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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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There is so much to be said about the Aurora Colorado movie massacre, and so much that should be done—starting with reversing America’s insane love of guns and glamorization of violence. But beyond moralizing, who has the power to change any of this?

Everyone has their personal reaction to this deranged melee. Among my circles, only a few people even wanted to talk about it. They were really angry. Some wondered what might have stopped or steered the perpetrator to another fate. Some said any of us could have been victims. Some said there is so much gun violence that goes unacknowledged or is soon forgotten—seven dead in Oakland in seven days, a cop kills someone in San Francisco’s financial district. These comments are not profound or unique, but they raise a question for me: not what can be done to stop this madness, but who can do it? Where? How?

And it’s not just the latest psychotic episode that qualifies as madness. There’s so many maddening things that are not getting done, not getting discussed, not getting addressed—issues and causes and concerns that fill the newspapers, airwaves and blogs.

These days, I am more struck by what doesn’t happen than by what does. I wonder if we as individuals and a society have become so isolated, so independent, so reliant upon our smartphones and tech tools, that we have lost touch with one another. We no longer even expect our public institutions to do anything meaningful to address meaningful problems.

There is something going on in America that is pushing people further apart and into more isolated lives—and sometimes to extreme thoughts and extreme actions. It’s a big paradox. We are more connected to each other by technology, but emotionally we are more divided and more psychologically distant. Apparently, there are more adults living alone in America at any time in its history—one in seven, I heard on a recent local public radio book show. Most are women. Most are in cities. But for all this apparent freedom and individuality and boundary-breaking lifestyles, I see people slipping through cracks. They know nobody wants to hear about their problems.

Did any of you look at Facebook in the 24 hours since the shooting? I did. It was weird—and another example of my noticing what’s not going on. There was one comment about Aurora—a friend deplored that his ex-employer, the Discovery Channel, had some new show glamorizing guns. Nobody else commented on it. Most posts were pictures of kids, gardens, music festivals, changed profile pictures, rants on going vegan and not killing animals. At first, I sighed. But in a world where we seem to have little power to change big problems, I guess it’s not unreasonable for people to celebrate life where they find it, or create it, or escape from it, or think they can control it.

But what about the big stuff? What about ending the madness in gun violence, ending the madness in an electoral system that has become a playground for the rich, or saying no to corporate America’s takeover of even more corners and details of our lives? What about climate change? Or raising taxes to pay for schools and safety nets? How can we be ever more in touch via technology, yet feel powerless to acknowledge and fix obvious problems?

When will the people who actually have the power and responsibility—elected federal officials, federal judges, senior corporate executives; those with real money, power and influence—do something big and risky on behalf of the public’s genuine interests, in response to how most people feel about the anxieties in our lives in 2012?  

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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