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‘Tragedy upon tragedy’: Can American culture rethink itself past violence?

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By Robert C. Koehler

I had a passing moment of wonder the other day – as I read about the latest . . . you know, mass shootings.

Troubled souls with guns. Big problem.

My thought was simply this: What if . . .? And then I lapsed into uncertainty. What if    . . . violence were not the simplistic and obvious – and only – solution to so many problems? Violence presents itself, in our imaginations (and in our games, in our movies, in our defense budget), as consequence-free, instantaneous and, for God’s sake, necessary. It’s the essence – it’s the definition – of empowerment.

And then the headlines scream about crazy guys grabbing hold of that empowerment to escape their personal cages, their crises on the moment: Yeah, it’s the fault of . . . whomever, and then another dozen people are dead.

So California was recently left bleeding by multiple random shootings. On Jan. 21, 11 people were killed and at least nine injured in Monterey Park, at what the New York Times called “a once joyous dance hall,” where people were celebrating Lunar New Year. The suspect was a 72-year-old man, who then drove to a second ballroom, where the owner managed to wrestle him to the ground and disarm him. He fled and sometime later killed himself in his own van. Police found his body in the van the next day.

Then, on Jan. 23, a 67-year-old man killed seven people in two agricultural locations in San Mateo County. He drove to a nearby sheriff’s office and parked his car; police arrested him in the parking lot.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who on Monday was at a hospital meeting with victims of the Monterey Park shooting, was briefed in the hospital about the San Mateo County shooting, which had just occurred.

He could only say: “Tragedy upon tragedy.”

Oh God. I hardly have anything to add, except maybe that we should plunk those words into the Pledge of Allegiance. For me, the question that struggles to untangle itself from the ongoing flow of domestic tragedies – I, personally, have written more than 50 columns about mass shootings in the 20+ years I’ve been doing this column – amounts to this: Why is the concept of empowerment conjoined, totally and utterly, with violence? Why is it conjoined with domination, which essentially requires the creation, and then the dehumanization, of an enemy?

Can American culture rethink itself – can it transcend its belief that enemies are always out there, needing to be obliterated?

Reducing the number of mass shootings in the United States, Dale Fletcher writes, “is not another policy or law. The solution lies in getting to and addressing the root issues that are driving people to conduct these horrific crimes.”

Mass shootings are a symptom. “The real problem is that the hearts of the perpetrators are wounded and fragile.”

Well, OK, that’s probably not a controversial statement, though it wraps the cause in gentle empathy. You mean we should care about mass killers (at least before they commit their horrific crimes)? Controversy starts to emerge.

“Our society may call these mass shootings ‘hate crimes,’” Fletcher writes, “but at the core, the emotion of hate directed towards others stems from unresolved deep issues of the heart – deep spiritual issues.”

Jillian Peterson and James Densley, criminology professors who founded the Violence Project, have studied mass shootings in the U.S. dating back to 1966, interviewing convicted and incarcerated killers and their families, along with shooting survivors and first responders; they’ve also studied suicide notes, trial transcripts, medical records. From all this data, they’ve found four things nearly all such perpetrators have in common.

Commonality number one is early childhood trauma: exposure to violence at a young age. This could mean neglect, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, parental suicide. Such things don’t go away.

Beyond this, as they point out in an LA Times op-ed, the shooters have just had, or are in the midst of, a current life crisis, and they have the means (i.e., access to weaponry) to carry out their plans. And also, “most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives. . . . there are scripts to follow that promise notoriety in death.”

So in the midst of their lostness and despair, they have a motive – a possible way out. Ah, violence, preceded by blame. Peterson and Densley make the point that the country needs to start getting serious about “proactive violence prevention” – making mental-health-focused conversations – not punitively, but with empathy – part of life’s routine, at schools, churches, everywhere.

I think that’s certainly part of it, but our intensified reaching out has to be more than just preventative: an ongoing scan for future bad guys. To this end I introduce Guitars Over Guns, an organization, established in 2008, that works with young people in Miami and Chicago, reaching out to kids in troubled neighborhoods, linking them with musicians and other artists – mentors – and presenting opportunities that may not otherwise have existed.

As founder Chad Bernstein put it: “help them overcome hardship, find their voice and reach their potential as tomorrow’s leaders.”

I repeat three words: Find their voice! Music is one pathway, but there are an infinity of others – pathways to empowerment. Who are you? What is it that you love? Let us celebrate and normalize honest-to-God empowerment . . . for everybody.

“Kids are awesome.” So the organization’s website proclaims, letting loose a level of enthusiasm for human life that I’m allowing myself to imagine permeating our entire social structure, reaching even the most deeply lost, giving them another script to follow.

Robert Koehler ([email protected]), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.

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