“Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” These powerful words open Jean Jacques Rousseau’s seminal work, The Social Contract. They seem oddly appropriate in the days since Newtown. It has been hard not to feel chained — to the television, to old ideas about how safe we are, or to a culture of violence that is unrelenting.
For as shocking as it was, Newtown’s horror felt all too familiar. Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, the names of places of bloodshed fall from memory with frightening ease. The wall-to-wall media coverage, the breathless (and often reckless) journalism, the body counts, the awkward/authentic medical examiner/doctor press conference, it is all the same.
We grieve. We light candles. We ask why. We move on. Lather, rinse, repeat.
When we ask why someone would do something so terrible, the answers draw a Venn diagram of violence: access to guns, mental illness, social disenfranchisement, and a culture of constantly glorified and simulated violence.
Editorialists and elected officials bemoan the easy access of guns in America and vow to do something about it. President Obama, now free from ever again facing the American electorate, seems committed to renewing a federal assault weapons ban and other gun control measures. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy added his voice to this chorus. The response is understandable regardless of how effective it might be at addressing the problem.
So too it is for mental health diagnosis and treatment. In the media scrum that follows these events, the revelation that the shooter or shooters were diagnosed with, or suspected to have, a mental illness emerges almost as a matter of routine. One in five Americans have mental health issues of varying types and severity. Expanded efforts to identify and address such diseases is undoubtedly wise, but as an answer to stopping the violence, they feel amorphous and incomplete.
The extent of the Newtown shooter’s social isolation was obvious in media coverage that followed: so few people had a relationship with him that they had to interview his barber and the plumber. It is speculated that bullying contributed to the disenfranchisement felt by the Columbine and Virginia Tech killers. It is often also tied to, and exacerbated by, the aforementioned mental health issues.
Being isolated from society means that a person’s only interaction with it comes from a culture that is filled with violence every single day — through television, movies, and video games.
This week I remembered an incident from my college days at Storrs that struck me differently now than it did then. A winter storm had my buddies and I hunkered down in the dorm for a long weekend with a few cases of the cheapest, lightest beer known to man and a marathon session of the skateboarding video game Tony Hawk. You control a skateboarder who earns points by performing different tricks and completing tasks. We played day and night for at least three days, maybe more. At the end of it, I remember our walk to the dining hall because everywhere I looked, I could see lines of Tony Hawk tricks to be done — kick flips, grinding the curbs, and board grabs in combination to earn more points. I wasn’t playing the game anymore physically, but my mind was. I wasn’t alone because one friend jumped up on a handrail and tried to slide down it on a virtual skateboard. His quick and unceremonious crash to the ground was quick and predictable.
No one got hurt and it seemed hilarious at the time, but it retrospect it strikes me differently. If we played a game for just a few days and it had us trying to be like Tony Hawk, what does Call of Duty do to a person? The title has been one of the best-selling video game series in the U.S. in 2009, 2010, 2011, and depending on holiday sales, perhaps 2012, because of its warfighting realism and robust multiplayer options. The Newtown shooter is reported to have spent hours playing Call of Duty.
Call of Duty, of course, is but one component in a swirling morass of culture that sells violence at every turn. Turn on a television — even broadcast programming is saturated with guns and bloodshed. (To the public relations firms and TV networks that subjected local viewers to jarring and repetitive Django Unchained promotions over the past week: no one thought of pulling those ads for at least a few days, at least in Connecticut? Really?)
Violent video games and movies do not cause violence. But they do create the cultural backdrop on which violent acts occur. We are rightly shocked when the violence is real. But can we truly say we are surprised?
Pulling apart that Venn diagram of violence must be the goal. In a nation of 270 million guns (with sales actually increasing after Newtown), access to guns won’t be easy to curtail. Some schools already have a security officer of some type present to deter such violence and others are considering it. If deterrence does not work, however, the thought of gunfire exchanges inside a school is frightening.
On the heels of a Presidential election that witnessed incredible leaps forward in the half-art, half-science of microtargeting, the strikingly common traits of school shooters are surely able to be modeled by modern data scientists. If Barack Obama can predict who someone is going to vote for, Bloomingdale’s can e-mail me what I need to buy, and Amazon can show me what I want to buy, there must surely be workable means for researchers to identify individuals in need of additional attention.
The cultural backdrop must change as well, not through government boards regulating morality, but through the decisions of individual consumers not to watch or buy the images that dehumanize. The skeptics of such self-directed changes should only search the twitter hashtag #26acts to be inspired.
The weight of our sadness for the victims of the Newtown shooting will never truly be lifted. But we must be committed to breaking the chains that hold our society in the tragic cycle of violence — for otherwise we would have no hope.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com