Violence in America: The Wider Conversation

In the aftermath of Newtown and, by one estimate, 25 mass shootings since 2006, the country is engaged in an intense fight over assault-like weapons and the right of Americans to carry them. While I consider it downright stupid and outright dangerous to allow people to buy, sell, and carry around the equivalent of small machine guns—imagine how safe you would feel if all your loony neighbors touted one around—I wish we were engaged in a much wider and thoughtful discussion over violence in America and how to reduce it.

By almost all measures, not just mass shootings, our murder rate is among the highest for so-called developed nations. We also put a lot of people in jail; regardless of how much or how little prison deters repeat offenders, that’s not the mark of a peaceful society. My fear in the current debate is that our focus has become so narrow that even the best congressional bill will only modestly reduce the violence around us.

Thoughtful discussions can occur. At a recent Urban Institute conference, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier enraptured the audience with her command over homicide and other crime statistics, her understanding of what community qualities lower crime, and her constant effort to prevent, not simply solve, crime by engaging police on the ground, social welfare agencies, and others in preemptive efforts.

When we have these types of discussions, it becomes clear that there is no one solution to violence because there’s no one simple cause. Smart police work, early intervention in violent households, neighborhood integration, family counseling, safer gun triggers, mental health efforts, reduced availability of weapons, social norms and pressures, and granting mass murderers less of the media attention they seek all play an important role. Reducing violence requires movement on all fronts, so that vicious cycles become replaced by virtuous cycles, where one positive step multiplies upward the gains from other positive steps.

But, once again, we’ve managed to turn an opportunity to confront broad issues of how to build a better—in this case, safer—society into a narrow political battle where victory will be defined mainly by whether the National Rifle Association gets its way. Advancing societies like ours should aspire higher.

Aurora: Giving Mass Murderers the Rewards They Seek?

While we can’t totally prevent the type of tragedy that has taken place in Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma City, we can certainly reduce the probability of such events reoccurring.

While these mass murderers may have multiple delusions, almost all seek publicity, copy what they have seen elsewhere, or, often, both. Their final actions, as well as how much of their earlier life revolves around elaborate preparations, clearly give them some bizarre sense of identity. Then, when they carry out their plans, they are rewarded instantaneously with the fame they could not otherwise receive. Reduce the attention given to them, and you reduce the likelihood future people with this type of mental illness will seek violent outlets for their distorted worldviews.

To cut back on giving them the rewards they seek requires a bit of honesty. The huge publicity following Aurora is big business, very big business. Billions of dollars of print and media output follow, as do billions of dollars of advertising that supports those news organizations. In a way, all the news about Aurora is a form of entertainment—not in the sense of amusement, but in the original Latin meaning of the word: intertenere, or “to hold inside” or occupy our thoughts and time. We pay the media for information on the subject, they give it front-page coverage, the murderer gets the reward he seeks, and the next mass murderer gets new ideas and is enticed by the fame he can achieve.

A related area is the emulation of suicides, known as the Werther effect. Waves of suicide followed the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist commits suicide after failing to attract the girl he wants. Similar trends were found after media coverage of the first jumpers off the Brooklyn Bridge. We have all become quite familiar with the proliferation of suicide bombers in recent decades, their goal achieved as much if not more through the publicity they attain. Social scientists study these contagion effects, as well as their tendency to cluster in time and space as learning about them expands. One such cluster of suicides followed that of Marilyn Monroe.

There’s no debate as to whether these imitative behaviors occur. Researchers such as Dr. David Philips, who coined the term Werther effect, have examined the ways and patterns by which people engage in violent behavior by following the examples of others.

So here’s the box we’re in. If we’re the newspaper reporter or TV broadcaster or talk-show pundit constantly giving attention to the mass murderer and the results of his actions, we’re part of the problem. We consumers aren’t off the hook either; we buy the newspapers and increase the ratings of the TV shows and web sites covering these events.

When The Sorrows of Young Werther was linked to a spate of suicides, Goethe’s book was banned in some jurisdictions. No one suggests this type of action today in a country with a strong free-press tradition such as the United States. Even a voluntary ban would be impossible given the widespread outlets through which the media operates. One can also legitimately argue that the information is useful, not just entertainment, to some people.

