When children are murdered, there is nothing you can do to alleviate the tragedy. There is nothing you can write which isn’t a platitude, nothing you can say to ease the pain of those affected.
But there are things you can do to try to reduce the likelihood of such events happening again. Rage at the perpetrator is the natural emotion. But it is too late to stop them; and, worse, it absolves us of any responsibility.
Disasters are the moments when our political systems most profoundly fail us. Each disaster must therefore force us to more vigorously challenge our society to change. Different societies have vastly different murder rates*, and most have a lower rate than the USA. This shows us that change is possible. And so, after such events, it is at society, and its failure to change that our rage can most usefully be targeted.
And one thing that always concerns me after large gun killings in the USA is that one issue is always shouted about – to the exclusion of almost anything else – gun control. Now, obviously gun control is needed. As the Harvard school of public health say:
“Our review of the academic literature found that a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries.”
America has a gun problem. But it (and it is not alone in this) has many other problems too, all of which we risk letting off the hook if we only talk about gun control. Below, I have listed a few such problems.
To discuss the role of media in mass murders, I can’t do better than suggest watching Charlie Brooker’s excellent piece from 2009.
Given the extent to which the corporate media ignore this advice, we can only assume that they care more about their ratings than they do about children’s lives.
Mental health support
Anyone who wants to kill a large number of other human beings needs help. Read, for example, this brave article by a mother of a son who sometimes takes terrifying violent turns – threatening to kill her and himself. We need to be careful not to worsen fear of or prejudice against those who are mentally ill: people with mental ill-health are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. But we also need to ask a simple question: how many murders would not have happened if the person pulling the trigger had had professional help.
The criminal justice system
America has the highest imprisonment rates on earth. They have a higher murder rate than almost any other wealthy country. It is surely time to reassess the former.
Why is it that almost all murder is committed by men? Get to grips with the way that a patriarchal culture shapes men, and we may begin to get to grips with murder rates.
And, though most homicide victims in general are male, Michael Moore claims that women are often more targeted than men in mass murder (though I can’t find another reference for this) – another issue which surely needs careful examination.
One factor correlates more closely to murder rates than any other: wealth inequality – not absolute poverty, it’s not that poor people kill more, it’s that more people kill in unequal societies. I am sure all of the above factors matter, and we must take them seriously. But with inequality, the change is stark. A small change in income inequality** leads to a significant change in the intentional homicide rate. Inequality rips societies apart, makes everyone more stressed, destroys community. If America wants to cut it’s murder rate, it has to reduce its vast wealth inequality.
Across America, too many children – too many people – are murdered. There is much that could be done to cut the murder rate, but in order to change, societies have to engage with the full range of problems they have.
*I think it is important to look at murder rates in general, rather than at high school gun murders in particular, for two reasons. First, by treating this category as something special in the media, we make the mistake in the Charlie Brooker film of putting such murder on a pedestal. This is dangerous. Second, I think every life is equally valuable and so every murder is equally important: an increase in murder rates on the streets of Chicago is likely to be as deadly as one school gunman (and they are almost always men). There is a risk that by over-discussing school killings, we focus much more on the death of white, middle class people than on those who are more likely to die – black, working class people. That said, mass murders have some specific causal factors, and I have made it clear where it is to this that I refer.
**on average, a decrease in income inequality of 0.01 Gini leads to 12.7 fewer homicides per 100,000 individuals. So, the murder rate in the USA is 4.2 per 100,000, the rate in Canada is 1.6 per 100,000. The Gini difference between the UK and Sweden is 0.11.