Do we turn inward to retreat or say ‘Enough’?
Over the weekend, in reaction to the awful events of the past week, a woman I know well, an immigrant to the U.S. and now a citizen, asked me, “What is wrong with your country?” She was being facetious, because it is her country, too – but it did not feel like the country to which she (and my grandfather) had immigrated.
At its best, our country is a place of opportunities and constant striving for equity, fairness and advancement, even if imperfectly achieved. It doesn’t feel like that place now. It is more like an alien planet, where hate, violence, racism and meanness have been unleashed to wreak havoc and drive us apart from one another, away from love, empathy and understanding. I believe there will be a rebalancing, because that generally has been the way forward.
Multiple amazing, accomplished, visible, public people were targeted last week with pipe bombs. The alleged perpetrator appears to be someone consumed by hatred, a person who finds the current president not sufficiently racist.
On Wednesday, two people were gunned down at a Kroger grocery store in Louisville, Ky., minutes after the alleged shooter attempted but failed to gain entry to the First Baptist Church. The victims were black; the perpetrator, a white male, reportedly told a bystander, before he drove away, that “whites don’t shoot whites.”
As has happened in the past, on Saturday morning, a place of worship was targeted — this time, it was the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., where 11 congregants were murdered and six people were injured, including four police officers. The alleged perpetrator was someone who frequented a relatively new social media site that claims to cater to those who believe that popular, established sites “censor conservative views.” There, he had expressed his hatred repeatedly and freely. He owned 21 guns registered in his name. Why did he need 21 guns?
The New York Times Editorial Board wrote that violent crime is at a historic low in this country, but that hate appears to be on the rise. That includes both racism and anti-Semitism.
No safe place
Saturday, it was a synagogue, but churches and mosques also have been targeted for senseless, seemingly random acts of unspeakable violence. No religion or group is exempt from being victimized; no place completely safe. Shopping centers, movie theaters and grocery stores can be targets. Schools and hospitals are targets. Concert venues are. Homes are not safe; spouses are not immune to violence, nor parents, nor children. Although I have focused here on famous people and visible events, we know that vulnerable communities experience the most violence, day-in and day-out.
The rituals of shock and mourning are playing out, yet again, in Pittsburgh and Louisville. The dead are remembered and honored; people leave flowers to mark the sites; some politicians speak eloquently about the need for stricter controls on gun ownership, and some, on the other side, argue for the Second Amendment. We read and hear about another loner who spewed hateful rhetoric on an internet site, but apparently no one could intervene.
Nothing will change if we continue to use the same playbook and let polemics overshadow the practical reality that guns enable unspeakable violence. Sadly, another event will eclipse the most recent tragedy at Tree of Life. Our rituals may dull the pain, but they do not prevent the next horrific incident.
A tipping point for action?
There is a great sense of unease in the air, a growing fear about what’s happening and a resignation to it, an erosion of personal agency. We’re all only onlookers or victims.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise and are being normalized in public life. Politicians and the public tolerate and elevate hateful rhetoric on social media; anti-Semitic and racist overtones are employed in campaign ads; and bigotry goes unchecked.
We could turn inward and give up, as the possibility of achieving constructive action sometimes seems so remote and unlikely – or we could view the present as the tipping point, when public opinion tilts definitively toward positive action. In the U.S., although we have experienced the pain of violence personally, collectively and repeatedly, we haven’t said, Enough! Enough! We should not believe that the present is normal or unchangeable.
“All Americans and all responsible leaders from across our society must step forward and clearly denounce this hate,” Greenblatt said. We must “speak out clearly and forcefully against anti-Semitism, scapegoating and bigotry in our society.”
I denounce hate, bigotry in all its forms, and violence, and will continue to do so.
Solutions to the public health crisis of gun violence
I also advocate proactive, constructive action to reduce gun violence in this country. Gun violence is a public health crisis.
We know, statistically, that most of us will not be killed by guns. Yet every year, thousands of us are. In fact, “an average of 35,000 people are killed with guns every year—96* each day,” according to the Center for American Progress, citing current CDC data.
National Vital Statistics Reports (November 2017) lists 36,252 deaths in the U.S. from injury by firearms in 2015, including 12,979 homicides and 22,018 suicides. Hundreds more gun deaths were unintentional, undetermined or due to legal intervention or war. Thousands more people have close calls or are injured. I wrote last year about my husband being held up at gunpoint in our garage. He was unharmed.
“Yet this violence is not inevitable,” the Center for American Progress says:
Every other developed nation in the world does a better job of protecting its people from gun violence. The gun murder rate in the United States is 25 times higher than it is in peer nations, and American teenagers are 82 times more likely to die from a gun homicide than their international peers.
Even more sobering is the rate of child deaths resulting from gunshot wounds in high-gun states. An Oct. 29 New York Times opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof, “It’s Time to Talk About the NRA,” cited a 2011 article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine comparing child deaths in the 15 states with highest household gun ownership and the six states with the lowest:
Each group of states has a similar number of children ages 5 to 14, and those children die at similar rates from suicide and homicide where guns are not involved. But children in high-gun states are 2.2 times as likely to be murdered with guns, and almost 9 times as likely to kill themselves with guns, as children in low-gun states.
The rates of accidental shooting deaths in the comparison were similar to the rates of suicide.
“There are no magic solutions to gun violence in America, but neither is reducing the toll an impossible challenge,” Kristof wrote. Kristof knows something about the issues, having grown up on a farm with guns and being a former member of the NRA.
The solution to mass shooting is not to put guards in every building, because there will never be enough guards. That’s a downstream solution, not prevention, which is an upstream, public health solution. We must change policies and change how we deal with hatred. It’s not OK for so many American people to die by gunfire and violence.
Below are six good tips for action from the Center for American Progress. Surely, each of us can do something, even if it is simply to keep the conversation going.
*Per-day estimates vary considerably, depending on the source.
Steps that could be taken right now
There is no single, simple solution to reducing gun violence in this country. However, there are a number of common-sense steps that would be a great place to start—steps that could be taken right now, according to the Center for American Progress.
- Ban Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Ammunition Magazines
- Enable the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Research Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue
- Require Background Checks for All Gun Sales
- Support Local Violence Prevention and Intervention Programs
- Disarm All Domestic Abusers
- Make Extreme Risk Protection Orders Available in Every State
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.