Monday, April 23, 2007

A Culture of Violence

Given the events of a week ago, when a deeply troubled student who had purchased guns and ammunition, went first to a dorm, and then to classrooms killing people, many people have written about the propensity toward violent action in our country. For example, see here. Like these writers, I too have pondered—why? Why does someone feel there is no other course than to wreak such havoc on fellow humans and then take his own life? Why does someone so completely fall through the various nets in the system which are meant to catch and assist such people? Why, why, why? The list to which we can pose the question of why is endless.

I have long reflected on what we could do to reduce the level of violence in this country. I have no magic answer, and certainly have no plans to run for office—so bear with this rant, and take it for what it is—a blogger puzzling her way through what is essentially a senseless event.

I grew up in an Anabaptist church tradition. One of the hallmarks of Anabaptists is that they began as people who resisted the government intrusion into their lives by using non-resistance—or passive resistance. This history became very clear to me when our family went on a trip some years ago, going to my husband’s European ancestral home. As nearly as anyone has been able to trace, his family came from Switzerland, and from the area of Germany called the Bernese Oberland. They were Anabaptists who eventually traveled up the Rhine, ending up in the Netherlands. From there they sailed to the New World, America, settling in Lancaster County, PA, which looks remarkably like the rolling hills of some parts of Switzerland and Germany (without the Alps, of course!)

One day on the trip, we visited a farm with a cave that had a waterfall spilling over the opening of the cave (
Täuferhöhle). This site was known to have been a worship place for these Anabaptists—a perfect setting: hidden, sound muted by the waterfall, and high enough to allow some advance warning of encroaching authorities. What did these Anabaptists have to fear? Well, they were hunted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. That area of Switzerland is where the cantonments divide between those with historically Catholic government and those with Protestant. In the 17th and 18th century, the state and the church in Europe complemented each other. Absent governmental systems to keep track of population—births, marriages, and deaths—the state relied on the church to do that work. So, babies were born, baptized and registered in the churches. People got married in the church, and the event was recorded. People died, and the church kept the records.

The Anabaptists had a central tenet of theology that argued for adult baptisms. Along with other Protestant reformers, they searched the Scriptures to guide them. But on one issue they parted with other Protestant reformers. Nowhere could they find convincing support for infant baptism. They found several examples of adult baptism, so they staked their theology on adult baptism. The result was—no registration of birth and baptism: a clear challenge to the state/church agreement. So Calvin and his reformers in Geneva went after the Anabaptists, and the Catholic Church also went after them as reformers. The Anabaptist way was to not conform, to resist but not by force.

Why do I recount all this history? Because deeply ingrained in me, even though I am now a Presbyterian (heir to Calvin!) I very much hold with a personal philosophy of non-violence. And that brings me back to the events of last week.

There are things that I think could be done to bring down the level of violence in our country. The first step would be to reduce our infatuation with personal ownership of handguns. The statistics speak for themselves.

In 2004 (the most recent year with
full data available) there were 29,569 gun deaths in the U.S:
--16,750 suicides (56% of all U.S gun deaths),
--11,624 homicides (40% of all U.S gun deaths),
--649 unintentional shootings, 311 from legal intervention and 235 from undetermined intent (4% of all U.S gun deaths combined).

Note that the number of suicides by gun exceeds the number of homicides.

Writing in the Journal of Trauma, A. Kellerman noted that : “A gun in the home is 4 times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, 7 times more likely to be used to commit a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used to attempt or commit suicide than to be used in self-defense.” (I added the italicized emphasis.)

Now compare us to other industrialized countries. Below are the homicide by gun rates for several other countries. The last year that comparative data was available was 1998: Killed by homicide by guns were
--373 people in Germany
--151 people in Canada
--57 people in Australia
--19 people in Japan
--54 people in the United Kingdom and
--11,789 people in the United States.

I am enough of a researcher to know that you really should do an incidence comparison, that is how many homicides by gun per 100,000 population. So, here’s another way of looking at gun deaths: in the U.S. for every 100,000 people there are 4 homicides and 6 suicides; that compares to .5 homicides and 2.6 suicides in Canada; .25 homicides and .5 suicides in the UK; and .04 homicides and .04 suicides in Japan in which guns are the cause of death.

The second thing we could do is reduce the emphasis on violence all around us. Our children are raised with so much violence that they really become desensitized to it. The American Academy of Pediatrics has addressed this problem and gives a great overview of the exposure from television here.

I was probably a very quirky mom when it came to raising our children with as little exposure to violence as possible. My husband and I did not want our children to play with guns when they were small. So we forbade toy guns as gifts. I remember being infuriated with my mother-in-law when she presented our son with a small cap pistol one Christmas. I could barely speak, but she said—oh, it’s only a little play gun. Yeah, I muttered inside my head, but it’s a gun. Thankfully, our son fired it a couple times, then discovered that it was much cooler to take the caps out and explode them on the sidewalk with a hammer.

Our daughter had very little exposure to toy guns except for one day when she and some of the neighbor kids were playing. I found them with a toy gun of some sort, and marched out and demanded that she stop playing with it. No doubt she was mortified at my temerity to interrupt their play. I recall that I launched into one of my “love is stronger than guns” speeches. I think the kids all rolled their eyes and probably said—whatever.

