About two months ago, I opined that, while it's fun to harp on subjects like video-games not including women when they should, or Transformers including teen-angst when it shouldn't, the real world often gets in the way. More specifically, reality occasionally presents us with circumstances and situations so grave and dire as to command our attention and force us to (hopefully) become more introspective and thoughtful about the larger issues of the world. 2012 has offered us more examples of this phenomenon in action than any other year of my (admittedly short) life; yes, even more than 9/11 over a decade ago. I say this because, I can't remember a year more tarnished by violent crime stories (publicized ones, anyway). It feels as though at least once a month there came a story in the news about a mass murder or a riot gone wrong. Unquestionably, the two that stand out the most (in my mind) this year, are the shootings in Aurora, Colorado this past July, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut barely more than a day ago, as of this writing. They had much in common which helps them stick in the memory: both were the actions of lone gunmen who slaughtered dozens in order to satisfy what can only be described as a twisted desire, and in both cases they took the lives of children and families unrelated to them as a part of their "campaign" to achieve their goals.
I don't want to dwell on how sick and vile the actions of these obviously very disturbed young men were, since I don't think anyone would dispute or question that. And, in all honesty, it's not the part of this that sickens me the most. While I fully sympathize with the families whose lives are, at best, shattered by their actions, I find myself much more aghast at the baffling number of debates that sprung up like weeds across the internet in the wake of these killings. Now, I'm as big a proponent of open debate and argument as you can get, but even I am sincerely disturbed by the amount of moralizing, proselytizing and condemnation of one another that has made itself known. In the end, what I write here today may serve as merely another voice amid the din, but I am compelled to weigh in, so to speak, on some of the various arguments I have heard over the last 24 hours that purport to be in the service of "solving our problem". As such, this will not be a conventional essay, but rather a point-by-point reaction piece. I can't promise I'll have an answer of my own to all of the questions this will raise, but where possible, I'll provide my suggestion. I had hoped to use this format for an entirely different purpose, but, as I already mentioned, reality beckons.
"We Must Improve our Care of the Mentally Ill"
This argument, I actually have no real gripe with as presented. The human mind is a very complex and misunderstood thing, and it requires extensive study to grasp even it's most fundamental components. As such, it's understandable that we have a fairly unimpressive system in place (in the USA, at least - I cannot speak for those of you living outside our semi-dysfunctional little piece of the globe) for dealing with mentally ill people. It becomes doubly problematic when a significant portion (and I don't use that word lightly - ask your local statistician) of that "ill" population become violent as a consequence of their condition. Just so we're clear: the people responsible for incidents like Sandy Hook and Aurora are clearly mentally ill. I don't have a degree in psychology or an MD, but it doesn't take advanced education (I'd say 8th grade is probably sufficient, really) to see that these are the actions of people whose minds plainly do not work properly. Simply put, healthy people do not solve their problems through murder, and as such these two and the thousands out there like them, qualify as mentally ill.
Like I already said, I think it's unquestionable that we should improve our understanding of and care for individuals like this, but this question actually skirts a deeper and much more complicated issue. How do you find these people to care for them in the first place? One of the things that makes such individuals so frightening and unsettling is that their "improper" thinking grants them a kind of advantage over the majority of the population in that they are capable of moving through our social structures and behaving in ways that the rest of us couldn't even imagine. Put more simply, since they don't think like us, they're incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to predict. There's an especially twisted irony to the Aurora murderer's chosen moniker of "Joker" in that the character whose name he adopted is an anarchist whose atrocities are so frightening because they are "designed" to be utterly unpredictable and extremely lethal while coming from directions and places we always believed were safe; like for example a movie theater or a school-house. With that in mind, I'm forced to ask: what improvements would be required, and what would we need to do to actually implement them in an effective way? I don't have a good answer, but mostly because I feel the question itself hasn't been properly put. There's little I can add to the discussion besides the caution that we can't afford to overlook the fact that the chaotic nature of such twisted minds provides obstacles that are extremely difficult to overcome.
"The Media Should be More Responsible for Keeping Violence and Violent Content from Young People"
I mostly heard this kind of "solution" in connection with the Aurora massacre, but I've already started to see threads pop-up where people are starting to ask "Was he playing violent games or watching violent movies?" and I think it's important to nip this particularly dumb argument in the bud. In all fairness, the argument is usually used as a short-hand for "I believe there is a connection between violent imagery in the media and violent behavior in individuals who consume such", and I can't preclude that possibility. BUT, the trouble with this line of reasoning is that it is exclusively a possibility at this point in the research. To wit: no study has conclusively demonstrated a causal link between, say, violent games and violent crimes, but they also have not disproved any such connections either. In accordance, this particular line of reasoning needs to be filed into the same kind of "possible scenarios" as "I could be hit by a bus tomorrow"; it's technically true, but practically irrelevant.
