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Sorry, Nothing Personal

Recently the news media reported yet another massacre, this one in Nebraska. Those things are always horrific and scary, and we all hope that nothing like it ever happens to us. The more thoughtful among us contemplate what we would do if we were to be there when something like that happens. And an even smaller number of people wonder what we ought to be able to do in such circumstances. There are also other social implications of that type of event, and I hope to consider all of the above issues in this essay.

Leaving aside deliberate killings from political terrorism and those that happen incidental to some other crime, like bank robbery, the multiple murders we have seen over the past few decades bear a certain similarity. Someone who is very angry, sad, depressed or crazy kills a number of other people, usually at least some of them known personally to him, and often others whom he somehow associates with the ones he knew, and shoots at and kills them. (In the current Omaha shooting at a shopping mall, early reports indicate that the shooter wasn’t acquainted with the victims.) I have written elsewhere why I don’t have much sympathy for the perpetrators. (For another thoughtful consideration of this issue, see the essay “Virginia Tech” by Jonathan Wallace in the Ethical Spectacle.)

The shooter usually considers the victims known to him (or her) as people who have hurt him somehow, whether by teasing, bullying, making fun of or belittling him, jilting him, breaking up a marriage, alienating children, or by other things along those lines. Often other people killed (or injured or seriously threatened) are associated somehow with the primary victims, but they might just happen to be there when the great eruption of unconstrained anger and emotion occurs. Then, the usual result is that the perp kills himself or commits “suicide by cop.” This might be a sad ending or a just ending, but it is definitely an ending to the specific horror.

I am neither an expert in such things nor even particularly a student of them. So much is printed about those incidents, however, that one can hardly help absorbing information about and thinking about them. One thing that has become clear to me is that there is usually at least some substance to the killers’ complaints, some legitimacy to their grievances, and sometimes quite a lot of it. There have even been some of those cases in which I felt that one or more of the victims really needed killing. I do not, of course, really feel that actually doing such things is in any way acceptable in modern society; under­standable, perhaps, but not acceptable. If we don’t try very hard to understand those events from the point of view of the killers, there is no way society will ever prevent them, nor even find ways to minimize the destruction.

The Bad Solution

Too often some people, particularly gun control advocates, opportunistically start calling for increased firearm restrictions, using the tragic events for their own narrow purposes.1 This kind of “remedy” will not only not fix anything, it will likely make things worse, in multiple ways:

  • It won’t prevent the shooters from getting weapons. The Virginia Tech killer was legally prohibited from buying a gun because of recognized mental problems. Unfortunately, his records had not been included in the National Instant Check system that is used to identify people who cannot legally buy guns, so he was able to purchase them. (The incident has spurred states to start supplying those records.) The recent Omaha killer stole his weapon, as did other killers in the past.
  • Restrictions on owning and carrying weapons by law-abiding people make it difficult for people at the scene to take immediate action to limit casualties. The Omaha incident was all over and the shooter dead before the first police officer arrived at the location.
  • Every such restriction is one more step toward losing our fundamental liberties.

Any successful way of preventing all or most such massacres will have to do with keeping the potential killers from wanting to go out and slaughter people. That is much easier said than done.

Looking at Things Differently

Somewhere along the line, all of those killers were lost to civilized society. Although the circumstances for all of them vary, someone or a lot of someones allowed them to become what they became. Most likely there were accumulations of problems that festered and got worse over time. Was there something organic or genetic wrong with some of them? If so, they were not treated enough and/or the were not segregated from the people they hurt. Did parents not care enough, or were they overwhelmed with life and couldn’t help? Were the proto-shooters bullied, teased or ostracized by others in their schools or communities? Why didn’t someone protect them and put a stop to it? Whatever was going on, those people were not receiving the personal attention they deserved at the time they needed it. It might have been parents, teachers, medical professionals or other adults who failed them, but someone let them down, probably over and over again. Although I’ve said that I didn’t have any sympathy for them after they killed people, I probably would have sympathized greatly when they were going through whatever it was that got them all twisted up.

Bullying in particular is a terrible thing for a child to face. I have some experience with it, and I’ll take this opportunity to share it.

