As someone with great respect for the power of the written and spoken word, it irked me no end to read newspaper stories that referred to the recent mass murder of children in an elementary school as “unthinkable.” Given the incredible prevalence of guns of all sorts in our culture, and accepting that mental illness exists, such a tragedy is not only thinkable, it is statistically inevitable. And it will happen again.
What do we do about it?
The issue of gun control is complex, with both sides clinging to points that are valid:
Mass murder of children by guns should not occur,
In a free country, citizens should have the right to own guns.
The majority of gun owners are responsible and careful owners.
Assault weapons are created for one thing – assault.
When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. (Perhaps an exaggeration, but permitted for artistic license and bumper sticker practicality).
The opposing sides are entrenched, and their differences were shown in the Seattle Times yesterday. A columnist in the second section published an essay on a rational approach to gun control. The first article in the first section reported on a surge in “military style” guns, as enthusiasts prepared for the possibility of their being outlawed.
There are so many guns in this country in private hands that any estimate of the total number would be both staggering and likely far from the actual, and higher, number.
The problem is not guns. Like many other issues, guns are concrete objects we cling in arguments because the real cause is more ephemeral and harder to define.
The real problem is that we live in a culture of violence that extends back to both when and how this country was founded.
The American Revolutionary War was not won by the excellent writers we happened to have on hand at the time. It was won by violence, including many acts against the government of the time that would be deemed to be terrorist acts in the parlance of our day.
The “west was won” by violence. A lot of it, rained down on animal species driven to near or total extinction, and native peoples who had the misfortune to be in the way of “progress.” They were shunted to the side, and more often slaughtered.
We have proven in two world wars that we are highly adept at marshalling the resources of our land and people to unleash violence, including the most violent weapons ever devised. At this moment we have a fleet of nuclear submarines circulating the waters of the world. Each of them carries enough destructive violence to destroy the entire world – many times. Nobody knows where they are, and no foreign power has ever successfully tracked an American nuclear submarine.
We are currently involved in several violent conflicts around the world, although for political expediency we eschew referring to them as the wars they clearly are. Their existence is pretty much accepted as a given and rarely discussed, given the severity of their impact on our citizenry and our national debt.
Our favorite sport is football, where men voluntarily commit themselves to a high-paying but short career that leaves virtually all of them with severe and crippling physical and neurological impairment, up to and including permanent paralysis and death. The only players spared this, ironically, are the quarterbacks, who tend to make the most money and have rules written to protect them from bodily harm, to a degree. Pro football teams are a modern version of physical prostitutes who sell their bodies for profit, and the quarterbacks are sacred virgins protected from the melee to the extent we can. This weekend millions of people will enjoy watching 200-300 pound men engaging in violent collisions. We call this sport.
I am not some ninny who feels he is above the fray. I’m a ninny who has been in the fray – for fun. I played football through 9th grade and hockey through college, and some of my favorite memories involve violence. I was prevented from further pursuit of my enjoyment by a distinct lack of talent and the reaction of my parents to my 9th grade first semester report card. I went from being a team captain who played both offense and defense to “retired” in about an hour. Good thing, too.
Still, my best football memories include a 9th grade game where the other team’s fullback terrified me. I was the center linebacker, and their limited offense consisted of linemen opening a slight hole and Bronko the Huge running into it, and usually into me. I spent the whole game knocking him down and being knocked down by him. He came up to me after his team won 6-0, when our final drive ended at the two yard line. Blood streaming down his chin, he congratulated me on a good game, and I felt I’d survived what was to me at the time a rite of manhood.
I remember a tackle on a punt where the receiving back neglected to signal for a fair catch and I arrived at full tilt about .5 second later. He held on to the ball, but the loud collision brought “Ooof!” comments from both teams.
In college I played on an Intramural hockey team. I have fond memories of a violent “pig pile” on top of me after I scored the winning goal in double overtime. I also remember, with chagrin, that once I began student teaching I immediately began to lead the team in penalties, some of them such overt cheap shots I wondered what kind of person I was turning in to.
I remember two hockey fights. The first I lost in two seconds, and the second, during a weekend pick-up game in high school, I “won” because it was broken up just before I was about to be turned into paste. That fellow turned out to be a guy who had just been released from Juvenile Prison for beating up a police officer! I did not know this at the time, and almost fainted at school the next week when I found out. That explained why he showed me such respect the rest of that day. Nobody had been stupid enough to take him on since he was about 5 years old.
We respect and love violence.
How about that which is “unthinkable?” Over thirty years ago I was the President of my local teachers’ association. “President” should not be capitalized in this usage, but I always cheated as a sop to my considerable vanity. I shared an office with a “Uniserv Rep” who worked for two associations. He was the paid pro where I was the elected amateur. My office was out in the open, the idea being that anyone who wanted to talk to me about anything should have open access. Oddly, that is the same reason my desk at Ride West BMW is out in the open. Jim’s office had a door that could be closed for private negotiations, etc.
One day a teacher from the other district walked in and went by my desk without a word, which seemed odd. He went into Jim’s office and the door closed. For a long time. The teacher emerged and walked by me again and out the door, without a word.
I went into Jim’s lair and asked what that was all about. In the same tone you would use to discuss the probability of rain in two days he explained that the teacher had been caught having an affair with a female student.
I think my jaw actually dropped. For me, at the time, and for almost all teachers, such an act was literally unthinkable. I literally stammered as I asked how such a thing could happen. I was in shock.
Jim continued in a calm voice, like the algebra teacher he had been teaching a concept to a not very bright student. He explained that with the number of high school teachers in the country, primarily male (at that time) that such things can and did happen with some regularity, although they were certainly not common. The situation, as he explained, usually involved a male in his mid-40s whose life was not going all that well, and a young woman looking for a combination boy friend and father figure. The man found someone to listen to him, and the girl a devoted male with his own place, car, and (relative) money.
I spluttered ahead to ask what would happen now. He went on to relate that in his experience, if a pregnancy had not occurred, the girl’s parents did not want a big fuss made and neither did the school district. The teacher would be allowed to resign quietly, would move to another state and probably get a new teaching position.
That bothered me for a long time, as it seemed so totally wrong, and yet I could not argue with the practicality of the solution to all parties. Today, of course, many things have changed, and many of the solutions that worked then would probably not be applicable today. I am not qualified to comment.
So if we love violence, and the solutions to “unthinkable” acts are often not comfortable, what are we to do?
The President has laid out plans for study and recommended change in our gun control regulations. The projected time line for this is more than one year. In reality it may be several years, if ever. Will we have more instances of multiple deaths by gun violence in the schools in the meantime? I hope not, but logic dictates a strong possibility of exactly that.
The change we need is not so much in the regulation of what guns and what type of guns can be sold to what citizens and in what quantity, but a change in our cultural view of violence.
That will take time. How long has it taken for people of color to attain the level of civil rights they have today? Not that the struggle is over. How long did it take for gay people to be considered as fellow human beings, before moving on to the current fascination with whether or not thy can be married?
Gun enthusiasts will probably argue that any regulation that comes along, eventually, will be unenforceable and largely symbolic. I agree with them.
But; symbols are important, and symbols carry weight.
It will be a start.
Copyright 2012 David Preston