It is virtually impossible to avoid violence these days. I can’t turn on the television, the radio or browse internet social media or, for that matter, read my e-mail without encountering violence. It occurs at varying distances from me. Occasionally, as when I participated in the May Day demonstrations in Oakland, it occurred right before my eyes.
I don’t like violence. I am afraid of violence. I think most people are. But I, like most people, have learned that it is now a normal part of every day life. The experience that was once only common in war zones and the “inner city”, a war zone of sorts. But now it is my constant, if unwanted companion.
And though I am still privileged to have a job and be able to afford to live in a relatively safe place I know that violence surrounds me. Whether it was the shootings at Oikos University (a small Christian college whose existence was unknown to me until this event) a few miles from me this past April or the Newtown Elementary School shooting of this past week or the massive murders in the Syrian civil war there is no avoiding violence. It is almost an everyday fact of life.
I try to imagine what it must be like to have violence at my doorstep every day. It is the norm for thousands of people in the world. And I guess that I am still at least not in that situation. But I have to wonder what violence as a normal daily occurrence must do to a person. I know it can’t be good.
American news media presents these stories in what has become a rather studied and stereotypical fashion. The “tragedy” is recounted, the names and ages of the victims are reported as soon as they are known, some politician makes reverent comments ostensibly to provide comfort. And then they’re off with wild speculation based more on emotion and generally showing a lack of understanding of the bigger picture. One commentator actually suggested that it would be a good idea to have someone in the school who is armed and prepared for the next such onslaught. Some immediately assumed that the shooter had to be mentally ill and diagnosed him retroactively as autistic or “Asperger’s”. But the mentally ill, at least the ones with whom I deal as a psychiatric nurse, are no more or less violent than those who are not receiving care. And then there is the very American “gun debate”. The politics of fear keep people voting in favor of gun laws and “the second amendment” (whose very wording speaks of a “well-regulated militia”). And finally the coverage of the funerals and interviews with grieving families and neighbors.
But you better grieve quickly because you never know when the next one will happen. Keep those emergency rooms supplied and the caskets ready on short order because it is no longer an issue of “if” this will happen but “when”. And that is the new norm with which we live. Perhaps it will occur in a workplace, perhaps it will occur in a school, maybe a shopping mall or other public place but we know it will happen again.
We have essentially accepted the norms of war and violence as basically a daily experience. And even as these experiences move ever closer to the privileged (mostly white and mostly middle class) we are now, apparently, unable to stop the march of violence. After years of declaring war on countries, on drugs, on cancer, etc. we have found that we are at war with ourselves.
After the second world war the name of a cabinet position changed from Secretary of War to Secretary of Defense. I want to know when we can change it to Secretary of Peace. Boy is that a naive and idealistic concept, eh? But despite Shakespeare’s suggestion that names don’t matter I believe that sometimes they reflect meaning and that a cabinet position whose job is to handle war is going to be different that one whose job it is to handle defense and still more different if their job is to handle peace.
I think that we have successfully cultivated a global culture of violence, that we have essentially stopped realistically seeking peaceful alternatives. And it isn’t because of violent video games or because we don’t put God in the schools (God was presumably in Oikos University but people still died) or because the shooters are mentally ill or even because guns are legal (the problem here is that there is no enforced regulation). It is because we have lost sight of any other alternative. The solution to violence is more violence just as the solution to all crimes is more punishment. We don’t really expect change but we do revel in punishment and blame even as we treat each new incident as “just a blip”, an aberration.
Our culture of violence has strong roots in inequality. We, the privileged, can be concerned about the violence in the inner city or in Syria or wherever. But we as a voting public have done practically nothing perhaps because it wasn’t happening to “us”. Well now it is happening to “us”, the mostly white, middle class, mindlessly flag waving voting public who historically have voted against equality and have striven to maintain a fairy tale 1950s version of America. And as the violence approaches ever closer to our doorsteps we continue to do nothing different than we did before: rationalized, blame, punish and move on until the next incident. And if you think it’s not rooted in inequality then do what a friend of mine suggested: get a bunch of Muslim men dressed in full stereotypic Taliban-like regalia and a bunch of black men in their best approximation of the stereotype “gangsta” attire and take them to one of those gun shows. I suspect that someone will take serious notice.
I don’t expect any real changes in the equality area either. Nor am I so naive as to think this is the only issue. We have for so long-lived with inequality that it is a norm as well. Many aspects of our society are frozen in the cycle of “we do it that way because we’ve always done it that way”. We are afraid of change. We grasp on to the illusion that if we just continue to do things as we have been doing we can get back to the mythical “golden age” regardless if it is golden for all.