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Wednesday
Jan262011

In the aftermath of violence

The tragic killing and wounding of people in Tucson by a young man who apparently suffers from mental illness loosed a storm of verbiage and opinion from politicians and the media.  Everyone seems to agree that the word, “senseless” applies to the shootings. Some people blame the volatile political rhetoric, which has been cited as creating an atmosphere that encourages violent expression of emotions as a response to political dissatisfaction. Others dismiss such accusations and point to the gunman’s obvious mental disturbance as the sole cause of the tragedy.

There is no question that we live in a society in which violence is not only prominent, but celebrated. Video games, movies, and entertainment such as wrestling and UFC portray raw demonstrations of violence as evidence of strength and courage. No one is more honored in our society than its soldiers who risk their lives to go to war, ostensibly to defend the country, although none of our opponents in these wars has posed a direct threat to the United States since Japan in World War II. In the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, I am sure that both the federal and the Arizona state governments will clamor to gain jurisdiction over the case, each of them arguing that it should be the one that is allowed to kill the defendant if he is found guilty.

Although there is no dearth of finger pointing in the effort to assign blame for the Arizona shooter’s actions, in the end we will only be left with conjectures and opinions. If the shooter turns out to be psychotic, does that mean that the content of his delusions and thus his target was not influenced by the events, discussion and ideas that were active around him in the society of which he was a part? Who knows? Certainly the young man’s access to a gun was a societally determined issue. And, although there will no doubt be a clamor for greater  control over access to guns by people with mental health problems, such a discussion will obscure the real issue of access to guns, particularly those such as the handgun used by the suspect, which are clearly not meant for hunting wild game. One of the sillier comments made in response to the shooting was by psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, a world-renowned expert on schizophrenia, who claimed that the real issue in such a set of killings was the failure to treat mental illness, not access to semi-automatic guns. He pointed out that, even without use of a gun the killer could have injured or killed the congresswoman by using a knife or other means. Really? And would he have been able to kill six other people and wound another 19 in less than two minutes if he was only wielding a knife? Securing adequate treatment for everyone in the country who has mental illness is much more daunting a task than restricting access to semi-automatic weapons.

If we, as a society are to reduce the likelihood of events such as the one in Arizona happening again, or the other less newsworthy but equally tragic shootings that happen all too often in our neighborhoods and even in our schools, then we need to address the issues that contribute to these events. We cannot deplore the use of violence for “senseless” reasons and celebrate its use for settling disputes, for entertainment and as a form of punishment and retribution administered by the government. We cannot continue to separate easy access to the means for violence from the use of such means to commit violence, especially with such trite sayings such as, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”



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