Archives For violence

I’ve been reading with fascination and sadness about the Oscar Pistorious murder case. I don’t usually follow such salacious stories — but big events in South Africa tend to capture my attention. One statistic in a Yahoo/Associated Press article about the case particularly struck me: that South Africa has the world’s second highest rate of shooting deaths, second only to Columbia.

I know that South Africa has very high crime — including a rate of 32 murders per 100,000 people that is over four times the global average. Yet I keep circling back to Mtuseni’s reaction to the Newtown shooting. He was shocked that the weapons were owned by the kid’s mother — and that people in the United States believe that owning an arsenal of guns should be legal. However, by all accounts many South Africans who are well-off own guns for protection.

I sometimes wonder about Mtuseni’s perspective on crime in his country. He knows there is a great deal of it. But I would imagine that being near the bottom of the income scale, he isn’t subjected to property crimes. And being black, he isn’t a victim of race-driven crime borne of simmering anger over past injustices and current inequities. Mtuseni was bothered by my cautious practices when I was with him in South Africa. He couldn’t understand why I hired a driver to take us to his settlement. He said that I would be safe riding the jitney bus taxis — or going to Alex township or strolling through his settlement — as long as I was with him.

I’m not a hayseed; I’ve lived in cities and actually prefer them to the ‘burbs or the country. (I’ve always said I have a decent chance when facing a crackhead who wants to rob me, but little chance when facing a bear in the country.) But I was following guidance from an American woman who travels frequently to South Africa. I will admit that her warnings made me wary. I didn’t live in fear the whole time in Joburg, but I had a more heightened state of awareness — like you needed in New York in the 70s and 80s. Having now been there once, I will probably recalibrate a little on the next trip… though I don’t believe that Mtuseni would be my magic protector.

Maybe I’m wrong on that point. Perhaps being under Mtuseni’s protective black umbrella would shield this financially comfortable white guy from South Africa’s rampant crime. (He weighs about 120 pounds soaking wet, so his brawn certainly wouldn’t do the job.) But ideals and principles and associations won’t stop a criminal. If I had brought Mtuseni into some tough parts of South Boston 25 years ago, my “white shadow” wouldn’t have protected him from racist thugs.

In the end, it’s just interesting to consider the subjective aspect of crime. We mostly think about it in terms of cold statistics. But people also color the issue with their own perspectives. Mtuseni lives in one of the world’s gun violence epicenters — yet he is shocked by Americans’ attitudes toward guns. Perhaps he has blinders on about crime in South Africa. Or maybe he’s surprised to have his idealized vision of Utopian America tarnished by our shameful reality of epidemic gun violence.

In the end, one more South African life has been cut tragically short by a gun. And another life is likely ruined. Guns… what a terrible invention, no matter what country you live in.

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Many times here I’ve griped about societal challenges in South Africa, such as the lack of readily accessible wifi or public schools without computers or libraries. Problems like these keep the country and its people from reaching their full potential, and I can’t understand the lack of urgency and creative solutions to address them.

When discussing these issues I’m not implying that America is perfect, far from it. And the most glaring demonstration of a critical problem that we seem to tacitly accept is the prevalence of guns in this society. I am loathe to admit it, but my reaction upon learning of the Sandy Hook school shooting amounted to, “Ho-hum. Another one.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s tragic and sad or I don’t grieve for the families. But my muted response is evidence that a mass shooting in America is no longer a surprise. The Columbine attack was shocking. But all these years later, such events have become the norm in this country. If it’s not a school, it’s a mall. Or a cinema. Or an office. Or another location where someone can gun down people with cold and calculated efficiency.

As in the past, people in Connecticut will light candles and sing and place stuffed animals at the site, leaving them to fester and rot in the rain. This morning the flag on my picturesque New England town common flew at half-staff, surely in acknowledgement of the school shooting. It’s a well-intentioned yet meaningless gesture. Is there a number of dead that warrant the flag to be lowered? Does it have to be more than 10? More than 20? People are killed by guns every day in this country; keep all the flags at half-staff until the madness stops.

Because nobody outside of law enforcement needs a gun. Period. Guns have too much instant, irreversible, concentrated power. I often wonder when reading about a couple’s murder-suicide whether the man (or woman) woke up and thought, “I’m going to kill my spouse today, and then kill myself.” Or more likely, in the heat of an argument, a gun in a drawer was grabbed and fired. Boom: spouse dead. And seeing the results of that split-second act, the survivor shoots himself out of shock and grief. Boom: another dead. Guns are killing machines, and they don’t have an Undo button.

