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What Is the Cause of Violent and Senseless Massacres in America?

Beyond moralizing and hand-wringing, what can we do to change the societal forces that push Americans apart?

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To my ears, Obama’s and Romney’s words after the shootings fell flat. We know, Mr. President, it could have been your kids or any of ours, or any of us who go to movies. We know, Mr. Romney, that in such inexplicable moments that people take refuge in faith and it is good to be comforting others. We were clinically told by ‘wise’ pundits, such as the liberal Republican David Brooks on NPR, that gun control would not have stopped this madman. A few officials, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, called for same gun laws. But mostly we’re told don’t go there—don’t open that Pandora’s box.

But these boxes are opening, whether we like it or not. The little we know about the shooter suggests he was a serious student and lonely. We do not know where the seed of his insane violent fantasy began. Of course, no government can stop every would-be madman from acting out. But what can government do to lower the temperature in the room? What can people and institutions with money, power or influence do to address anxieties in American life?

Or is life in America in the 21st century fated to go backward in time—back into the brutish 20th century’s decades of wars, and back into the Hobbesian state of nature, where everyone increasingly is an island? Where the government’s role is only to help individuals prosper under capitalism, or to ensure everyone has the right to keep a battery of military-level weapons in their homes under the guise of "self-defense"? Where the great hi-tech tools that tie us together somehow are used more for invading our privacy and taking dollars from our pockets, leaving us more isolated instead of empowered.

Where does the power to change what’s so obviously wrong and out-of-kilter in America come from? It’s not just individuals demanding it. We on the left have had that for years. There have to be receptive ears and a willingness and ability to act—for once beyond self-interest—by those we entrust with power. What will it take for them to listen and to act?

What other choice do we have but to try to use our imperfect and corrupt political system? If we are wealthy, we may be able to retreat into gated communities. If we are angry and alone, we may be tempted to go down in a blaze of terrible psychotic glory. Neither are acceptable choices, or even options, to me. Surely, I’m not alone in pondering these matters.

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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