Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lessons, lessons and more lessons

Whenever we have a tragedy such as the shooting in Washington this week, the immediate impulse is to a) blame someone, or some thing, that had nothing to do with what happened; and b) start pounding home "lessons" we're suppose to learn from it.

This reached its ridiculous extreme when Elisabeth Hasselbeck led a discussion on FOX about the evils of video games, as if they are the ones to blame for the mess in carnage Aaron Alexis left behind Monday in D.C.

The frustration, on whatever level and whatever side, is understandable. This stuff keeps happening, no matter what we do, or say, or think. People always find ways to get around the safeguards set up to keep them from wreaking havoc and tragedy on the world. They're always one step ahead of us ... and that's all it takes.

We have two choices. We either give up trying to protect innocent people from slaughter on the grounds that it won't do any good anyway; or we try harder to get to the root of why there are so many disaffected and dysfunctional people in the world.

Since neither of those choices will provide an immediate quick fix to the problem (or any fix at all, in the case of the former), we've taken to a third option: affixing blame. If we can't solve the problem, by God, we can at least blame someone for it.

In one way, Elisabeth is right (loathe though I may be to admit it). Video games are part of the problem. But to end the discussion there is not just naive. It borders on demagoguery. Then again, so does any discussion that involves banning guns. Or censoring violent TV shows or movies. Or re-examining our national obsession with contact sports whose violent hits make highlight reels and whose injury lists are way too germaine to the outcome of their events.

Because the answer is, all at one, none of the above and all of the above. And therein lies the the problem.

We are a violent society. There's no use arguing that point, and there's no getting around it. Much of what we do, and much of what we represent, centers around violence. It is portrayed, almost everywhere, as the optimum way to resolve issues.

We are desensitized. I remember shortly after the Vietnam War ended, the idea of the military going anywhere, to resolve anything, was almost unspeakable. We as a nation were too traumatized by the era, and all the unrest it spawned, to view military intervention as anything other than a last-resort solution to problems that were better handled diplomatically.

I'm sure Jimmy Carter was a disciple of that mindset by letting the slow clockwork of diplomacy free the hostages in Iran, and that undoubtedly cost him his presidency. He was seen as weak, but those hostages came back alive. I wonder, if  you ask any of them, whether they'd have preferred to see five or six or them come back dead at the expense of, say, being released six months sooner than they were. I'd really be interested in what they have to say.

Can you honestly say, today, that our leaders view our military the same way?  They do not. At the moment, though, we are war-weary after fighting two of them simultaneously for the past decade, and the idea of doing it all over again in Syria seems to be asking too much. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe, on that front at least, we are learning.

The military is just the most obvious example of how we've gone from being sensitized to war and violence to our current condition of being almost impervious to it. Now, if something horrible happens, we may be affected by it for a day or two (in the case of Sandy Hook, it took a little longer for the shock to wear off), but soon enough we rotate back to our normal programming and the urgency of the tragedy recedes. Until the anniversary comes up, that is. Then, we observe it as if it just happened, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we still, after all this time, haven't made one iota of progress in getting to the root of it.

 The bigger part of this issue -- and most other issues in the year 2013 -- is that we're just not equipped to do the necessary digging to get to the root of them. To establish a national dialogue that would get to the root of gun violence in this country would be way too painful. It would expose too many harsh and unpleasant truths ... not just about the perpetrators, but about us. What is it about us that allows this cesspool of violent messages we see every day to become part of our lives? Why do we accept it? Why do we allow it?

We'd have examine our priorities, and ask ourselves why we seem to place so much importance on the trivial and so little on the real necessities of life ... such as how to effectively manage the enormous numbers of people who are falling through the cracks or society and are living in the shadows. What do you do? How do you treat them? How do you keep them out of harm's way ... and how do we keep ourselves from being harmed by them?

There's a tough one. How do you identify sociopaths before they snap one day and do what Aaron Alexis did? Or the Newtown, Conn., shooter? Or Timothy McVeigh? What influences them? What tiggers them to snap? Who are they listening to? What are they listening to? No one lives in a vacuum. They have to be listening to something.

And how do guns come into play? They are not the sole reason these things happen (though if the NRA could at least admit that guns in the wrong hands become exponentially more dangerous, that would be a terrific starting point, because right now they don't even seem to be able to do that). But they're certainly a component. I mean, you can't have gun violence without a gun, right? This alone should be enough to convince anyone that checking applicants to make sure that at the very least there's no mental illness in their histories, or felony convictions, should be de rigeur. Anything beyond those two elements is just a crap shoot anyway. But we can't even agree on that.

I don't know what the answers are, but I can tell you this: Until we work on finding them, then we're going to continue to have these periodic episodes. Once we admit that, as a culture, we are way more violent than we're willing to admit, then maybe we can fix it. We may not be violent in the sense that we blow ourselves up in the middle of a crowded mall in the middle of the day. But we're much too accepting of it; and we're far too intentionally oblivious to the other aspects of society's underbelly that, when you marry them to our insensitivity to violence, can very easily produce these types of disasters.

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