December 16, 2012

History of Violence

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.


  1. Part 1:
    Nothing is absolute; nothing exists in any absolute or objective form. Our experience of the world is determined entirely by our own perceptions. For example what is the object we call a pen? For humans who live in places where writing is prevalent, it is generally understood to be a writing instrument. For humans who live in places where there is no writing (probably not many of them anymore), it might be seen as a tool of some kind, maybe something to mark where crops are planted. For dogs, it might be a toy to chew on or kick around or hide. So is it a pen or not? The question cannot be answered definitively, because the answer depends entirely on the perception of the answerer. (Some may quarrel with the word “entirely,” because, for instance, few would encounter a “pen” and perceive it as a “cabbage” or a “tractor,” so perhaps things have some essential nature after all. I don’t know if that’s the case, though I doubt it, but even if it is, the range of possibilities within that essential nature would still be infinite.) Same goes for thoughts, emotions and other intangibles—they are what we perceive them to be. Of course, in order to navigate through the material world, we agree to limit our perceptions to a range that enables us to function in socially-acceptable ways, including ways in which it is (mostly) socially acceptable to break out of those limits, such as artistic, literary, performance and probably other endeavors. But the fact that we agree to narrow our perceptions does not mean that our perceptions are the whole story.

    Moreover, we cannot perceive anything that is not already present in us in some way at some level. If we encounter something for which we truly have no frame of reference, we either recognize that we do not know what it is, in which case it has no power to gladden or disturb us, or we simply fail to notice it, in which case it likewise has no effect on us. We can respond to an object, other living being or situation only based on some previous experience with it—whether the experience is direct, learned or inferred based on other experiences.

    So how to respond to incidents like the Newtown shootings? If we really want to root out violence in the world around us, we must root out violence within us. If we have no violence within us, we cannot perceive violence outside us. That does not mean that there would be violence in the world but we would just not be able to perceive it; it literally means that violence would not exist: nothing exists except to the extent we perceive it; there is no “out there” out there, it is entirely in here. Steps like improving the care of the mentally ill, minimizing or somehow containing the violence depicted through media, restricting access to guns, reinstating the draft, saying prayers for those impacted or holding them in our hearts, etc., would all make some inroads into minimizing violence, but not because they would reduce the violence that exists outside us, because there is no such thing, but because through each of those steps we would be confronting the violence within us and letting a piece of it go; the more we let go, the less we perceive. The effort to eradicate violence is the supremely difficult work of looking inside at the most ugly parts of ourselves and not running away, unrelentingly staring them down and letting them go. It is making choices that the world around us condemns and derides as “counterculture” or “dangerous” in an effort among those who condemn to avoid having to look inside out of fear for what they will find and out of addiction to the measures they’ve employed to anesthetize themselves from what lies within. It is an act of extraordinary courage.

  2. Part 2:
    Each of us must find her or his own way of doing this work, if we want to live in a world of peace; no one can prescribe a method for another. For my own part, I take the steps noted above and discussed in Trevor’s post, though mostly through writing letters, speaking out, voting and donating money, rather than by direct action like running for public office, participating in relevant organizations or engaging in civil disobedience. But the main work that I do and that for me has the greatest power is being vegan. To me, this is the single most effective means of rooting out the violence in me and by extension in the world around me. Every time I make the choice to eat a plant instead of an animal, or wear or otherwise use a plant or synthetic material instead of an animal, I refuse to participate in the unimaginable violence that is perpetrated on other living beings every second of every day, and that choice chips away at the impressive and dismaying store of violence that I carry inside me. Making the choice to forego meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, leather, fur, down, wool, etc., to the fullest extent I can, is an act of looking inside and refusing to give in to the violence I find in there. The way that other animals are treated in the meat, fish and dairy industries is far more horrific, far more violent, than even the shootings in Newtown. I know that is a controversial, almost heretical, statement, but it’s heretical not because it’s untrue, but because it is true but the violence is being perpetrated on other non-human animals. As a culture, we have become addicted and anesthetized to the exploitation of non-human animals; we exalt humans over all other living beings and operate as if the Earth and all its resources belong to us. (I must acknowledge that Uncle Rob saw, and many others see, hypocrisy in this perspective, because eating or using a plant is itself an act of violence. That is true and reveals that it is not possible to remain alive without committing violence to some degree. But we have a choice as to the degree: when I eat a string bean, I am eating only the string bean, but when I eat a cow, I am eating not only the cow itself, but all the string beans and other plants the cow ate over the course of its life. Eating the plant directly involves far, far less violence than eating the animal who ate the plant, and that distinction matters, even though it’s not possible to live entirely without participating in violence.) Incidents like the Newtown shootings generate loud calls for compassion, mostly toward those who were impacted. That is good, of course, but we can practice that same compassion every moment of every day by choosing to let go of violence through our diets and lifestyles. As my teacher likes to say, “the fork can be a weapon of mass destruction or a means to a peaceful revolution.”

    How do I know that my being vegan “works”—that it is reducing the violence in the world? I know it because I can see a dramatic increase in my level of happiness and peace from the time I became vegan, and my happiness and peace continues to grow as I deepen my commitment to veganism and come to understand myself better. I know it because I can see a difference in my reaction to incidents like the Newtown shootings compared to, say, the Columbine shootings in 1999—I can feel more but react less. I am lighter on all levels. Can I eradicate all violence all by myself just by being vegan? Of course not, but who can effect any significant change by him or herself? All anyone can do is the most that he or she can do, and all that matters is that he or she does whatever that is. For me, being vegan, coupled with mild activism, is the best I can do, and I think that’s a lot.

