The massacre of twenty-six people, mostly children, in Sandy Hook, Connecticut drew international attention to American gun culture, where it’s easy to get your hands on very dangerous weapons. It was a repeat of the outcry from an earlier school massacre, in Columbine, Colorado, or the uproar after the Virginia Tech rampage, where a student murdered thirty-two classmates.
And yet American gun culture persists. Some blame the National Rifle Association, some place responsibility on all conservatives. Others attribute the persistence of American’s right to arm themselves to the Constitution, and good sense. Who then, takes responsibility for the violence in modern America?
It’s a tradition, too. How could American pioneers fend off hostile Indians, if not with superior firepower? And look at the Wild West: TV shows and movies tell us everyone was always shooting at everyone else.
But superior firepower against the Indians wasn’t always needed. Only when the American government decided to go to war against the Plains Indians did it become necessary for colonists to take up arms to defend themselves. Nor was a gun needed to stay alive in the frontier towns of the Wild West. These towns were on the whole much safer than modern American cities.
Although there’s a simple logic to gun control being an effective solution to gun violence, that logic may be deceptive. Do restrictions on concealed weapons increase or decrease crime? Or are such restrictions irrelevant?
Perhaps there’s another key to understanding the violence of American society. Many of the recent mass shootings have a common thread besides the gun: antidepressants. Many, perhaps all of the perpetrators of these killings were either on, or had just come off of mood management medications. Perhaps we should look at the drug culture, and its part in the abdication of personal responsibility.
What is the role of drugs? There are hard narcotics, recreational drugs, antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers, tranquilizers, sleep aids. There are pills that make you happy and others which make you into a killer zombie (really!) Fidgety children, confused seniors, and people wanting to enhance their reality constitute a huge market. With the legalization of marijuana in a number of states, with vending machines selling crack pipes to addicts on the streets of Vancouver, the idea of mind bending through chemistry, personal contentment through medication have become mainstream. Well over seventy million Americans are using legal and illegal mind-altering drugs; add in the sixty million alcohol abusers, and you have one hundred and thirty million strung out Americans (close to forty percent of the population).
How can such a society survive?
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World portrays a society where drugs and sex are the path to happiness:
“Was and will make me ill; I take a gram and only am.”
It’s a world in which nothing is in the hands of the individual. No responsibility the future, certainly none for the past. And “Soma,” the mass medication of this dystopia removes concern for the present.
In contemporary western society, the individual is relieved of responsibility by social science, which blames immutable social forces for any failings. He’s relieved by mental health professionals, who treat non-conforming character as a pathology needing treatment. By a social welfare system that robs a person of the obligation to support himself. By a legal system that allows people to sue for the consequences of their own stupidity. By a social perspective that man has no obligation to his fellow man; the government will take care of it, whatever “it” may be.
It’s not a society that will survive, no matter how many pills are popped, lines snorted, or leaves smoked.
Let’s go back to the Wild West, to see if there’s anything to learn.
The Dakota (Sioux) Indians felt that all personal behavior had to be responsible, because its effect always went beyond the individual. To be, was to be responsible. Individual autonomy came from obligation and relation rather than pride and isolation. Responsibility derived from being a member of a family, being Dakota, being human and being a part of the universe.
And the pioneers- the folks depicted in the movies? On the frontier they were often beyond the reach of state law. So they organized themselves: land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps and wagon trains. They set up their own constitutions, legal and judicial systems. The lack of government-enforced behavior led to self-policed behavior, which operated mostly through cooperation rather than violent coercion.
If the members of a society believe that all behavior must be responsible; if the lack of government control means one has to have self-control; if we don’t routinely deal with aberrant personalities or moods through medication, then we have a chance of avoiding the next Sandy Hook or Columbine. We don’t have to control guns. We don’t even have to control people. But people have to know that they have to control themselves. They are responsible for themselves, and like the Dakota, responsible for their effects on the universe.