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PlatoThe maniacal acts of violence at Sandy Hook elementary and in Webster, NY, as well as the spree of stabbing attacks in China over the past two years leaving 20 children dead and 100 wounded has fueled an international conversation about everything from gun control to mental health reform to the impact of violent video games.  But these debates have been hashed out and re-hashed for decades and the reality is no government-legislated or institutional solution will prevent violent acts against innocent people.

How We Get it Wrong

I won’t speak for other cultures but it seems the West has long been a society driven by fear more than any other feeling or emotion. At the top of the list is fear of anything we cannot predict or control. A close second is fear of being controlled by others.  This dichotomy is woven into our fabric and it drives the never-ending debate over gun ownership, immigration, socialism, homeland security and/or what constitutes free speech. These issues share the common thread in their ties to our fear of losing control or being controlled.

I am agnostic about the gun issue in this country. I don’t own a gun and I’ve always been a little nervous about the idea of keeping one in my home but the right to own a gun is protected in our constitution and that’s where it ends for me. Other than that, I don’t believe the answer to the violence we’ve seen lately is guns, whether it be banning them or putting them in the hand of every American. Nor is it violent video games. When I was a boy, adults expressed very similar concerns about the impact of violence portrayed in Wiley E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.

How We Make It Worse

Our fear and the compulsion to control what can’t be controlled has been the catalyst for the erosion or outright disintegration of human and civil liberties throughout our short history in America. It was how we rationalized the interment of Japanese Americans in WWII and how we tolerated the communist witch-hunt of the 1950’s.  It’s why we turned a complacent eye to things like the Patriot Act and why we begrudgingly accepted the invasive and indiscriminant searches of old ladies and children at every airport.  We justify these transgressions because we fear what might happen if we take no action but our history shows that collective actions fed by fear never bode well and only fuel the very anxiety we try to assuage.

The Westchester Journal in upstate New York took one such action this past week when they published the names and addresses of gun owners in and around the town’s readership to an interactive Google map.  The paper’s editors said they felt it was important that residents knew who in their neighborhoods had weapons but they have yet to say why. Are readers supposed to feel more or less safe with this information? Do they use it to identify which homes might house the next mass murderer? Will this information help to predict or prevent another tragedy … or did this myopic act do little more than invite discord among neighbors or worse, provide an interactive guide for burglars to target homes that aren’t defended by a gun?

Just as fear has wrought some of the greater violations of civil liberties and human rights in the past century, hope and a vision of what we might become has inspired some of the greatest harbingers of positive change. King, Gandhi, Lincoln, Chavez … they did not put the responsibility for change on government or on their adversaries. They preached self-respect, responsibility, compassion and inclusiveness. They changed the world because their ideas were not motivated by fear but by hope of what we could be.

How We Affect Change

It’s easy to say humankind seems predisposed to atrocities and violence but there’s more going on than that. Within two weeks of the Sandy Hook massacre, an estimated 70 elementary aged children were killed at the hands of violent parents or caretakers in the United States and as many as an additional estimated 40 children were killed but their deaths were not reported as abuse because nothing was said. A study by the Center for Disease Control revealed that 16 percent of students from 9th to 12th grade contemplated suicide and 8 percent carried it out. A study from the UK in 2001 revealed that one in every 75 children under the age of 10 had attempted to hurt or kill themselves and the rate remains constant. It seems to me we might be sowing what we reap.

There are people in this world that are flat out bad people from the day they’re born, I do believe that. But they are the exception. Ultimately, children and the adults they become are a product of their environment. If they are mistreated, disrespected, marginalized and abused by their parents, siblings, teachers and other adults, they will develop accordingly.

Government legislation and vilifying those on the right or left won’t change anything.  We should start with looking in the mirror and asking what personal actions have we taken to hold ourselves accountable for the society to which we belong and have created …

… do we reach out to our neighbors, coworkers or classmates when we sense something is wrong?

… do we say something when an adult treats a child cruelly or without respect?

… do we recognize the signs of mental illness?

In short, do we recognize the behaviors that create the monsters of our time or do we turn a blind eye, taking a path of least resistance, telling ourselves it’s none of our business?

The challenge for all of us is to spend less energy blaming, pointing fingers, vilifying or fixating on bandage solutions to cover the symptoms while refusing to tackle the disease at its core.  We must turn inward to decide what capacity we have to bring respect and compassion to our daily interactions and lives.

Starting with that seems like the only organic way to truly evolve and impact those things we cannot predict or prevent. It is the only thing we can truly control.

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