Update: In the comment below, John provides a clarification on my statistic that about 11,000 people are killed every year. He makes an important point that according to Center for Disease Control projections, deaths by guns will exceed deaths from automobile accidents by 2015. in citing the 11,000, I was citing only gun deaths by homicide and did not make that clear. In fact, in 2010 the gun deaths were: Suicide 19,308; Homicide 11,015; Accident 600. For more on the CDC projection, follow the link John provided.
The fact that so many people believe in slogans rather than fact-based statements and reasoned discussion of them indicates where the massive moral and intellectual failures that produce events like the Newtown shootings lie. A few years back, when forests and prairielands grew dead and sere, we had to face the facts about the environment and the acid rain it created. We made progress, until the climate-change debate mired down in the malicious ignorance of those who resent the costs of staying alive and healthy. We are facing the intellectual and moral equivalent of acid rain in the matter of mass killings of people who are guilty of nothing more than living their lives.
The controlling factor in addressing the mentalities that do the mass killings is that we do not want to confront the fact that we have no idea how to identify those people who have drifted into a state of hopeless, demented rage. That is because we do not want to face the possibilities that things we do and say might contribute to that hopeless, demented rage. We do not want to confront the fact that we might not be a decent society. Instead, we retreat into pretenses of decency. Whether you want to express it in terms of original sin or in the scientific history of the species, human beings are not innately benign. Nor are they innately malignant. They have the ability to be what they want to be, except in those cases of severe mental disability. That is why we have laws that distinguish between premeditated murder, which is done by conscious will, and murder by insanity, a loss of mental capacity. Just as we have factors in our culture that disable people physically we have factors that disable them mentally. Things we do and say affect people and drive them into that slough of hopeless despondency. Usually, the despondent commit suicide. Sometimes they take other people out on their way to suicide.
Our response to suicide is indicative of the moral cowardice that compromises so much of the social attitude. Suicide is the ultimate act of rejection. We regard suicides as offenses that we are helpless to prevent. Still, suicide leaves survivors with a lasting trauma. That is because it is difficult to escape, no matter how much we condemn the suicide, that perhaps we contributed to the intolerable circumstances that drove a person to end his/her life. The implied rejection is what bothers us so much. But we look for exonerations from our role as part of society which may have motivated suicide rather than examine things that we have said or done that contribute to the acid rain in the environment in which a disturbed person lives.
The symptom of our social mailaise is in what we misterm bullying. A bully is one who torments those who are smaller and weaker. But what young people in our schools who have committed suicide experienced was not basic bullying. What they experienced was exclusion and social persecution, something more orchestrated and complex. What these young people experienced has its model in what the Jews in Germany experienced in the 1930s and what Jews in the Nazi-occupied countries experienced.
Folks who frequent the Internet like to invoke Godwin's Law when the Nazi era is mentioned. Godwin's Law is that as soon as a person mentions Nazis or Hitler in an argument, the argument is ended. The Holocaust is often brought up in specious and ignorant ways. But Godwin's Law avoids looking at the biggest atrocity of the 20th century and understanding the pertinent lessons from it. The Holocaust was predicated on systemized exclusion and social persecution of the Jews and other minorities that culminated in the systemized mass murder of the death camps. Those of us who study and teach rhetoric trace the development of propaganda techniques used in applying exclusion and social persecution in a way that affected the way people perceive and think about the society they live in. Like school children anxious to be included as equals, people were so anxious to be part of the super race that they suspended all moral activity and intellectual knowledge that might give them moral and intellectual pause about the atrocities committed around them. Many even participated. The countries occupled by the Nazis provided many collaborators. Tlhey not only understood what was happening to the Jews, but they cooperated because they thought doing so would ingratiate them with the Nazi hierarchy and earn them a place among the privileged. It is a classic example of when human society reverts to the customs of the dog pack and people strive to get closer to the alpha status by excluding and persecuting those they regard as omegas in status. It is the attitude which labels a portion of the population as the 47 or 33 percent as unworthy contaminants of the superior race and can, therefore, be dismissed and eventually disposed of. The ambition gaine status with pack leaders is dependent upon a total moral and intellectual failure.