While it's absolutely the case that exposure to something like The Dark Knight may have been the proverbial straw for the Aurora shooter, there's no way to have known that before hand. No one creates violent content in their entertainment with the knowledge that it would inspire anybody to commit unspeakable acts. Anders Behring Breivik (the perpetrator of the Oslo Massacre in Norway in 2011) claimed to have used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (a first-person-shooter game, for those who don't know) as a "training simulation" for his eventual slaughter of dozens of men, women, and children. While that is undeniably "a link" between his behavior and "violence in games", it's not the same thing as stating that "the violence in the game caused his violent behavior in reality", and it's definitely not the case that anyone at Treyarch (the studio that produces the franchise) was thinking that it would. As I previously mentioned, these people "think badly" about the world around them, and aren't subject to the same influences on their behavior as "normal" people. The banning or censoring of media content, might slow down these kinds of people, but they certainly won't stop them, and they aren't causally linked in the way the argument seems to want them to be. We really need to abandon this line of thinking. Entertainment is not problematic because it portrays unsavory things; people are problematic for failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
"Other Countries Don't Have As Many Gun-Related Deaths as the US"
Again, as presented, all I can say is "facts are facts"; this one is just plain true. If you read the statistics published (and you trust them, as I do) you'll see that the United States simply has a MUCH higher rate of gun-related violence and deaths as a result of gunfire than many developed countries. We aren't always the worst, but we're firmly in the higher rankings in terms of "Number of Gun-Related Deaths". There's NO disputing this no matter what political agenda you claim to support. Numbers don't lie. Having said that, people most assuredly do, and people can use raw numbers to justify just about anything for just about any agenda, even where it's not appropriate. I'll deal with gun-control in just a moment, but before we address that oh-so-delightful topic in detail, I do have something to add to this "Other-Country Comparison" argument that I never hear in these kinds of debates (at least not sanely). The US is a nation born of gunfire. Calm down, now. I don't intend to justify our clear and present obsession with firer-arms, the second amendment and "gun-play"; I only intend to explain why the international comparison isn't as sound as many (myself included) would like it to be. Even if we decide to narrow the range of compared nations down to just "Western Civilization", the comparison doesn't really hold up upon inspection from a historical perspective.
If we look at the history of warfare in, say, Europe, (which I will now attempt in as short a window as possible, so please don't take this as anything other than a very incomplete summary) we can see that it evolved along a very clear progression of advancements in technology. From the simple brawl, to the blade, to the bow-and-arrow, to the first guns (around the time of the Renaissance), Europe's international warfare followed what could only be described as the natural progression of violence. Tools grew more complex as the wars and the reasons to fight them became more complicated. In essence, by the time the nations of Europe had firearms, they had already established a sort of national appreciation for and understanding of "The Art of War". No matter how you may feel about that particular concept, it's clear that European scholars of all stripes were attempting to understand conflict between nations as something approximating a "civilized practice" that had rules, and behavioral restrictions. Thus, the advent of the gun was merely the introduction of new possibilities and applications for warfare at a given level. In essence, the mental discipline of the civilized warrior is established and functional, and all that was changed was the tool of conflict.
The United States, on the other hand, came into existence fairly late in the game of life. At not even 300 years old, the USA doesn't have the centuries of development and sociopolitical evolution behind it that Europe does. "But the US began life as a European colony!" I hear you say. True, but that's actually part of the problem. The US came to existence well after the advent of the gun and was born as a response to English tyranny. With guns already established in that era as the tool of choice for combat, the not-as-established colonists of the new world (as opposed to those whose lives are part of a lineage going back centuries), looked to the gun as a symbol of empowerment and freedom from oppression. In short: the US was created from violent rebellion. From its very inception, the commitment to and positive association with guns was an integral part of the American identity. It's so engrained, that we have an entire amendment to our constitution specifically stating that people have a right to such weaponry. So is it unreasonable to feel that America's gun-related death rate is too high? Not at all. But, I will say that attempts to point at other parts of the world are slightly less apt than they might seem. With a history of gun violence going back to the very founding of the nation, it's only natural that modern-day America would cling to it's fondness for guns and the sense of power they instill in many of its citizens.
