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Imagining the “Unimaginable”


Last week the quiet town of Waseca, MN narrowly avoided becoming “one more in a long list of school shootings” (I will come back to this language of the CNN report).  A boy, 17 years old, had plotted to kill his family and bomb the town’s junior and senior high school, to “kill as many students as possible” and then be killed by a SWAT-team. Thank God a neighbor caught on to his suspicious behavior and called the police. It turns out he had already planted a couple of crude bombs in neighborhood playgrounds that, by grace or good fortune, did not go off.

Throughout the coverage of the boy’s nick-of-time arrest the expression used by one police officer became a refrain: we have averted an “unimaginable tragedy.”  But the problem is, it was all too imaginable.

Teenagers in particular – though not they alone – spend more hours consuming media than they ever did in school, more than they spend hanging out with friends or in any kind of human interaction.  This would be harmful even if the content of those media were not so disturbing, so damaging to the human image.  The choice seems to be violence, sex, or both (and sex, the loveless way that it’s presented in most of these formats, is just another form of violence).  By contrast, most examples of a potentially uplifting alternative, where human beings are presented with dignity and their connectedness acknowledged – the would-have-been reality check on all this alienating stuff – are sappy and unrealistic.

This is new in human evolution.  Our ancestors would sometimes listen to war epics at an annual festival, but we are putting the fire of artless violence in our minds upwards of five hours a day.

Once we’ve made violence imaginable, and for some an idée fixe which at some point they can’t help acting out, we also make sure the tools of violence are readily available.  Anyone can earn how to make a bomb on the internet; we have become a nation armed against itself, full of people who harbor weapons in a desperate attempt to find some meaning and some security – which, as we almost saw yet again last week in Minnesota, has the opposite effect.

And so for this 17-year-old, who idolized the mass murderers of Virginia Tech, Columbine, and Newtown, such violence was all too imaginable.  And for how many others?  In a nation where CNN can almost off-handedly refer to “one more in a long list of school shootings,” how can children feel safe in their schools?  And if they cannot feel safe, how can they learn?

On the whole, I think we would almost be better off not even hearing about those massacres; but that is not what I’m advocating.  Of course we have to read about these horrors; but we also have to learn from them. And from the relentless scientific studies that show how media violence and, for that matter, the mere image of weapons, makes people more aggressive.  And, for that matter, from our own experiences.

When I was very young, and had already seen my share of cowboy and gangster movies, I had a bad dream one night that I was being chased by a fiendish giant.  But I somehow had a gun, and turning around I frantically pulled the trigger.  Nothing.  Click, click.  It was a dud.  At that point I woke up, but I remember to this day how I would have given anything in that dream moment for a gun that worked.  So I sympathize with the fears of gun owners, and I can sympathize with the hunger of television and movie viewers, with video game players who may be seeking some excitement from the drab realities of everyday life or giving themselves the feeling that violence will make them strong and protected.

But the difference is, I woke up.  I call out to gun lobbyists and gun buyers, to movie producers and viewers of media where the human image is degraded and mayhem extolled, to wake up from their nightmarish fascination with violence.

Maybe a kind of awakening is beginning.  Former New York Mayor Bloomberg is setting up a $50 million fund to counteract some of the political muscle of the NRA, which is an interesting first step.  But most politicians, when in office, are apparently unprepared to listen to this kind of reason.  When that happens it is opportune to start small – simply don’t expose yourself to violent media and try to live in trust instead of fear.  We make a difference as individuals, and we must make our difference in the right direction.

Michael N. Nagler writes for PeaceVoice, is Professor emeritus at UC, Berkeley, and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.  His latest book, The Nonviolence Handbook, is available from Berrett-Koehler publishers, San Francisco.

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