The great historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who documented the rise and fall of civilizations in a 12-volume history said, "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder". That observation applies to the United States no less than it applies to other societies. The recent murders in Newtown, Columbine and Virginia Tech, plus the murder statistics of every large city in the U.S. and the thousands of people who kill themselves each year, represent national suicide more than sporadic homicide.
This country has grappled with the issue of violence for a long time. Through the years, the public indignation over a growing culture of violence has diminished. Violence has become a major theme in every aspect of our lives, from entertainment, to sports to our language.
In the 1950s, a generation that had lived through the uncontrolled violence of World War II, was appalled by the gratuitous violence in comic books and in a mood of popular indignation, forced that industry to establish The Comics Code Authority, which become a self-regulatory body as an alternative to government regulation. No such indignation has arisen over the increasingly intense, fantasized violence in motion pictures, television programming, professional wrestling, ultimate-fighting competition, and the latest technological innovation, computer-simulated video games, some of which can be played against other participants in lifelike 3-D visualization. These games provide an alternate universe where mass killing is the most rewarded behavior and those who are killed arise to live again when a new game is begun. These games may accustom some to the impact of violence, and the few who are psychologically unhinged or emotionally incapacitated, may find in the games a training-ground for how to "get even" with their demented illusions of the perpetrators of evil in their own lives. When such people have access to weapons of destruction, whether they be long-guns, pistols, knives, fertilizer that can be made into bombs or even gasoline-fed Molotov Cocktails, they become very dangerous threats to our society.
It is easy to jump on a momentarily popular bandwagon and advocate banning all weapons that use high-power ammunition, to restrict the sale of ammunition or to forbid sale of large-capacity magazines. But as we learned from prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and criminalization of drugs in the 1950s, which resulted in a vicious and widespread network of gangs and gangsters, banning a desired product only makes it more desirable and encourages criminals to provide that product at a premium price. Gun control laws in place today have already stimulated a brisk trade in illegal firearms. Beside, with the thousands of weapons already in the hands of U.S. citizens, it will take until our great grandchildren are on social security before we can begin to eliminate these guns from our country.
Lawlessness has become an accepted element of our society. From the executives of the marble-columned banks that are the foundation of our financial system to the cab drivers who ferry people from one place to another, corruption is endemic in our system, yet it is accepted as a "normal" requirement for success. Flouting the law even extends to parents, who are supposed to be setting examples for their youngsters, yet put their children at risk, as they drive down the street with cellphones glued to their ears, block traffic to pick their children up from school, or speed down residential streets to get their children from one after-school activity to another. It is almost as if we are afraid to condemn other people's corruption, lest we lose access to the corruption that allows us to make our lives just a little easier or gain a personal advantage.
Then there is the matter of mental health. The mentally ill have always been with us and always will. John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men chronicles the odyssey of one such person with his companion and self-appointed caregiver. In this book, the caregiver (George Milton), must eventually take the life of Lennie Small, after he murders a young woman. Without institutional care for Lennie, the only way to remove him as a threat to society was to kill him. We have better ways of dealing with a similar threat today.
We have better diagnostic capabilities now than we had in the 1930s, psychoactive drugs and other means to treat people with mental disturbances. In a simpler world of a century ago, one deranged person could not do as much damage as a single deranged person with a high-power, high-capacity weapon can do today. It becomes even more imperative that we identify and protect ourselves from dangerous people.
There also is the matter of creating obstacles to attack. Since we strengthened the cockpit doors on airplanes, deployed air marshals to intervene in an attempt takeover and instituted pre-flight security checks, the threat of an airplane hijack has been virtually erased.
Our public schools continue to be the most vulnerable buildings in our community. They were designed to facilitate large numbers of students entering and exiting in a short time. They were also designed to be open and accessible to parents and as community gathering places.
The elementary school in my neighborhood is like most. You enter through a single set of multiple doors into a wide foyer that is the base of a "T"-shaped corridor. Turn to the left at the end of the foyer and you enter the hall where the kindergarten, first and second-grade classes are located. Go to the right and you pass the school office, where visitors are supposed to sign in, and beyond which is the cafeteria, filled with children during lunch. This corridor is also bisected by a hall that leads to the grade three, four and five classrooms. Go straight ahead and you are in the gymnasium where the children play during recess on rainy days. On election days, the gym becomes a polling place for four voting districts, with hundreds of adults coming and going. There are no doors to bar them from wandering into the classroom or cafeteria areas, and no guards to stop inappropriate behavior by students or adults.
Finally, we must consider the level of violence our nation inflicts on other countries. Video clips of smart bombs demolishing bridges and buildings with images of people running to escape the oncoming blast dehumanize fatal explosive force, Drone attacks where we silently approach a home or neighborhood and wake people with a horrible explosion seem like maneuvering remote control toy airplanes. Killing a suspected terrorist and often innocent people within the neighborhood, communicate that violence as an instrument of our national purpose is admirable. All this establishes a moral justification for inflicting violence on others and removes the horror from war through distance and grainy black and white images.
If we really want to stop the violence like that which occurred in Newtown Elementary School last week, we need to take a holistic approach to solving the problem. knee-jerk calls to ban assault-style weapons, ammunition or high-capacity magazines without action on other causes of violence, will only be feel-good measures. If we really want to stop the massacres, we also need to stop glorifying violence in popular entertainment venues such as television, motion pictures, computer games and athletic competitions. We need to examine our behavior in other lands where we kill others to inflict our will on their societies. We need to better identify and control people with severe mental disturbances, who all seem to have similar characteristics, and we need to increase physical security in our public schools so they are no longer easy targets for deranged people. Only then, do we have a chance to change the destructive pattern that has evolved. Unless we take multiple steps to curb this senseless violence in our public gathering places, in our homes, and in our city streets, we will be unable to claim that we are the victims of another person's attack. Instead, we will be guilty of being the perpetrators of our own suicide.
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Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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