indirectly killed many millions of people around the world. Reliable studies of excess casualties in the Iraq War alone found more than a million excess deaths (deaths over and above the background rate prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003) resulted from our invasion. This history is very much a part of our cultural embrace of violence as a means to an end.
It is human nature to care less about people far removed from our daily life, but these victims of violence are as much our responsibility as the violent deaths of Americans by Americans. Our complacency toward the victims of our military actions are part of what ails our society.
Turning back to the role of violence within our own borders, more than 38,000 Americans took their own life in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. This amounts to about 12 deaths per 100,000 people. Half of these suicides were achieved with guns, about a quarter by suffocation (including hanging), and the rest by poisoning or other means. In the U.S., suicide rates for men are about four times higher than for women. Needless to say, the vast majority of violent crime is also committed by men.
The 38,000 suicides each year are one of the more obvious manifestations of our embrace of violence — in this case, an embrace of violence against oneself. It is also too frequently the case that suicides become murder-suicides as suicidally depressed men (it’s almost always men) decide to take out other people along with themselves.
What lies behind the increase in suicides and the increase in depression and anxiety in our nation? No one really knows, but it seems that a very likely candidate is the fragmentation and isolation that has become far more common in recent decades. These trends have been driven by an increasingly mobile culture that must move to find new jobs or for education. We have also become more fragmented due to technology that makes us both more independent but more isolated as we entertain ourselves in personal technological bubbles and rely less and less on other people for our living needs.
Walk through an airport today and literally almost everyone is staring at a smartphone or tablet screen. Almost no one talks to each other anymore in public spaces. It seems that no one even reads books anymore.
Can we trace these trends to Americans’ too-easy embrace of violence? Probably not very directly, but it does seem that all of these trends are intertwined.
More importantly, what do we do about these problems? There are no easy solutions to these problems, and perhaps what I recommend below is naïve. But we’ve got to do something other than give in to apathy. I suggest a number of small steps that may over time help to mitigate our too-violent cultural tendencies.
First, I urge people to avoid overly violent movies or games. Just pass them by and urge your friends not to patronize these types of media. I’m not advocating any government censorship. To the contrary, I’m advocating personal choices for the betterment of all.
Second, I recommend volunteering at a community organization of your choice. Through volunteering and other forms of civic engagement, we strengthen community ties and help to weave a social fabric that supports all people. This, in turn, can reduce the alienation and isolation that is the root of so much depression.
Third, meditation can be a reliable tool for clearing the mind, improving the ability to focus, and also act as a path for finding self-worth within ourselves independent of any social status or external rewards. Meditation in group settings also encourages the social ties mentioned just above.
Last, I urge people to become more engaged in our civic culture more generally. Find your passion and work to improve things. Vote more. Read more. Talk more. Get into politics. Pay more attention to our military impact around the world. The U.S. has been the “global cop” for a long time, but with no one to watch the watcher, our actions aren’t always wise and our leaders often ignore the long-lasting impacts on entire countries that incur our wrath. It’s no coincidence that Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the targets of our massive military ability in the last decade, are all in shambles.
Violence is rarely a solution for anything. I am not, however, a strict pacifist. I agree that violence should be used to defend ourselves, individually and collectively. But there are very few circumstances other than strict defense where violence is justified. If we can work to create a culture that values human life of all types, and not just American lives, by providing opportunities for civic and social engagement and for creating personal meaning, we may be able to reduce the too-ready embrace of violence that is increasingly the hallmark of American culture.
— Tam Hunt is owner of Community Renewable Solutions, a consultancy and law firm specializing in community-scale renewables. Community Renewable Solutions can help developers navigate this complicated field and provide other development advice relating to interconnection, net metering, procurement and land use. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.