This post is already way too long, but there are so many other ways we could reduce the violence we experience. We really do live with a culture of violence, certainly in our country, and of course to an extent in the whole world. I don’t know if humans are hard-wired to be violent, as some researchers have argued. But I do believe that we can intentionally determine that we will be more civil, that we will take less confrontational approaches to daily conflicts, that we will in every way possible eschew violence as the first or only course of action.


Pam said...

A very interesting post. I agree with you completely that our children are exposed to too much violence and are becoming desensitized. Too often it's garbage in, garbage out.

I know it's not all that simple but believe it's a large part of the problem.

Cathy said...

The day of the Virginia Tech massacre I looked at my son and said you can lay the 'stagecraft' of this mayhem at the feet of the entertainment industry. The next day the photos arrived of Cho posing like the character in some violent movie he'd seen.

I'm glad you tried to tackle this in your post,Donna. I was interested to read the history of the Anabaptists. Brave people.

There are no simple solutions here, but I think people are really starting to look at ways to prevent these horrors or, at the very least , identify and stop monsters like Cho. And please understand - I have compassion for the tragedy of his life, but his kind of psychological aberration is truly 'monstrous'.

Ruth said...

You have done a very good job of tackling a difficult subject. We have strict gun control laws in Canada for which I am thankful. As Canadians, I think we feel much safer than our neighbours do in USA. But violence in society is more than gun ownership as you point out so well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post Donna. It encompasses and covers a lot of ground and I knew I would find some measure of hope and understanding when you wrote it up. I too shared the worries of bringing up children in such a violent world as portrayed in video games and in the media. The ease of access to a gun is a huge part of the problem.(I really like the recipe below - I have got to do it!!!)

Climenheise said...

Thanks also for your thoughts. I am still processing the tragedy, as most of us are. The tragedy at so many levels -- 32 tolls of the bell; 33 deaths; one family who knows that nobody grieves the death of their son, because he was the killer.

Our shared heritage (in which I still stand!): during the war in Vietnam I registered as a CO. Lois' Dad was in CPS during WW2, and her grandfather spent time in prison during WW1. He refused to put on the uniform.

The non-resistant position has many problems. Would you tackle the killer at VTI if you had the chance? But the commitment to peace is basic.

Gun control? I agree with body soul spirit. It's a mystery to me that easy access to guns remains so basic to out American identity. Some mediating position seems an obvious step: don't sell high-powered handguns so freely! And video games? Games based on training manuals for how to kill. Again, I don't understand: if we find cigarettes unhealthy, surely such video games are worse.

Ranting is easy. Thanks for your more careful reflections.

Mary said...

Your statistics are staggering, Donna. You really did your homework. Our lack of gun control in this country is only part of the problem, I think. The larger contributing factor to the violence and destruction in this country is our violent way of life. What draws people to the movie theater, what draws children to warrior heroes at the toy store? Fascination with violence. Gun deaths are the result.

As a parent, like you, I never allowed violent video games, guns, or movies. Our household, friends and families are peaceful. Our children were raised that way.

During ML King's assassination in 1968(?), the city burned and rioting posed a threat to our street. My father, a city fireman, was held in the city, protected by the National Guard. He didn't hesitate to purchase a handgun and took my mother to the shooting range. She was a sharp shooter. Luckily, we never had the need to use it.

I'll never own a gun.

Sorry, I rambled too long here.

KGMom said...

To all--your comments reflect the conundrum of violence. It is a complex problem--many things contribute to it, including our history. Dependence on guns is very much interwoven into the history of the US from when the first Europeans arrived to the western expansion.
Reading some of the news coverage post the VTI shootings, I am astounded to see some legislators (and the NRA) are suggesting that had the people in the classrooms been armed, allowed to carry concealed weapons, the tragedy would never have happened. Really? I think instead we would have seen a pitched battle--deranged student shooting against armed professors and students. Since people get killed by friendly fire during combat, how many people do we think would get killed by the armed protectors.
Sorry--I am slipping into rant again.
I sometimes wish I could look into the future and see if the day ever comes when humans will not use violence as a way to solve problems.
Thanks for all your thoughts--it is clear we all care deeply about this issue.

Ginnie said...

It seems like these are the worst of times...but then I look into the history of the world and it amazes me how steeped we have always been in violence and intolerance. I am currently reading "The Last Jew" by Noah Gordon and it is a perfect example of what I'm saying.
To answer your query on my Blog... yes, I've been to Assisi twice & the tomb of St. Francis had been restored after the earthquake. The first time I was there was on 9/11/2001 so I will never forget that day !

Anonymous said...

There are so many problems in today's society it's difficult to know where to start - but I'm in agreement that guns and violence share too much spotlight in the media. And what our children are exposed to under the guise of entertainment is frightening. I'm very glad I don't have a television.

Climenheise said...

Do you know the Arrogant Worms? They're a Canadian group who have a wonderful song called "Wouldn't it be great if everyone had a gun?" They opine that if everyone had a gun no one would get shot because ... everyone has a gun!

Get Vaughn to play the song for you if you can.