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“We have met the enemy and it is us”—Pogo
A few years ago just as I was about to deliver a lecture on ‘violence in war and peace’ in the auditorium of a large public university in the US the event was interrupted by police responding to a bomb threat. Although police dogs did not sniff out a bomb, the lecture was rescheduled and moved to the palatial home of the dean of undergraduate studies who lived in a suburban gated community. Or, rather, who lived in a gated community that had grown, my genial host explained, like a solid wall of invading kudzu around his lovely faux Frank Lloyd Wright home precariously encased in glass. The dean assured me that we would not be stopped or inspected by security guards posted at a kiosk at the gates of his community that evening. On principle he had refused to pay the membership dues that supported the elaborate security system that monitored the movements of all residents and their guests. A godfather clause permitted him to do so.
The whole thing was absurd, he said angrily. The real threat was not, as feared, from the surrounding low income neighborhoods but from inside the gated complex itself. Scattered among the upper middle class professionals living there were some arrivistes who had climbed the economic if not the social ladder by involvement in the local drug trade. One of these was the next door neighbor with whose children my host’s seven year old son and five year old daughter had struck up a friendship. One afternoon his children came back with the usual stories of hide and seek, cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians, but on this occasion they boasted using real guns owned by the neighbor children’s parents. Complaints were made, apologies delivered, and the guns were moved to a more secure locked cabinet, but the dean and his family remained trapped inside a pistol-packing, gun-loaded located gated community. He was considering selling his lovely home but would he have to inform prospective buyers about the private armory next door?
This was not the first time that a lecture I gave (or attended) was interrupted by violence. The first time was in 1994 at the University of Cape Town, just before the election of Nelson Mandela, when a short but deadly period of political anarchy created a vacuum during which several hundred civilians —black, brown and white— were killed in massacres in pubs, schools, worker hostels, churches and gasoline stations.1 The Cape Town faculty knew how to duck and hide during academic lockdowns which occurred with alarming frequency. One of these lock downs occurred during a guest lecture by the British literary scholar, Terry Eagleton, who for some reason I was charged with introducing. Although I reassured Eagleton that the calls and response between police and angry protestors were more symbolic than actual skirmishes, being ‘locked down’ by police in the arts block building surrounded by angry, toyi-toying crowds, some of the protestors waving traditional weapons, felt as weirdly crazy as being locked down in an armed suburban gated community. My initial impulse was to flee through the basement of the building and join the protesters, but under the circumstances, we simply waited it out.
Later, in 2001, just prior to a lecture I was to give on organs trafficking at the Social Anthropology Department of Hebrew University a dud of a bomb exploded just outside the entrance to the grand old campus on Mount Scopus. The damage was minor. No one was hurt, and everyone in the audience seemed relaxed, except me. After the talk an Israeli colleague confided that people were so accustomed to a daily dose of violent aggression that they ‘missed’ them when they didn’t happen for a period. “It is as if our bodies are wired or primed for the violence and we become bored during the quiet periods.” I replied that some of us in California felt that way when too much time passed without a moderate earthquake or temblor or two.
These three vignettes on the normalization of violence all concern cultures of violence in countries at war, either at home or abroad. Violence begets violence. In Israel one learns to be cool when a teenage soldier’s rifle brushes against one in a public bus. In South Africa one learned to drive one’s car away from the sides of the road and to speed quickly under pedestrian overpasses to avoid an angry shelling of large stones. In the US we use a different normalization strategy: we go limp and hibernate like obedient little dormice at the tea table. Americans have learned to silence and censor themselves by, for example, collapsing to the powerful gun lobby and to fundamentalist interpretations of our Constitution as if it were all inevitable. If it was our Bible rather than our Constitution we would never allow it, at least not in progressive circles. You really expect us to believe that when ‘God separated light from darkness’ he meant to tell us that race segregation is God’s will? But we politely acquiesce to censorship by gun supporters and the NRA, or worse, we respond with self-censorship.