  3. So, I'll throw in my predictable pessimism, but do my best not to descend into nihilism.

    In theory, one could approach the problem of mass killings by trying to do something about perpetrators, weapons, or by securing the environments in which these occur. In practice, none of these approaches offers much hope of having more than a small impact on the problem.

    Perpetrators: there is much talk about better treatment of the mentally ill. I certainly endorse this for lots of reasons, but impacting mass killings isn't one of them. First of all, not all of these mass killers are identified as mentally ill before they kill. Some are, but some not. As best I can tell it's about 50/50. Even among those who are, it is giving far too much credit to our mental health system to think that they can sort out the dangerous mentally ill (who are a small minority) from the rest of the mentally ill, or to think that treatment will reduce their propensity to kill. (In fact, it is possible that one can take a mentally ill person whose thinking is too disorganized for him to pull off a massacre, and with medications, make him just functional enough that they _can_ do it, but not so functional that him realize he shouldn't.) [Pardon the sexism in pronouns, but mass murderers are almost 100% male.]

    And there is a danger in focusing on this mental health approach. The current perpetrator, Adam Lanza, is being described in what I read as variously "wierd," "introverted," "shy," "odd." The only thing I've heard that sounds like an actual mental health diagnosis is some unconfirmed reports that he may have had Asperger's syndrome. So if he was in fact mentally ill before he went off the deep end, it seems to have been missed by those around him (or they were in denial, or avoiding mental health treatment for other reasons). And this seems to be true of many of the perpeterators. But how many tens of millions of young men could be described in this way? Certainly Trevor could, and so could I have been when I was young. It is a logistical impossibility to try to fish out the handful of potential killers from this huge population. And keeping them all under surveillance would be, similarly, too huge a task even for our society.

    To be continued in a separate post (length limits)

  4. Continuing...

    What about the guns? Well, if you look at mass killings around the world, you find that there are countries where they occur with high frequency but guns are not available, and are not used in the mass killings. There are lots of these in China, and typically they use machetes or knives. Now, I will agree that you can kill more people with an assault weapon than with a machete. So banning assault weapons might reduce the body counts associated with these events. And that's a good thing. But it won't eliminate them, and it might not even reduce their frequency of occurrence.

    There are, of course, the additional questions about feasibility of any kind of serious gun control in this country. There are already, I'm told, 300,000,000 guns in the US. Clearly, getting them all out of circulation is even less feasible than having all illegal aliens "self-deport." Furthermore, there are some legitimate reasons for some people to have firearms, in my opinion. Licensure with some real teeth makes sense. But, as already noted, the guns aren't necessary for these events to occur: they just make them more lethal than they might otherwise be. So, sure, more sensible gun policy would be good. But the impact on mass killings will be modest. I emphasize this point because there is a highly organized pro-gun movement. If we enact more restrictive gun policies, they will undoubtedly cite the failure to eradicate mass killings in their future efforts to repeal those policies. (Just as those who opposed economic stimulus have since cited the persistence of a poor economy as evidence that the stimulus was a mistake: the expectations set for the puny stimulus that was actually enacted were unrealistic. In fact the stimulus did achieve about what good econometric models predicted it would. Most Keynesian economists agreed ahead of time that the stimulus used was too small.)

    To be conitinued...

  5. Continuing...

    Enhanced security at schools and shopping malls and other places where massacres tend to occur. Again, the numbers make this infeasible. And in the context of schools it could be particularly bad. School budgets are already strapped. Security guards are expensive--especially if they are well enough trained that they don't become a greater danger to safety than the rare mass killings. And what a lovely way for our children to grow up and learn, with armed guards everywhere. You know, in the 1970's, I visited East Germany. There were armed guards with machine guns on every street. Let me tell you that "safe" was not the feeling it engendered. I can't even imagine trying to concentrate on anything serious in that kind of environment.

    Some have proposed a variant on this: have the teachers and administrators carry weapons so that they can take out a mass killer before he gets to kill the kids. I can't see that working very well at all. First of all, the mass killers would just know that the adults have to be the first targets. Second of all, I have a feeling that if all teachers and administrators were armed, we would see more students killed by them (in aggregate) than we currently see from mass killings. I mean, being a teacher can be an extraordinarily frustrating job, and students can be amazingly provcative. While teacher/administrator on student killings would be 1 at a time rather than mass events--I suspect the frequency with which somebody would just "lose it" and blow a kid away is unacceptably high.

    To be continued...

  6. Well, those are all the ways that an epidemiologist (or, at least this epidemiologist) thinks about this kind of problem. Pretty thin gruel, I would say. Not much to offer in the way of solutions.

    But there is another way of viewing these things. The US has a much higher rate of both mass killings and ordinary killings than other developed countries. Trevor has pointed out in his post some of the historical reasons for this. We do not know the extent to which violent movies, TV shows, books, video games, etc. contribute to this. It is an area that is not well researched as far as I know. But I think it is one we should delve into. More generally, the US seems to have a particularly toxic, violent culture. Sociologists may know better than I do why that is and what might be done to change it.

    OK, I'm done!