My wife, Pauline, and I eat breakfast together most mornings and the Today Show is usually on in the background – and it comes to the foreground when it is not about some celebrity doing something stupid. When I pause to consider the important topics of the day, I’m shocked by the number of stories of intolerance, violence, and killing. In the United States, the news lately has been dominated by police violence in Missouri, Cleveland, New York, and other cities, along with a steady stream of coverage on the American Sniper trial. And while it has moved off the front pages, drug and gang violence continues to be a major issue across the country.
The rest of the world is no better, with hate crime attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, along with shocking atrocities from the Middle East and Nigeria where executions and genocide are the order of the day. By comparison, the more conventional war being fought in Ukraine seems pedestrian but is equally tragic in its human toll. Surely we hear about all of these tragedies so quickly and completely because of the ubiquity of social media and the ease with which information flows. But that doesn’t change the fact that we seem helpless to reduce the killing.
Faced with the enormity of the violence, what is a well-intentioned person supposed to do? How can we hope to have an impact? There clearly is no silver bullet here – not for the UN, not for the president, not for other elected or appointed officials, and certainly not for the average citizen. But that recognition is not a free pass to ignore the situation, and we can’t just assume that others will figure it out. In my role as a self-described Civic Engineer, I like to think that complex problems like this can be broken down into manageable components that engaged, concerned citizens can influence. In that spirit, here are some thoughts to ponder…
What would happen to the level of violence in our local communities if we committed ourselves to four important efforts?
- Gun Licensing: We have to do more to manage and control the use of weapons in the United States. I will quote directly from my Reform Interruptist blog: “Stricter licensing requirements, mandatory gun safety training, and serious punishment for teens carrying guns are all common sense measures we should pursue.” It is true that guns are just tools in the violence trade and gun management will not prevent a bad person from doing bad things. But accidental gun violence, criminal gun activity, and police misuse of force are all directly related to the ease of access and omnipresence of guns in our culture.
- Education and Jobs: So much of the violence we see in our country is a direct result of social and economic inequity. The correlation between poverty, low education levels and crime are very strong and completely logical – in a world where the future is bleak and hope is lost, desperation leads to bad choices. If we want to reduce violence and crime, we have to provide better educational opportunities and training associated with living wage jobs. This requires a whole blog post (and then some) on its own.
- Mental Health: Somehow over the past 20 years, the mental healthcare system in the United States seems to have come undone. I will admit that I know nothing about this area or the challenges associated with it, but every piece of evidence I see indicates that we are doing a poor job supporting and treating those that have mental health issues. When you add to that problem the on-going impact of PTSD affected veterans and an ineffective Veterans Administration, you have a recipe for bad outcomes.
- Tolerance: The biggest risk associated with violence motivated by racial, religious, and cultural differences is not the first violent action. Sadly, there will always be someone willing to commit a bigoted act that harms others. The real risk is the environment those acts create – fear, suspicion, and stereotyping lead to a cycle of violence that goes far beyond the original attack. I’m shocked and saddened by political leaders that are criticizing President Obama for his unwillingness to label the current wave of violence as Islamist terrorism. The only benefit to the adjective is to create an environment where all Muslim’s are ostracized. Likewise, the idea that the University of Massachusetts would even consider a policy to prevent Iranian science and engineering students from enrolling is deeply troubling. Concerned citizens need to be tolerant citizens, and the leaders and institutions that protect us must take the extra steps to avoid unnecessary escalations.
If I were a math major (and I’m definitely not), the equation would look something like this:
violence = guns x (poor education + unemployment + intolerance) mental health
This is a recipe that drives divisiveness in our communities and leads to further cycles of unrest. As civic engineers and concerned citizens, it is our job to stop the cycles of hate and redraw the social equation that is causing them. We have to turn our differences into a source of strength and renewal. All of us must be willing to ignore the stereotypes and look deeper to understand those who have a different point of view.
On current course and speed, there is one thing that is certain: if divided, we fall.
Next week: United We Stand