For example, the New York Times invited its readers to participate in the weekly ‘Sunday Dialogue’ on December 18th, 2012, on the assigned topic: “Beyond Gun Control” in response to the Sandy Hook Kindergarten Massacre. The editors message was: no fruitless dialogue on gun control. Get over it! The gunslingers already have won the war. Let’s move on…
When I mentioned that I was writing an essay on the tiny tot massacre in New England, a distinguished senior colleague advised sternly: “Do not write about guns. You are an anthropologist. Write about what you know. Write about culture, write about cultures of violence”. Yes, indeed. But America’s culture of violence is steeped in a deadly historical romance with handguns, pistols, rifles, M-16s, machine guns and military assault weapons. There is no comparable romance with, let us say, swords, spears, longbows, or battering rams, except for tidbits of Nordic mythology in cult film, cult games like dungeons and dragons and hopelessly nerdy Renaissance faires.
As a government recruiter for the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War, I built a successful US-wide campus recruitment campaign around a slogan and a poster I designed with potential Vietnam draftees in mind: “Shovels Don’t Jam like M-16s. Join the Peace Corps”. [Peace Corps was not an official alternative to military service in those days but it certainly delayed being drafted while a PCV was in service overseas]. However, once Peace Corps Washington learned about the campaign I was ordered to end it immediately. It was not only ‘inappropriate’ but I was told that I could face prosecution under the appropriately named Hatch Act 2. Once again, I was told not to talk about guns and war and to talk about what I knew best, as a former Peace Corps Volunteer in the slums of Brazil: peace and latrines.
Years later I received a tongue lashing from Prof. Glenn Wilson, the charismatic and outspoken founder of the Department of Social Medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “You can teach our medical students any damn thing you think they need to know, Nancy, but for Christ sake don’t talk about the public health risks and evils of tobacco! Not in this state or we’ll be doomed from the start.” And so we were then and so we are now: doomed, that is, by self censorship.
No Magic Bullets
Schoolroom and schoolyard massacres. We have been here before, déjà vu all over again. How much more can we take? What are we willing to do, then, to stop the cycles of violence that are destroying our communities? In the weeks and days following the Sandy Hook tiny tot massacre, the pundits and policy wonks have suggested many reasonable strategies to help communities, parents, and professionals to identify and respond to the assumed ‘early warning signs’ that can precede and even to predict school shootings and other massacres in public spaces such as shopping malls and movie theaters. However, just about all the strategies suggested were already implemented in 1999-2000 following a spate of mass shootings culminating in the Columbine disaster that, like Sandy Hook, was another tipping point when denial and normalization were the rule.
The Columbine massacre resulted in a vigorous national dialogue and response following an impassioned speech by President Clinton in the Rose Garden. It was 1999 and the nation was stunned, and its political, businesses and religious leaders were mobilized to find a way out of the labyrinth of violence in America. President Clinton announced the formation of the National Campaign Against Youth Violence (NCAYV). Unlike President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, a child of what President Johnson called “the Great Society”, the final incarnation of the New Deal, Clinton’s program was a post-welfare state neoliberal public-private initiative, presaging George Bush the First’s ‘thousand points of light”, which always reminded me of Disney’s twinkling little fairy, Tinkerbell.
The National Campaign Against Youth Violence was led by a dedicated California public interest lawyer, Jeff Bleich. His strategy focused on what he described as a ‘guerrilla’ Public Service media blitz to raise national consciousness about ‘youth’ violence. The campaign mobilized business corporations, volunteer organizations and the media to develop and implement violence reduction programs, including the ‘squash it’ campaign that recruited youth leaders from inner cities in the US to respond to violent ‘flare-ups’ in schoolyards and streets using a then popular street culture slang (‘Squash it’) with gang hand signs signaling “cool it”!
