The great sadness over the murders in Newtown leaves us with two questions: why did this happen? Why is the number of random shootings growing? And the second question obviously is what can we do about it?
Practical people have all kinds of answers to that second question: improved gun control, arm schoolteachers, (arm schoolchildren?), give children bulletproof backpacks. Make reporting of mental disease mandatory so that we can better assure that no guns get into the hands of people afflicted by mental illness. The NRA does not want to limit gun ownership but places blame on violent computer games. The advocates of these measures usually understand that they will not put a complete end to these shootings. But some of them may well help.
But these suggestions do not answer the first question: why is this happening?
Here we get a range of answers: America is a violent country. Our murder rate is 3 to 4 times the murder rate of other developed countries. From the beginning European immigrants to this continent have practiced ruthless ethnic cleansing. We kept slaves for 200 years and for 100 years after that we held African-Americans in bitter servitude. The 20 odd years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II were the longest peaceful period in all of American history. As long as we have lived on this continent, we have been at war with Britain, with France, with Spain, with Mexico and other countries in Central and Latin America and, of course, with the Native Americans. We have fought wars in Algeria, in the Philippines, in Russia, in the Carribean. There are few countries where we have not deployed our violence. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States)
Our economic system stresses competition: to be sure it would not do for the top management of Amazon to shoot up the headquarters of Google. But the goal of each of these companies is to do serious injury to the other, to put the competitor out of business. Employers constantly try to depress the wages of their employees. Few Americans are seriously bothered when Walmart human relations offices explain to prospective employees how they can get food stamps and publicly financed health care because their jobs will not support them. Our economy takes cruelty and coercion in its stride.
Millions of adults watch beefy men attack each other every weekend on the football field or the hockey rink. A hockey game without a fight is not worth watching. For the younger generation, there are computer games where people massacre each other with a oversized automatic weapons in rivers of blood. For everyone there are violent computer dramas.
There are other generalizations about America we could cite here. But it is not at all clear what, if anything, they explain. Do children who play violent computer games grow up to be violent adults? Do fans of football and ice hockey commit more violent crimes? We possess no unambiguous evidence on these questions.
The English have many sins on their conscience in their long history of colonialism beginning with the ravaging of Ireland to their Indian Empire and domination of Africa. Their murder rate is a third of ours. Germany has a bloody past. Our murder rate is four times the murder rate in Germany. There is no simple and clear connection between historical sins and current gun violence.
We need to admit that we do not understand the origins of all this violence in our country.
It is not too difficult, to say, however, what we should be doing to reduce violence in the future. We must recognize it, resist it, and replace it by nonviolent means, wherever possible. We must teach our children to avoid being violent; that there are other ways for solving conflicts and we must teach our children how to excel in those. We must learn how to avoid being violent ourselves as we teach our children.
But we must teach non-violence the right way. School children who, today, are disrespectful to adults, who bully other children, or who get into fights are likely to be called into the office of the principal, the guidance counselor, the coach to be yelled at and threatened with punishment. That child learns that violence is acceptable as long as the violent one has permission. They will conclude that they too can be violent if they become teachers or principals, or, failing that, . . . . . . procure a gun. Our schools actually teach violence.
But they do not have to do that. Many schools have chosen a different path. They teach some of the students to be peer-counselors. These young mediators can, in many situations, defuse conflicts that arise in the school by helping their fellow students to talk out their difficulties instead of threatening physical confrontations. Similarly schools talk to young men about how being a man does not consist of bullying women. Young women have opportunities to reflect about their growing up into being women. Gay-straight alliances strive to gain acceptance for everyone instead of having gay men and lesbian women fall victim to bullying. There are many similar projects for teaching non-violence.
Non-violent techniques of resistance have a long and venerable history dating back at least to 16th century England and beyond. Over the years groups have developed many different methods of withholding supports from their rulers who acted against their people. Think of the women agitating for the vote who chained themselves to the fence of the White House, of the Montgomery bus boycott, of widespread refusal by workers to work, or to leave their factories. Our children need to learn the history of struggles that were not violent. More importantly, they must be taught how to avoid violence and be encouraged to make peace.
This is a long path but it is the only one we have to stem to rising tide of violence.