Institute of Urban Policy
Institute of Urban Policy

Confronting Society’s Fascination with Violence

Fri, December 21, 2012

As did many people who followed news coverage of the carnage in Newtown, Conn., I wept uncontrollably at another senseless loss of young lives, broken families and unanswered questions. How could something so dire happen to children who lived in such a protective small-town suburban environment? Was the assailant a person with serious mental illness? I turned away from the incessant news coverage to reflect on the deeper meaning of Newtown and whether it mirrored reflections of who we are in our own towns, both new and old, that accept periodic but increasingly more frequent violence of all kinds.

Two issues should give us pause. First, it may be an error to focus all of the attention, anger, planning and political efforts on gun legislation rather than the broader societal context. Second, associating violent acts with mental health disorders further stigmatizes mental illness and steers the conversation away from the crux of the problem: America's deep-seated fascination with violence.

Clearly, there is a long-standing need for legislation that restricts access to specific types of weapons and large capacity ammunition clips. However, renewal of legislation that would extend the ban on assault weapons has languished in the U.S. Congress. In addition, fear that President Obama would seek such restrictions is touted as the cause of unparalleled gun sales since the start of his presidency.

I surmise that after the last Newtown child is buried, the resistance to such legislation will be as strong as the current national support for its passage. The anticipated renewal of the Second Amendment debate is really about American identity. Reshaping of that identity may reduce the perverse national appetite for guns or other weapons to keep us safe or at least give the illusion of safety. Failure to change the societal context will give rise to another "Newtown" in the coming months.

But the problem is this context in which a nation of free people believes that widespread violence is an acceptable part of the national identity. Such an identity that yields violence from guns, war, missiles, drones, suicides, drunk-driving fatalities, domestic assaults or executions may be the symbol of a deeper spiritual angst in America. This angst is reflected in the saturation of violence in our news media, best-selling novels, movies, video games, toys, sports, popular "CSI" oriented television programs and daily language. Many American heroes and national celebrations center on revered episodes that involved violence. Even our presidential elections and debates are characterized as clashes between gladiators bent on destruction of the other candidate or party.

Another key issue is our predilection to associate most wanton violence with mentally ill individuals. This false association has been part of the public story for decades and reflects the continued stigma, stereotyping and absence of understanding of these illnesses. Although the state police have hinted that there is evidence that may yield more answers, right now the assumption is that Adam Lanza had mental illness, or Asperger's (a form of autism) or a personality disorder. There are major differences between these disorders and the extent to which violence is a common feature. In most instances it is not. There seems to be an effort here to explain away this newest episode as the result of an individual's mental illness. However, it becomes too easy to dissociate acts of violence from their deeper societal roots and narrow them to some form of individual illness. The false association of illness with violence masks the contradiction between the level of societal fear of mental illness and repeated reductions in state funding and services for the mentally ill. Texas ranks last in the nation in the amount of funding for mental health services. And nationally, hospital beds for persons with serious mental illness have declined 90 percent in the past few decades. 

President Obama's remarks in Newtown helped to momentarily sooth the national agony with his expressions of concern, support and his own tears. The president indicated that this is the fourth time since the start of his presidency that he has been compelled to speak out on a violent episode. This time, unlike some of the other episodes, the victims of the violence were innocent kindergarten children, most under the age of 7. But, we must be mindful of the numerous times the life of this president has been threatened by individuals who view him as a threat. The ecumenical services that were held in Newtown magnified the essence of this small affluent town and how much it reflects the interests of cities and towns in America with dissimilar features where people simply seek peace with reasonable certainty.

What is becoming clear, but difficult to accept, is that the underlying issue in America is not so much individual episodes or rates of mental illness, but rather the mental illness of our society. Societal mental illness pervades and confounds much of our systems, policy debates, relationships, financing and priorities. Regrettably, this broader societal concept of illness is untreated and perhaps unrecognized. The context of violence in America and its dire implications for our children must be recognized and addressed lest there are more Newtowns.

When similar issues were raised about widespread poverty and how it threatened the lives of children, PresidentTeddy Roosevelt instituted the first White House Conference on Children in 1912. The conference brought about a range of new policies and services for children. As part of his policy strategy and reaction to Newtown and related episodes, Obama should convene a White House Conference on America's Children in the fall of 2013. Such a conference should focus on violence but should also examine numerous other aspects of children's lives including values, education, health, housing, poverty, mental health, homelessness and opportunity. This may be the best chance of rethinking the national identity and disrupting its acceptance of violence as a way of life and death.

Davis is the Mike Hogg Chair in Community Affairs of the University of Texas at Austin.

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