  • Sometime around second or third grade I was doing something I shouldn’t have been. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was some kind of petty (not injurious, but unwelcome) harassment of other kids on the way home from school, and the school was told about it. Unlike today, the schools then took responsibility for kids from when they left home in the morning until they got home after school. The next day in school, the principle (who was also a full-time teacher) intercepted me in the hallway and escorted me to the supply storeroom. Other kids saw it and a crowd gathered outside the closed door, as I’m sure the man intended. I got a stern talking to, and then he reached into a box and took out a wooden yard-stick. He raised it up and brought it down with a loud crack!, hard enough to break the stick — not on my behind, but on a table top — and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Then he told me again that I shouldn’t do things like I’d done and wasn’t to discuss what happened in that room with any of the other kids. I would have been too scared and ashamed to, anyway, and never in my life did I do any such thing again. We left the supply room, he with the broken yardstick plainly in his hand, into the group of children gathered outside, all with eyes as big as saucers. I think a lesson was learned that day by more than one kid.
  • In roughly the same part of my life, Steve, a neighborhood kid, took to bullying me. We were friends, and it was just some stage in his life. Physically, he was a moose, very big and strong for his age. I was average sized, but fat. One day after he had pushed me down off the sidewalk into the street a couple of times, I ran home and told my dad. He came out, grabbed us both by the shoulder, walked us to a nearby sand lot and told us to settle it. We started flailing, in the ineffectual way that little kids fight. At one point, Steve picked up a handful of sand to throw in my face, but my dad prevented him. Shortly thereafter I got in a lucky punch to Steve’s nose and it started to bleed, taking all of the fight out of him. He left in tears and went home; I felt very exhilarated. After that we went back to being friends and there was never any more trouble.
  • Years later, probably in sixth or seventh grade, after moving to another town, I started getting picked on by a couple of older kids on the street, Richie and Harry. After one bad incident, I told my dad and we walked up and down the street talking to the parents. Richie’s parents said they would talk to him. Then we went to Harry’s house. His dad came out the front door with Harry. The father was a short, stocky, muscular man with no apparent neck. When he heard what his son had done, he slammed Harry so hard that he was knocked down the front steps and sprawled on the concrete front walk. Then he told his kid that if he ever did anything like that again, he would hang him from the telephone pole. Evidently, Harry took it to heart and I never had any problems with him again. I heard that he turned out ok and later, with a brother, opened a seafood store and restaurant in town that was popular for years.

Something Personal

Kids need protectors and defenders. They might be parents, teachers, doctors or social workers, but someone has to give them personal attention to prevent their victimizations by others from causing permanent damage. In the case of bullying, it might take a big brother or an adult to to give the bully the beating of his or her life, breaking bones and teeth and putting the person in the hospital. I don’t mean to say that it requires violence, but someone has to get the bully’s attention, and if it takes a beating, so be it. And society and the law have to support the bully’s victims and never the bully, no matter what! No even-handedness, no weak-kneed discipline, no ineffectual counseling or legal proceedings, but whatever it takes. Regardless of the methods used, the primary ingredient is personal involvement. The alternative will be more and more massacres because acting out in lesser ways just doesn’t get noticed anymore.

The whole of modern U.S. society is missing the personal touch in so many ways. There are real solutions, if people will look at our current mess and decide to change things. Business has sped up and overworked people so much in recent decades that few have the time or energy to get personally involved. But, we have a democracy:

  • We can control business if people shrug off the propaganda they have been fed over the years and exercise their democracy.
  • We can control crime if we get involved. It will be messy, but it can be done.
  • People defend themselves and others all of the time, but the major media, with its awful biases, don’t publicize it and put it into perspective.
  • We don’t needed a police state and lose our liberties to fight domestic terrorism. The country needs the government to supply technology and intelligence, and to handle things beyond this country’s borders, but we don’t government agents with special powers, we don’t need torture and we don’t need a war in Iraq. We need people personally looking out for each other. Why spend money on air marshals when allowing citizens to legally carry weapons on aircraft would solve the problem?

I know full well that there will be many people appalled by such ideas. They will complain that the country will turn into Dodge City, that blood will run in the streets. Those people are the ones who think only experts and bureaucrats can solve the country’s problems. They have become more like sheep than people. They don’t trust their fellow Americans. They don’t have any solutions to get the country out if its current state except more of the same things we have been doing in the past. They are people who benefit from the status quo and don’t want, or haven’t the guts, to rock the boat. They have no vision, at least nothing that we can get to from here.

It will indeed take something personal, not only to stop or minimize these massacres, but to get this country onto a path that can make for happy lives for Americans. It will be neither easy nor quick, but if not started, this country will fail.

December 7, 2007

_____________________________________

1 Right after the Virginia Tech shootings, the Brady Campaign gun control organization started prescribing remedies even before the facts of the situation were known. Afterward they sent out a fundraising letter, requesting $32 contributions for themselves, $1 for each person killed. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine said of the Brady stunt “People who want to take this within 24 hours of the event and make it … their political hobby horse to ride, I’ve got nothing but loathing for them. To those who want to … try to make this into some little crusade … I say take that elsewhere. Let this community deal with grieving individuals and be sensitive to those needs.”
 

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