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Monday 31 December 2012

School shootings

Last week, a lone gunman shot and killed scores of helpless children and their teachers at an elementary school in Connecticut in the US, driving the nation to despair and deep sadness. How can the society make sure that this type of senseless, heinous crime does not take place ever again? Earnest attempts are being made to answer this question though not for the first time as this type of shooting rampages in schools have happened, in the US and in few other western countries, in the past. Sri Lankans are no strangers to senseless killing rampages. Such random attacks by the LTTE lasted for over a quarter century in our country. The enormity and the frequency of these attacks were such that no one was spared; those of us who survived at least know someone close to us who got either killed or injured. The difference of course is that terrorist acts have purported motives and more importantly authorities presumably know what must be done to stop it. School shootings are a different problem because of society’s inability to fully comprehend what causes these young boys to act so violently given their seemingly stable upbringings.

How a society understands what causes violent and socially deviant behavior in people is based on its culture. Studies done on school rampages in the US have not come up with a clear profile of a person who is more likely to commit such a crime. On the other hand, perceived “abnormal” characteristics of these young boys have also been found in other kids of similar age who apparently lead “normal” lives. However, one such character that stands out in most of the cases is their disconnectedness from the society although it does not explain their behavior.

In general, the western society is highly individualistic. There, personal freedoms are given prominence over that of the society’s needs. Children are taught to be independent and are encouraged to develop their own identity and selfhood separate from their parents and the society from young age. Being individualistic does not necessarily mean that children in western cultures feel lonely. However for those of us non-western parents who do not see it fit to let our babies sleep in a separate bed, let alone in a separate room until they are several years of age, individualism seem more like isolationism.

The separation of an individual from the society is a hallmark of Judeo-Christian culture. The fact that Judeo-Christian culture’s most significant achievement, the western science, tries to understand a world separated from a so called observer and tries to do so by reducing this so called world to its constituents illustrate this nature of western culture. To me westerners in general are separated from the society by default but to different degrees depending on their education and social standing. Given that it is a basic characteristic of western culture, I argue that the more cultured (in the western culture) one is the more one is likely to be separated from the society. At least in my experience, affluent and educated westerners tend to be more individualistic than the ones who are not. For instance, in Mississippi, a state considered to be backward by American standards, people tend to be laid back and give less importance to themselves in their social interactions whereas people in California, an affluent and highly educated society, tend to be rigid and more self conscious. I am not a sociologist and this observation is not qualified by type of research that they do however if this correlation holds then it is not too far fetched to assume that affluent, well educated or cultured children are more likely to feel disconnected from the society than those who are not. Could this, at least in part, explain why certain seemingly well educated kids from affluent families living in good neighborhoods end up plotting and executing this type of horrendous acts of violence?

By far, school shootings are not the major cause of violent deaths in the US though it has caught the public attention due its shear atrocity. In searching for an answer to prevent this type of crime authorities are likely to adopt two strategies. One approach is to identify early signs of deviant behavior in children and implement therapeutic interventions which will most likely include pharmaceutical treatments. The other is to bring new laws that control guns and to implement more stringent security measures at schools. These solutions will result in reigning in of personal freedoms and therefore will be met with severe opposition from the American public as personal freedom is what grants individuality, its core value. But unfortunately there is no way around it.

Through these solutions the society appears to be taking steps to prevent these crimes from happening but in reality the responsibility is more or less delegated to its constituents, the individuals. That is, in principle, the solution is to make you responsible for keeping yourself safe from others and others from you. It says nothing about the changes in attitudes and views that are required from the society as a whole. This is because the western culture views the society as a collection of individuals but not as a whole. Thus it does not know how to assume responsibility as a whole or even what is meant by it. Until the society learns how to take care of its problems as a whole while being responsible individuals, I feel that it will only be able to manage the problem but not cure it.

Janka Wansapura.