The National Campaign worked with city officials, churches, schools, mental health services, and families in cities and towns across America to limit children’s access to guns and exposure to media violence. Bleich negotiated agreements with powerful TV and film media to limit youth access to the most gratuitous representations of violence. The campaign worked with model cities that adopted anti-violence programs, some of them based on Nancy Reagan’s earlier “Just say No” [to drugs] campaign. The newer version of ‘Say No to Violence’ campaigns mobilized school children and their teachers and parents, especially those in hard hit inner cities, to wear purple ribbons memorializing murdered school mates, to march against violence, and to take pledges against alcohol and drugs associated with violence. In one urban campaign schoolchildren covered city walls with black paint child handprints accompanied by pleas for cease-fire among marauding gangs. Public schools brought in special counselors to teach schoolchildren techniques of self management and self control through meditation and deep breathing. The emphasis was on prevention, on desensitizing ‘at risk youth (inevitably meaning poor Black and Latino urban youth) to the risks of subcultures of youth violence in gangs, hate crimes, drugs and racist and misogynist rap music.
To assist the National Campaign, a Presidential Academic Advisory Board was formed, led by anthropologist John Devine. The Board included some of the nation’s leading scholars of urban America and youth violence—Elijah Anderson, Sissila Bok, Philippe Bourgois, William Damon, Kenneth Dodge, Richard Freeman, James Garbarino, James Gibbons, James Gillian, David Kennedy, Alan J. Lipton, William Pollack, James Short, Joel Wallman, and Frank Zimring, among others. I was also a member of the Board. Over the course of several meetings we collaborated in the preparation of a detailed report that identified key variables overlooked by the national campaign.
We documented the links between isolated public mass shootings in schools and the broader social and political context of excessively high rates of youth homicides and suicides, of alienation and isolation of youth from their parents, schools, and communities. Drawing on the expertise of the advisory panel members we explained the ‘Code of the streets’ (E. Anderson) and the ‘Search for respect’ (P. Borgois) that contributed to homicides and suicides among minority youth. The hypersensitivity and hyper reactivity to imagined insults were the offspring of a profound sense of shame and low self-esteem resulting from the extreme marginalization of unwanted and despised (even more than disrespected) populations. We described the culture of bullying in elementary schools that was not yet recognized as a trigger in some mass shooting incidents. Finally, we touched upon the lethal association of male honor with physical force and of power and might with deadly weapons. This led us to a critique of gun culture, but this conversation was derailed by those members of the board who labeled gun control a toxic subject, one that had to be carefully finessed.
We established connections between structural violence—the violence of poverty, exclusion and extreme marginality—and everyday violence in the homes, streets and schools of America. We described an epidemic of youth violence (J. Gillin) that we linked to the punitive and carceral state and to the militarization of American society following the Vietnam and the first Iraqi wars. We debated the problems of homelessness, drug addicted, and traumatized veterans and their impact on children and adolescents. We introduced the category of dangerous and endangered youth (N. Scheper-Hughes), young people who were both victims and perpetrators of violence.
Few of these concepts were familiar to Americans outside the field of social science and the academy. They did not travel easily or well. Neither did our advocacy on behalf of the unmet needs of America’s youth for decent housing, safe streets, medical, dental, and mental health services. It was difficult to discuss parental, educational, and even nutritional child abuse and neglect. The idea that Americans were not as child-centered as we imagine ourselves to be was not a popular message. Under the guidance of John Devine, whose book Maximum Security, drew analogies between American public schools and US maximum security prisons, the Academic Advisory Panel rejected political proposals to increase technological security systems in schools, video cameras, metal detectors, and the hiring of private security agents to police school corridors and bathrooms.
Many of our conclusions went against the grain and not surprisingly, the report was controversial and contested. It was subjected to many agonizing edits, and passages dealing with the dangers of readily available weapons in American homes and proposals to buy back weapons from gang leaders were watered down or deleted altogether. It was a noble struggle but in the end censorship and self censorship ruled the day. Those board members of a more critical persuasion deferred to the those dedicated to real politic. In the end, the report, delivered to President Clinton and his staff, was shelved. Today, one can barely find it online hidden in digitalized US government archives. On one search I could find it but parts of the report were redacted and even marked withdrawn. When I searched for it more recently I could only find the executive summary and some references to members of the advisory board.
It would be safe to say that the campaign, including the innovative public relations ads, the anti-violence training programs, the just say no to violence programs had no permanent or lasting effects. Advisory Board member Michael Klonsky’s passionate advocacy for smaller schools with lower teacher-student ratios that have a proven record of decreasing incidents of school violence, made no inroads to a US Congress that was all about charter schools and downsizing and closing failed public schools. The call for building new and creative school environments on a human scale seems, in hindsight, almost utopian.