"Gun Control Laws Must Become Harsher/Gun Control Laws Should Not Be Changed"
And with that "history" in mind, let's get into this. This is obviously the biggest, and most contentious issue to have emerged in the wake of these tragedies. It's an endless back-and-forth with proponents of gun-control claiming that the laws should be made more strict so as to limit gun sales, and their detractors arguing that either the laws won't stop the problem or that more guns would have helped prevent these incidents. Neither side ever gains much ground and the arguments proceed on ad infinitum with both sides simply making a case and then either talking past the opposition or refusing to acknowledge some critical detail that might yield some change in thought.
In the interest of full disclosure, here's where I'm coming from psychologically: I hate guns. Not weapons, mind you; I have no problem with tools of combat in principle. I collect swords and knives, I play violent games, watch violent movies and TV, and I'm not against some members of society having guns of their own. What I hate about guns is the level of removal required for one to use a gun as a tool of conflict. The physical usage of the gun requires a level of removal from your own conflict that I consider to be both dishonorable and more importantly, psychologically unsettling. As I may have mentioned back in October, I don't object to open conflict, but I do object to the removal of oneself from said conflict. Basically, what I'm getting at is that guns remove YOU from your own conflict and thus dehumanize the situation and rob it of any meaning it might have possessed. What sword-combat or even a basic fist-fight have over guns is that they force the participants to confront one another and remain intimately involved in the nature of combat. This "human element" to violence is essential to keeping conflict "civilized" if you believe such a thing is possible.
So where do I stand on gun control? Well, it's best summarized as follows: Reinstate the Military Draft Policy. No, I'm not kidding. It's quite obvious to me that as a nation, the United States will never give up its guns. It's equally obvious that "gun rights" have enough of a lobby in Washington to remain where they are with minimal intervention. As I already said, I don't actually object to people possessing guns, but I am opposed to perpetuating a culture that misunderstand, mistreats, and abuses the privilege and responsibility of owning such a dangerous tool. I firmly believe that part of the "gun-happiness" associated with American culture comes from the fact that while we extol the virtues (historically and presently) of possessing firearms, we don't reinforce the idea that to do so is to take on a tremendous burden. But you know what demographic (on the whole; there are always exceptions) seems to really understand the responsibility associated with guns? Soldiers.
Had the US kept the Draft, I firmly believe that this romantic attachment to guns would be diminished at this point in our history. If a comparison must be made to other nations (for example Switzerland) and their treatment of guns, this would be the sticking point. Nearly all of those "better than us" nations have a mandatory military service policy. Soldiers don't treat their guns as the tool of personal empowerment we often think of them as. These are the implements by which these brave men and women must survive their circumstances. No glory-seeking, no one-man army heroism; these are people who use guns to protect themselves, their allies, and indeed their entire country from harm that might befall them. I submit to you that were military service mandatory in the US, we would see a noticeable decrease in gun-related violence and a lot fewer incidents like the ones in Aurora and Sandy Hook.
Something Must Change
Time for my contribution to the discussion. It's undeniable that this issue is incredibly complex and obviously my lone suggestion is no more guaranteed to work than any other. But to bring this all back to where we came from, the real problem with the gun-control discussion is that it always results in inaction. It doesn't have to be my suggestion that gets implemented, but something must be. Those who would say "don't bother, cause it won't change anything" are essentially insisting that the way things are is acceptable. It's certainly possible that stricter gun laws might not improve matters, but doing nothing certainly won't. The only way things ever change is if we take action to change it. So it must be with guns, or we condemn ourselves to our present circumstances and nothing more.
I can't possibly imagine what must be going through the minds of the people whose lives were up-ended on the days of these tragic events. But I can tell you what each and every one of them will think eventually: something must be done so that this never happens again. Like any good realist (or cynic, depending on perspective, I suppose) I know we'll never be rid of incidents like these completely, but that's not an excuse to not try. I don't claim to know what needs to change, but I know that we can't accept the way things are. Reality, simply put, isn't good enough....yet. Hard as it may be, we need to use moments like these as a time to seriously think about change. It's inevitable that things will change, anyway; shouldn't we want it to be for the better? Perhaps more critically, shouldn't we want it to change on our terms?
Please feel free to use the comments to add your thoughts on the matter or even to express your feelings in the wake of the recent tragedy. My heart goes out to all the survivors and their families. I can't begin to comprehend your pain, and I hope, perhaps against hope itself, that it is short-lived.
I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.