Sunday, December 27, 2015

How to Reduce the Flood of Violence

The National Rifle Association tells us that "Guns do not kill people; people do." I have long thought that to be silly; without guns people would be a lot less lethal than they are. No one would be shot and killed if guns did not exist. But it is, of course, also true that the guns, by themselves do not make people kill. We are not violent because we have guns; we have guns because we are violent.
Gun lovers claim they need to be armed to resist a tyrannical government. But unless you are a young man of color or an immigrant without papers, our government is very unlikely to come after you with guns blazing. More likely they will threaten to sue and fine or imprison you. If you want to resist them, you need to hire a lawyer, lose days from work, spend a lot of time and money defending yourself. Investigators will interview your neighbors and embarrass you where you live. They will follow you to your workplace and perhaps make you lose your job. You will not need guns to protect yourself. That is pure fantasy.

But the fantasy, of course, betrays the violent world which you believe you live in and that belief determines how you and many other people see their world as a place of uninterrupted violence. The flood of violent movies and computer games that overwhelm us perhaps maintain the brutal fantasy world in which so many of us live, but are also a symptom of it. So are, of course, the gladiator games enacted on weekend where grown men inflict life-threatening injuries on each other for lots of money.

Symptoms are also the by now almost daily shootings by strangers who kill random people. Many people just buy weapons or go to the shooting range to live out their fantasies. But some, often troubled minds, actually make the violence a reality. What their less troubled fellow citizens just savor in their imaginations, these troubled souls act out. And then another headline announces the death of innocents.

Regulating gun sales is not likely to do improve this torrent of violence. Our problem is much more profound and serious: we are addicted to violence. If we did not have guns we would use knives or clubs to injure each other. For most of us that violence exists only in how we imagine the world. But that imagination spawns one war after the next, and our young men and women fall victim to the bloodthirsty fantasies of the elderly men, who surrounded the previous President, who themselves had carefully avoided real violence by dodging the draft.

In the more than 200 years of our existence as Americans, there was one period of twenty odd years--between World War I and II--when we were at peace. For most of the rest of these two hundred years the interval between wars was about 10 years. Do you know any more bloodthirsty nation, less able to put its weapons down and seek peace?

Violence is deeply embedded in our national character. Is there any way we can change? It seems clear that no single change in our way of life or thinking will transform us into a nation of peacemakers. The best we can hope for is to chip away at this cancer of violence.

Gun control: if a way can be found to keep guns out of the hands of seriously troubled individuals, we might be able to save some lives.

Teaching children to deal positively with conflicts might well be useful, if we tried, at the same time, to lower the level of violence they experience every day. But reducing violence in the experience of children is a large and challenging project. It would involve an end to violent television programs. No more cop shows, no more shootouts whether in inner-city neighborhoods or on the mythical Western frontier towns. No more violent movies where the hero in the ultimate moment saves the world from apocalypse. No more shooter computer games.

If children are to learn to be less violent than we are, we must make sure that their fantasy life is not like ours and that requires cleaning up what we choose to call "entertainment." Equally serious, of course, is assuring children a peaceful family life. That requires a reduction in family violence. It also requires a reduction of violence in sports. Once again sportsmanship has to become important, more important than winning, more important than inflicting serious injuries on your opponent.

Can we do any of this? The changes we need to make are difficult. They would also involve large financial losses for various media companies and major league sports. Will the owners and stockholders of companies that now enrich themselves by purveying violence be willing to move their efforts into different branches of business to make our daily life less violent? Will our politicians be willing to stop preying on the fears of ordinary citizens by endorsing war abroad and police violence at home?

As we send out more New Years cards that say "Peace on Earth" we should consider these questions.