No quick fix for the violence

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

We helplessly add another name to the growing list, written in blood: Roseburg, Oregon. Along with Charleston, Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook... Most are places we would never hear or think about. Nice communities, probably, not so much different than our own here in Iowa, likely. We all know the unspoken truth: it could happen to any one of us, anywhere.

The worst thing is, we're not even shocked any more. What's the first thing that crossed your mind at the news of the killings the community college in Roseburg? If you are anything like me, it was probably along the lines of, "Oh, another one?"

A column in USA Today and a resulting stream of online comments debated coldly whether we should define a mass shooting as people shot or people killed. You know there is something seriously wrong in your country when your response to human tragedy is that kind of conversation.

Maybe you wondered how many were killed this time, or what manner of insanity drove the shooter this time to open fire. Maybe you said a quick prayer.

But you probably didn't ask yourself, "How could this happen?" Because we know all too well how it happens. You probably didn't struggle to believe it, because it has become a very real, almost regular, part of our news cycle.

I was speaking to the Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools today about the ongoing projects to upgrade the high school. He listed them off - classrooms, auditorium, gym, door security system... I didn't have to ask why we are spending large amounts of time and money ensuring that our students are locked away from the outside world during their school hours. We have no choice.

It isn't that we believe school violence will happen in our town, but that we can no longer believe that it can't happen here, or anywhere.

It can, and has, happened in churches, shopping malls, theaters and office buildings. There is no sense in trying to map trends or make predictions - insanity follows no pattern.

Mass shootings (defined in most crime statistics as four people shot not including perpetrators) have been reported about 300 times so far this year.

As President Obama says, the reporting has become routine... just plug in a new town name and the number of fatalities, brush off the same sensationalist headline. We don't even usually hear about them any more unless there is something especially lurid, or more than a handful or people die. There are enough shootings that its not news any more - not up there with pizza-eating subway rats or whatever Katelyn Jenner is wearing today.

As near as I can count, there have been 114 incidents of gun violence in U.S. schools since 2010 alone.

School gun violence has broken out as close as Des Moines and Iowa City, St. Louis and Omaha and Chicago, close-knit midwest communities like Harrisburg, S.D., Belleville, Ill., Red Lake, Minn.

All of the preparation we can take may help us feel safer, but frankly, nothing we can do can ensure that an outbreak of unexpected violence can't happen.

Each time such a tragedy occurs, the president makes a fine speech, social experts are trotted out to talk about the impact of violent media and entertainment, and a few voices quietly call for better mental health care. The whole things devolves into a pitched political battle between the gun lobby and the gun control advocates, each using innocent bodies to try to leverage their political positions.

I won't pretend to know the answers. I suspect that you could ban guns, ban music and movies and video games, lock away every obviously troubled teenager, and turn every school into a fortified fortress, and it would not prevent violence.

Nothing is ever really done about these incidents - because there is no knee-jerk solution, no quick fix.

Violence is a terribly complex problem, and it cannot be wished or legislated away.

Easy access to weapons is just one small part of it. Perhaps poverty, hopelessness, bullying, drugs, racial or religious hatred, fear, undiagnosed mental conditions, and the latest catch phrase, the vague "social disconnect," all have something to do with incidents in some cases at some levels.

What do you do? At a time when people are calling for better mental health attention, Iowa is closing down half its mental care hospitals.

The medical community is already stretched thin by our social demand to medicate away every frustration. Police are kept busy keeping families from imploding in battle amd endlessly chasing drugs off the streets. Schools are already called upon in many cases to parent, feed, clothe, transport and counsel kids.

Can we really expect these people to disgnose and treat mental illness for us too?

All of us wish there was a simple answer. Something we could do to eliminate horrific violence overnight. But as long as we depend on such a fantasy, we will get nothing real done.

I suspect that more headwaymay be achieved with character education, mentoring and student support programs than with speeches.

Ultimately, we can't live in a state of fear due to isolated incidents. In perspective, our schools and communities are by and large safe places. Being terrified of our own kids and neighbors is no way to live.