by Megan Griffiths
In the aftermath of a school shooting, we tend to dissect the people immediately surrounding the shooter. Were his parents nurturing? Did his fellow students bully? Did the officers who were once at his doorstep do enough to interfere with his destructive tendencies? As we look to find ways we might prevent other lost souls, others with mental illness, other sociopaths, other pathologically lonely people from making these same disastrous choices in the future, these questions can be valuable pieces of the puzzle. But when our scrutiny doesn’t extend beyond that intimate radius, it also provides cover to avoid a larger examination of ourselves and our culture. As someone outside the nexus of the latest active shooter, is it possible that I am still culpable in his choices? What am I doing to encourage and disseminate the idea that violence is a solution? Am I doing anything to actively counter that narrative?
The United States spends more than any other nation on our military—almost three times more than the next highest spender (China). We are the world’s enforcer and Americans take great pride in our military dominance. We spend $600 billion a year teaching our nation’s youth one very loud lesson—might makes right. The country with the deadliest arsenal wins. Diplomacy is utilized to varying degrees depending on who sits in the Oval Office but wars, surgical strikes and armed occupation have always been our stock and trade, our headline-grabbers, our chief export. Whether we go to battle for valiant reasons or not, and whether we ever really “win” any war (and those are whole other conversations), the take-away remains the same: the only way to stop a bad guy with a nuke is with a good guy with a nuke.
Young men and women enlist in the armed forces for any number of reasons: to protect and serve; to stand up for an ideal; to escape destitution or afford an education; to honor a tradition; to prove something; to be heroes; for brotherhood; sisterhood. Once they are accepted, they are trained to enact medical procedures, to de-escalate hostile situations, to be adaptable and responsible, to communicate with people from other cultures in other languages. But they are also taught to kill. They are taught to rationalize an other’s death as a necessary evil, to distance themselves from personal choice. How else could they cope?
These lessons—dehumanization, white hats versus black hats, force as solution—are regularly reinforced by our media as well. We collectively spend billions to cheer on superheroes as they epically battle their foes, and to engage in first-person bouts where our avatar leaves someone else’s avatar in tatters. Examining violence through film, television and video games can be constructive—a way to parse the complexities of our world and understand those who make choices we don’t understand—but very often the characters we watch, these surrogates for ourselves, mow down enemies without thought, without pause, without any psychological effect at all or any attempt to understand the “why.” If I took out a gun and shot someone on 5th Avenue, it would impact me for the rest of my life. But when was the last time you saw a vigilante or soldier in a video game truly reckon with the life he just took, or reckon with the part of his own humanity that was lost with the squeeze of the trigger? Yes, we live in a brutal society, but what comes of disconnecting emotionally from that brutality? What is the collective impact, what is the message to those coming-of-age with these narratives filling their minds, when we don’t show its tangible and intangible consequences?
We all distance ourselves. When we make personal choices that perpetuate violence in our culture, we rationalize or ignore, or perhaps don’t even realize it’s happening. We dodge meaningful dialogue about our accountability in the violent acts of others. We look for others to blame. We wait for others to change. We don’t look to ourselves. We don’t change.
Villains, both real and fictional, have origin stories. Osama Bin Laden had one, the Joker had one, and every mass shooter has one. And yes, the people with whom they interact in their daily lives contribute to those stories in huge ways. But we each contribute too. The choices we make as consumers perpetuate the dissemination of consequence-free, gleeful, psychosocially-vacuous violence to people all over the earth. The people we elect to public office determine how much of our city’s, our state’s, and our nation’s budgets are directed towards building our police force and military arsenal as opposed to, say, rehabilitating our violent offenders or treating the mentally ill. The ideas we put into the world, the work we do as creators, contribute to a collective conversation and can change hearts and minds. Our decisions are not made in a vacuum and they do not fall on deaf ears.
There’s a Zen concept that asserts, “you are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” We are not stuck in this culture, suffering from a predicament thrust upon us by faceless others. We are this culture—every individual, conscious, buying, selling, voting, living, breathing one of us—and this predicament is our own to solve.