But despite the growing frequency of mass shootings in this country, nothing changes. Half-hearted discussions of gun control pose pathetic solutions: Restrict the number of rounds in an ammo clip. Ban the sale of assault weapons. Check some kind of “background records” to make sure people aren’t psycho before they can buy a gun. And don’t let people buy more than several guns a month. Honestly, how many guns do you need?! The answer is zero. Gun control in this country should mean banning the sale and private ownership of all guns. Buy back all the private guns and let folks spend the money; think of it as a life-saving economic stimulus plan.

The stimulus concept might even be palatable to Republican lawmakers who decry and fight taxes by calling them “job killers.” Yet they don’t seem interested in fighting guns, which are people killers and life killers, dream killers and community killers. They’re more concerned with collecting gun-lobby money to save their own jobs than to stop the senseless violence and save the lives of the citizens they supposedly serve. One would hope that all the seasonal sentiments of Peace on Earth might turn into Peace in America next year – but Santa will have to overload the stockings of our country’s legislators with brains and consciences and cojones for that wish to come true.

Yet government isn’t solely to blame. This country’s cultural landscape is awash in unrestrained images of violence. American television will digitally mask a bit of butt crack that might appear on a Survivor contestant, or a woman’s breast as she feeds her starving child in a developing country. A glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl created mass hysteria rivaling the response to Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds. The television network was fined. Statements of apology were issued. Lawsuits were filed. And the job market for butt-crack-and-breast pixellators soared. Yet these same television networks depict graphic, stomach-churning, violent crime scenes in their drama programs every single day. Blood and gaping wounds are okay for American viewers; certain creases of skin are not. It’s fucked up; there’s no other way to put it.

The video game industry also peddles violence as sport and entertainment. Children and adults spend hours “shooting” animated characters. Industry mouthpieces claim that video games don’t lead to a rise in violent behavior. But the landmark Bobo doll experiments of 50 years ago — as well as later studies — proved differently. Except that in modern video games people aren’t watching others hit an inflatable clown; they are directly killing characters rendered in life-like detail, and being rewarded with points and charms like Pavlov’s mutts. It’s not rocket science to understand that certain fragile minds will eventually cross the line into displaying the same killing behavior in real life.

Whenever these mass shootings happen, I’m reminded of Cheryl Wheeler’s song If It Were Up to Me. The lyrics are posted below, or click the title to see it on YouTube. Yes… media imagery, video games, poverty, family abuse and many other factors can contribute to this American epidemic. But in the end, it’s about getting rid of the goddamn guns.

If It Were Up to Me

Maybe it’s the movies, maybe it’s the books
Maybe it’s the bullets, maybe it’s the real crooks
Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s the parents
Maybe it’s the colors everybody’s wearin’
Maybe it’s the president, maybe it’s the last one
Maybe it’s the one before that, what he done
Maybe it’s the high schools, maybe it’s the teachers
Maybe it’s the tattooed children in the bleachers
Maybe it’s the Bible, maybe it’s the lack
Maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s the crack
Maybe it’s the hairdos, maybe it’s the TV
Maybe it’s the cigarettes, maybe it’s the family
Maybe it’s the fast food, maybe it’s the news
Maybe it’s divorce, maybe it’s abuse
Maybe it’s the lawyers, maybe it’s the prisons
Maybe it’s the Senators, maybe it’s the system
Maybe it’s the fathers, maybe it’s the sons
Maybe it’s the sisters, maybe it’s the moms
Maybe it’s the radio, maybe it’s road rage
Maybe El Nino, or UV rays
Maybe it’s the army, maybe it’s the liquor
Maybe it’s the papers, maybe the militia
Maybe it’s the athletes, maybe it’s the ads
Maybe it’s the sports fans, maybe it’s a fad
Maybe it’s the magazines, maybe it’s the Internet
Maybe it’s the lottery, maybe it’s the immigrants
Maybe it’s taxes, big business
Maybe it’s the KKK and the skinheads
Maybe it’s the communists, maybe it’s the Catholics
Maybe it’s the hippies, maybe it’s the addicts
Maybe it’s the art, maybe it’s the sex
Maybe it’s the homeless, maybe it’s the banks
Maybe it’s the clearcut, maybe it’s the ozone
Maybe it’s the chemicals, maybe it’s the car phone
Maybe it’s the fertilizer, maybe it’s the nose rings
Maybe it’s the end, but I know one thing.
If it were up to me, I’d take away the guns.

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