While the study of rhetoric embraced new forms of propaganda that compromised genuine rhetorical exchange resulting from the holocaust and over brain-washing techniques of the Soviet Union and its Chinese counterparts, the rules of intelligent discussion were established in our earliest literature. Chapter 26 of Proverbs provides a thorough guide of what does not qualify as legitimate human expressions that carry genuine ideas and value. It describes what kind of human utterances are foolery and should not be allowed to intrude upon purposeful dialogue. Some of the criteria for foolery are described:
- It is like cutting off one's foot and drinking down violence, to send a message by a fool.
- The legs of a disabled person hang limp; so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
- Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.
- Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them.
A survey of comments in online newspaper articles or on blogs shows the deadly dysfunction of those who presume to be discussants of important issues. The comments after one blog post which takes up the foolery of teachers being armed in their classrooms is a case in point. Totally unable grasp what the mass slaughter of twenty 6 and 7 year olds signifies about our culture and our country, many choose to wallow in their own vomitus. Proverbs gives us the reasons why it is wrong and dangerous to give their utterances the same credibility and attention as the comments that are informed, reasoned, and striving to comprehend and cure a raging malignancy that renders our society dangerously ill. The utterances of fools contribute to the acid rain of ignorant self-assertion that feeds the despair. They are utterances characterized by aggressive meanness that celebrates their ignorance and ill will as badges of honor and status in the dog pack.
What they do is more than simple bullying. They contribute to the deadly corrosion of the verbal environment that contributes to the despairing rage of those who finally engage in acts of perverted violence because such destruction and degradation appears to them as the hallmark of the culture. They do not need to be specific targets of exclusion and persecution to absorb the messages of the process.
Mao Zedong said "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Those who so worship firearms that they believe fire power is what created the United States and is the essential factor in keeping it free accept Mao's words as the controlling dogma of their lives. The 11,000 people killed by firearms each year in the U.S., which includes 8 children every day, is the legacy of those who probably detest Mao Zedong but nevertheless act out his formula for power.
We have created a culture of violence. The gun is the symbol and the sacrament of power to many. In the gun catechism, power is the ability and means to destroy other people, not to build a functioning society of inclusion. The objective is to exclude and to persecute and ultimately to exterminate. Our entertainment, our television, movies, and video games are constant drills in this catechism of systematic destruction. It has been counterpointed by the realities of the jihad, which has succeeded in converting many Americans to its mode of operation, if not to its belief system.
The matter of mass murders cannot be examined only by looking at gun regulation and mental health issues. It must be approached by examining how and why our culture has accepted the belief that power comes out of the barrel of a gun and not out of books and media which contain the best that has been thought and said. It is not insignificant that in the effort to reform our schools, the study of language and literature, that study which gives people access to and comprehension of what is thought and said, has been reduced to an expendable and optional curricular consideration. Any examination of mass shootings will have to include what our culture has become and how it got that way.
A large cult, that has been able to influence our policies and our culture, is single-mindedly concerned that gun regulation will ultimately mean that their guns will be taken away. They blithely ignore that their sacrament is used to take away the lives of 11,000 people every year. And unlike automobile accidents, this taking of life is planned and deliberate. (Yes, they will argue that it's okay to kill 11,000 sentient people a year as long as abortions take place on insentient life.)
We will also have to examine the matter of our drone strikes and the "collateral" killings they have caused among the innocent. Our entire culture and what it has become is the issue here.
The question is whether America is up to this kind of examination and discussion. The answer would seem to be, no. But if one follows the rhetorical precepts of Proverbs 26 and puts the fools in their place, such a discussion can take place and re-establish intelligence, knowledge, and hope as the currency of productive thought. And in the process, re-establish America itself.