Thus, after a brief respite the mass shootings in American schools and other public venues resumed at an almost predictable rate. American citizens failed to go far enough and deep enough inside our collective national unconscious. We continue to resist the fact that our nation is alone in the industrialized democratic world in tolerating subcultures of violence to form in our cities, towns and suburbs. No other democratic nation allows its private citizens to assemble military arsenals in their homes, practices that endanger the lives of all in our suffering and disintegrating cities, in our increasingly armed and dangerous culturally isolated suburbs, and even in picturesque New England towns.
The House Gun
In her award winning post-apartheid novel, The House Gun, Nadine Gordimer describes a traumatized society of white, middle class people who seemed to be sleepwalkers during the democratic transition that replaced a violent racist police state with an imperfect ANC government led by Nelson Mandela. Like the dean (above) confined to his dangerous gated community, the protagonists cannot imagine that their son Duncan was capable of killing his girlfriend’s casual lover with the kind of gun kept safely in his middle class flat to defend the household against attack by skollies and gangsters from the de facto segregated African townships.
The house gun, suggests, as one reviewer noted, a warm fuzzy object, similar to a house cat, both indispensable to a sense of wellbeing. How could things have gone so very wrong? In post-apartheid South Africa the political tables have turned but the economic tables did not. Peoples’ expectations were dashed and consequently violence seemed to be in the air, everywhere. The situation Gordimer describes is not too dissimilar from life in America today. Both countries are coming out from under violent histories and violent struggles, and both are extremely violent and militant societies, suffering from the legacies of colonial and postcolonial domination, slaveries, and racisms. Gordimer’s protagonist, Duncan’s violent act was, however, a domestic crime of passion without political motivation. It should have nothing at all to do with South Africa’s violent history but that is not how the South African author wants us to see it.
Violence breeds violence. Gordimer wrote her novel amidst political debates in South Africa about ending the death penalty and about gun control amidst an alarming increase in violence against middle class white South Africans who were once protected by the apartheid terrorist machine. Whites today are forced back to their own private resources—hired guards, razor wire, electronic security systems. And, when all else fails (at it inevitably does) they rely on the house gun, failing to realize that more guns in private homes do not mean less crime, a lesson for American as well as for South African readers.
The Two Specters: Sacrificial Violence and the Scapegoat
“It takes a village to stop a rampage”—Paul Steinberg
After the Columbine disaster the national focus was on Black youth, the inner city, the ghetto, and Black resentment against an unnamed oppressor. Black youth were readily turned into sacrificial scapegoats, the arbitrary objects of white middle class fears and perceptions. The fact that the Columbine killers were, like most other school shooters, white and middle class had no bearing on the public discourse on youth violence which was black coded. White children are not youth, they are adolescents, or young people. Youth refers to minority children, the children of the Other. As Michael Greenberg and David Schneider aptly named the problem in their 1994 article in Social Science & Medicine, “Violence in American Cities: Young Black Males is the Answer, but What Was the Question?” They contest the then prevailing view that the answer to the cause of violence in American cities is young black men. Their comparative study of urban violence in three relatively poor middle-sized cities of New Jersey— Camden, Trenton, and Newark— that violence is distributed among young and old, male and female, Black, white and Latino. They identify the real causes of urban violence as deindustrialization, unemployment, urban deserts, undesirable land uses and the political and social abandonment of unwanted people: poor and working class whites as well as Blacks. Violence and premature violent deaths (homicides, suicides, accidents) were caused by extreme marginalization, ghettoes, and segregation.
Similarly, following the Sandy Hook massacre in which more than 20 youngsters and six teachers and the assailant’s mother were killed in a rampage that ended in the killer’s suicide, the blame was attributed to another sacrificial scapegoat, the mentally deranged mass murderer. Today the pundits and policy wonks, many of them psychiatrists, descry the failure of the mental health system to identify, treat and contain the dangerous mentally ill. Today’s policy prescriptions are just that—earlier intervention and treatment with prescriptions of powerful and dangerous psychotropic drugs. The second line of defense is longer confinement of the mentally ill (especially schizophrenics) in mental hospital wards, wards that are already over-crowded and in psychiatric hospitals that no longer exist.
