As you all know, last week’s school shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, was just the latest of several mass murders this year of Americans by American gunmen and approximately the 200th since 2006 in this country. As with every such horrific act of brutality, all of the United States weeps and condemns it, including the President of the United States.
The questions we should ask are simple: “Why does it keep on happening?” and “How can we stop it from happening again and again?” The answers are, unfortunately, not that simple. Is easy access to guns responsible for this carnage, as President Barack Obama has repeatedly warned? Are declining police presence and morale the real culprits? Maybe they are for gang- and drug-related violence in deteriorating neighborhoods, but certainly not for school and college campuses. Are poverty, race and homelessness the real causes of mass murders in the United States? Not really, for the murderers in almost all such incidents came from relatively affluent, white, middle-class families. Is mental health the real issue here? It may be in some cases, but not always, for there are sick people in every society who do not go around killing innocent people with high-powered automatic weapons.
So what is going on here? Effective gun control, arming the unarmed, policing the premises and prayers may help, but they will never be able to curb or control random acts of violence in our schools, churches and theaters. The gun control that the president so forcefully and emotionally asks for is a pipe dream. I would love to see it, and it would certainly help, but I am afraid it will never happen in the United States, certainly not in my lifetime. Furthermore, there are other Western industrialized societies with plenty of guns in private hands with almost no mass murder. Canada, Australia and Switzerland immediately come to mind. So now what?
Here is a small suggestion for all of us to consider and, if possible, promote, first among ourselves and then nationally: Let us start a conversation on the extent, causes, consequences and remedies for controlling the madness of mass murders in the United States.
It will not be just outpourings of grief and sympathy for the aggrieved, which are essential but not sufficient conditions to control the madness and stop the next killer from striking. It will also not be “tomorrow is another day.” It will be an ongoing conversation at all political and social levels from the political elites down to the common folks in our classrooms, places of worships, the media and, most important, in our homes — particularly between adults and children. It will be about the causes, consequences and control of violence in the United States.
The first priority in this conversation will be for all of us to recognize that interpersonal violence is indeed a problem — a social problem, not just random, sporadic acts of some deranged, screwed up young men that can just be ignored. This may sound trite, but I have distinguished colleagues who tell me that “murder rate in the Unites States has been consistently coming down, that in a large heterogeneous society like ours it should not be surprising to see such murders, that you cannot solve the problem of violence by talking about it, etc.” Well, I believe you can.
Second, we must ask the president to immediately appoint a semi-permanent high-level commission that would involve experts and common folks to continuously discuss and publicize the problem of recurring mass murders in our country, identify its causes and consequences and explore strategies to address it.
Comments and suggestions are invited.
Aqueil Ahmad is an adjunct professor of sociology at Elon University.