Here, then, is a simpler and more modest suggestion. Let’s agree not to give mass murderers front-page or large-headline coverage. Let’s decide not to give them at least the most visible rewards they so desperately seek. Remove the splash. The news can be covered just as thoroughly, let’s just downplay its display. Some brave media leaders might even agree to send their above-average company profits or wages for reporting on the murderous event to the affected communities. Some businesses might reduce advertising on the most exploitive media outlets.

Of course, I understand the response from the back of the newsroom. How can we, it will be argued, not give more banner and headline attention to these events than our competitors? We would simply lose more money. If we consider ourselves among the better news outlets, then that profit loss would put us even further behind the eight-ball in being able to do the things we do well. On top of that, it’s all over the web anyway. Political campaign managers make a similar argument: whatever the short-term social cost of misleading campaign information, the victory of their candidate is for the long-term good of the country.

In the end, I’m not sure my simple objective of granting mass murderers less of the fame they seek is achievable without some consumer demand for it, perhaps led by organized consumer federations, churches, or other groups. Until then, I can just do my own bit and try to be honest with myself about my part (including writing this column) in these continually unfolding tragedies.

Now To Really Tackle Discrimination

Louisville, Kentucky, is a nice town. I’m biased—I grew up there. It’s not South, North, East, or West in make-up, but a bit of all four. It is home to horse racing and bourbon, but also to the world’s largest producer of Braille books and the Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

Louisville is back in the news these days because its plan for integrating schools, like Seattle’s, was overturned recently by the Supreme Court. However divided is opinion over this decision, it should force us to look more deeply into what a well-integrated society means and requires. Public debate should range far beyond the use of race as a factor in determining which kids can go to which schools. Besides school systems, we should be challenging institutions ranging from universities to charity and corporate boards to governments on ways to diversify that go well beyond simple ratios of blacks to whites or females to males.

Return to Louisville. In 2000, it achieved what many major cities around the nation must envy. It integrated into a single jurisdiction the former city of Louisville, with its one-third black population, with the surrounding Jefferson County, which has a much larger concentration of whites. That’s right. They merged, and the suburbs basically agreed to work with the inner city on issues ranging from school integration to money per pupil to access to government support services. Now this may only be one step, but it could matter more to minorities in Louisville than whatever change in its schooling formula the recent Supreme Court decision might trigger.

Schools can be integrated in many ways besides racially. In Alexandria, Virginia, for instance, the high school integration problem was solved simply by merging all the high schools into one. A 2000 movie named “Remember the Titans” chronicled that event (at least as well as Hollywood could do it; Alexandria, next to the nation’s capital, was described as a small southern town where football was a way of life).

Many school systems can also use basic statistics better to ensure the well-being of all students. The new court decision doesn’t prevent school districts from tying admission or access to alternative schooling to family need or income or homeownership or housing value—replacing racial integration with class integration, but almost certainly promoting racial equality in the process. Even more to the point, districts should be measuring the improvement of every student in every environment, constantly re-jiggering requirements, school structures, quality of teachers, number of teachers’ aides, early childhood education, and whatever is under their control to serve all our children.

We’ll never integrate society solely by pressuring primary and secondary schools. That’s why major universities that claim to have integrated are now coming under greater scrutiny. Harvard or Yale might have little problem taking in the children of doctors and generals and lawyers who also happen to be minorities, but, even with all their intellectual firepower, most elite schools provide little data on their record in serving those from poorer or disadvantaged households. Some recent studies, for instance, point to the low percentage of students at these schools who were admitted with income-related Pell grants.

If we really want an integrated society, we should re-engage the working world, not just schools, to meet that challenge. Consider boards of directors. My colleague, Francie Ostrower, recently chronicled the low participation of minorities on charity boards—even some of those serving minorities. As for corporate boards, the glass ceiling is well noted, but even when it is cracked, boards often tap the same minority person or woman over and over again rather than reach out to more people from largely excluded classes.

Closer to home, residential segregation lives on, thanks to various ordinances, such as minimum size housing or lots. Some rules prevent two families from moving to a single house in a neighborhood where schools are better—even when their combined families might have fewer total members than a single family in a similar home. How about zoning that encourages McMansions to be built in high—land value areas to the exclusion of high-density developments that the middle class could afford?

Moving toward a truly integrated society—like combining Louisville and Jefferson County into a single jurisdiction—requires hard work, creativity, and a reshuffling resources as opportunities arise. A single statistics or ratios can’t be the measure of success. Whatever else the recent Supreme Court sets in motion, let’s hope it catalyzes a real public discussion of the many dimensions of an integrated society and how to promote opportunity for all.