However, the Sandy Hook killer and suicide victim, Adam Lanzer, died without a medical diagnosis although one report described him as having Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that is not associated with violence except self mutilation in profound cases. Another news report said that Adam was already being treated with antipsychotic medication. Obviously, here is not the place to argue the case for mental patients rights or to provide robust statistics showing that the mentally ill are less dangerous than those who are not under the suspicion of harboring a lethal mental condition, that is ordinary people like ourselves and like Adam’s mother. Hopefully it is not necessary to remind bio-psychiatric scientists and practitioners that the over-prediction of the dangerousness of the mentally ill resulted in the criminalization of the mentally different for most of the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, a gross social injustice we should never seek to repeat.
More pertinent is the fact that powerful anti-psychotic and anti-depressive medications are already over-prescribed due to the stranglehold of the pharmaceutical industry over the psychiatrists who depend on them. The so-called second generation psychotropic drugs are, despite the pseudoscience produced by pharmaceutical industry, still powerful tranquilizers and they are toxic. They have paradoxical effects, especially on young adults, among these irritability, aggression, and suicide. David Healy, an internationally recognized professor of Psychiatry in Wales and an expert in modern psychopharmacology, published a cohort study of mortality among schizophrenics hospitalized one hundred years ago and a contemporary sample.3 While both groups died prematurely, the causes of death were different. In the early cohort the patients died from communicable diseases, especially tuberculosis, as a consequence of institutionalization in giant asylums. The contemporary cohort of schizophrenics died young from coronary events and suicides, both of which, according to the researchers, could be the side effects of psychotropic drug regimes over a long period of time.
In an otherwise disturbing essay linking the poor medical treatment of schizophrenia to urban violence,4 psychiatrist Paul Steinberg made a simple, clichéd but important statement to the effect that “it takes a village to stop a rampage”. One such village is the city of Trieste that has developed over the past 40 years an approach founded by the late Italian radical psychiatrist, Franco Basaglia,5 to integrate even the profoundly mentally different into community life free of involuntary confinement and of forced medication. Another of those therapeutic villages where people managed to live side by side with those known as mad, crazy or mentally different, is Geel, a small Belgian city where the ‘mentally ill’ have been visible members of the community for over 700 years. Ordinary townspeople in Geel have traditionally taken in mentally ill individuals as boarders and then assimilated them into their families. These boarders were not exploited for cheap labor and their special needs and limitations were accepted. An Irish psychiatrist and former hospital director in Cork described an incident that occurred during a professional visit to Geel some years ago. Late one afternoon a ‘boarder’ became visibly agitated and increasingly hostile and aggressive on a city street. As if on cue townspeople assembled to the location and surrounded the disturbed man. “They were creating a secure circle around him”, David told me recently during a trip to Ireland. ”It seemed as if they were performing a ballet, dancing around the person who, in short order, became quiet and allowed his caretaker family to lead him home for a cup of cocoa and a good nap”.
Like the residents of Martha’s Vineyard who adjusted to the high degree of congenital deafness among the island population by becoming a bilingual community of English speakers and signers6 the villagers of Geel learned the art of living with the mentally different, including how to deflect an episode of escalating violence using practical skills passed down among families who had taken in the mentally ill as boarders and extended family members.
A Way Forward
What, then, is the solution to our current impasse? Americans once thought that parents had the right to slap down their children as righteous punishment. We once thought that smoking in public spaces (even in hospitals) was a civil right. We once thought that carefree motorcycle rides without protective headgear was a right. Today most of us think differently about these practices which were less about individual rights than risks to our freedom.
Ultimately we have to accept that our national commitments to seemingly interminable wars abroad, to dysfunctional wars on drugs and drug cartels along our borderlands with Mexico have consequences at home. These wars create a culture of hyper-arousal and hyper reactivity that circulates and spills over into our private lives, and into our homes, schools, shopping malls and other public institutions. If there is to be another national discourse on violence in America, another national campaign or another Presidential academic advisory panel, they will have to do a better job of identifying the deep structural and cultural causes of our growing isolation from the mores that guide other democratic nations. We have to face up to the increasing militarization of everyday life in America and to resist the forces of censorship and self censorship that discourage a real and open debate on the meaning of the right to bear arms in the context of late modern society.
We also need to address the magical power Americans attribute to privately owned weapons, including the belief that the house gun can protect a family from a rampage. While President Obama’s newly unveiled campaign to fight gun violence is a decisive move, it leaves three large stones unturned: the responsibility of parents who have obtained legal gun permits, who are themselves mentally stable, but who may have an adolescent child with severe emotional, behavioral, or adjustment problems. The proposals to expand background checks will not detect parents who, like many of the parents of children who attended Sandy Hook elementary school, are themselves gun owners. Tom Britton, a Sandy Hook parent of three and spokesperson for Newtown victims said: “We hunt, we target shoot. We protect our homes. We’re collectors. We teach our sons and daughters how to use guns safely”. (NY Times, January 15th, 2013,p. A18). According to a casual friend of Nancy Lanzer, Adam’s mother taught her son how to shoot a rifle from the age of 9. He told the New York Daily News: “Nancy was a responsible gun owner,” the friend said. “It was important that she teach her son how to responsibly use a firearm. We will never know why Ms. Lanza thought that gun training was appropriate for a son with deteriorating mental health. Perhaps she thought it would help to empower and to protect him, as do some of the parents who were victims of the Sandy Hook Little Tyke disaster.”
The new presidential mandate that would require a range of professionals to report to officials any dangerous or threatening behavior by their clients is extremely problematic. Neither psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, or school counselors can predict violence. “Dangerousness” is not a clinical diagnosis, it is a moral judgement. Mandatory reporting of suspicious, ‘dangerous’ thoughts, gestures, words is psychiatric profiling. It criminalizes expressions of anger, resentment, and revenge that are not uncommon among normal adolescents.
In many times and places people under siege have armed themselves with magical clothing or salves or incantations. From the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians to Kony’s child soldiers, terrified people have maintained a mystical belief in their invulnerability to bullets. When NRA chief Wayne Lapierre called a press conference in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre in which he announced that the solution to guns was more guns and armed guards stationed in all our schools he was thinking like a Ghost Dancer, believing in magical powers of invulnerability. The real dangers Americans face are not from isolated rampages, as horrendous as these events are, and not from the deranged mentally ill, but from unsupervised guns in the house next door.
Cars are not weapons, but since they pose a threat to public security they are registered and car owners are held responsible for any accidents, injuries, or road deaths committed by those we allow to drive them. Guns are weapons, and because it is people and not guns that kill, those who own them must be held accountable for their use and misuse by those given access to them. President FDR brought Americans out of despair during the Great Depression by telling us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The NRA is telling Americans that they need to fear the government. Perhaps the time has come to give freedom from fear a chance. CP
This essay excerpted from the latest edition of CounterPunch magazine.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is professor of medical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She was a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the National Campaign Against Youth Violence. She is the author of Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil.
1, 2. According to Wikipedia “The Hatch Act of 1939, officially An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, is a United States federal law whose main provision is to prohibit employees (civil servants) in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president, vice-president, and certain designated high-level officials of the executive branch, from engaging in partisan political activity. The law was named for Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico.
3. David Healy, et al. 2012. “Mortality in schizophrenia and related psychoses: data from two cohorts, 1875—1924 and 1994—2010”. BMJ 2012
4. Paul Steinberg, “Our Failed Treatment of Schizophrenia”, The New York Times, Op-ed page, December 25th, 2012.
5. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Anne M, Lovell, 1986. Psychiatry Inside Out: Selected Writings of Franco Basaglia. Columbia University Press (a new edition of this book is underway).
6. Anthropologist Nora Ellen Gross, who lived in Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s, published her findings in the book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (1985, Harvard University Press),