Chris and I were talking about the latest shooting in the United States on February 14, 2018 in Florida. A young 19 year old former student allegedly walked into his old school, turned on the fire alarm so that students would rush out of building where he was waiting with an AR 15 automatic rifle. At least 17 students were murdered and 15 more were injured.
The latest shooting raises many important issues and I want to comment on them later. Today I want to concentrate on one issue? Why are so many young people in America the richest country in the world taking guns to schools to shoot students?
On the 24th of January 2018, I heard on the radio that the United States had experienced its 11th shooting at a school this year. 11 in 24 days! I guess there are just not enough guns in schools yet to deter shooters. In fact, so far in the US there has been a shooting at a school every 60 hours!
This issue is particularly important because of where we are now living for 3 months: Arizona. One of those school shootings occurred here in Arizona. I learned this week that Maricopa County, where we spend a lot of time when we are here, has more guns shops than any county in the United States. A gun shop is a place where guns can be purchased. In fact, Maricopa County has more gun shops than MacDonald’s Restaurants! Added to that, the United States has more gun shops than there are Starbucks on the planet! So guns are part of the problem and I will discuss that on a later blog.
But what about the uncomfortable fact that so many of these involve school shootings? Yesterday right after we heard about the shooting, we stopped at a pizza restaurant for supper and asked Maya our young waitress who is a high school student what she thought of it. I asked her if she felt safe in school. She said she did. Of course she said, her school had a hired security officer on duty every day. The school in Florida, I was told, also had a security officer. That did not solve the problem. Maya, contrary to arguments of the National Rifle Association, did not think more guns in school were a good idea and would not make her feel more safe. On the contrary, she said, she feared if the security had guns they might be trigger-happy and makes things a lot worse. That was an astute comment. American soldiers for example, are famous for killing their own soldiers or soldiers of their allies in “friendly fire.” That is because they are trained to be trigger happy.
Chris mentioned something very important. That is the startling extent to which extremism is rampant here. People here can’t talk to people they disagree with politically. Extremism is prevalent everywhere, but in few developed countries if any, more than the United States. Extremism is as American as apple pie. It always has been and as a result perhaps always will be. After all the country was born in an ugly holocaust against the indigenous people and that was quickly followed by centuries of importation of black people from Africa to be enslaved in support of America enterprise. Those were certainly extreme events and as we all know, extremism leads to extremism.
The Great Divide is not a geological phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon. Liberals/Democrats can’t fathom the idiocy of Conservatives/Republicans. Conservatives and Republicans return the sentiments. They can’t stand each other. The statements about the others are astonishingly extreme. No the word “extreme” is not extreme enough.
In America, and much of the modern world, but most spectacularly in America, there is a profound gulf between people. Often it seems that opposing sides come from different planets. This became pronounced during the 2016 American presidential election campaign, in which a blatant extremist—Donald Trump—got elected and half the country loved him and the other half hated him. There was little in between. As Bill Maher said, “each half of society does not want to live with the other half.”
According to a PEW study, “81% of Americans can’t agree with the other side on basic facts.” How is it possible to have rational political debate in such circumstances? And if rational political debate is no longer possible, what is the alternative? Violence is the obvious answer. And America is a very violent society.
In politics people seem to be driven not by support for their own party so much as hatred of the other side. Increasingly they voice that hatred. And guess who is listening? The young people are nourished in that environment of corrosive hatred. Is it surprising that some mentally unbalanced youth resort to violence?
At the Republican National Convention, in 2016 a senior member of Donald Trump’s campaign said that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party presumptive nominee at the time, “should be put in a firing squad and shot.” CBC radio went to Virginia to talk to Trump supporters. They were treated to many extreme statements. One said that “Hillary is a murderer and a liar I can’t even see how she is eligible for President.” One said this about Trump, “Donald Trump may be a loose cannon but perhaps that is what the country needs.” Another said that ‘she is the closest we will get to a civil war if she pushes her agenda. Can things get more extreme than this? Trump himself suggested that American gun supporters should take care of her.
Of course Democrats were no better. They compared Trump to Hitler. Some called him a fascist. Many have called him a pathological liar.
How much more extreme can things get?
Jonathan Haidt was one of the speakers at the Arizona State University’s year long exploration of truth seeking, politics, and freedom of speech that Chris and I have been following. We missed his talk but caught it on TV. He is a social psychologist and had fascinating things to say about the state of America. He pointed out that “the more angry you are the more pleasing it is to encounter fake news. Even if part of you doubts it is true, it just feels so good.” We want it to be true and desire is always the enemy of truth.
Haidt puts the blame on the strong American tendency to make politics religious. American politics is about the sacred. And this polarizes. This creates “our side” where all good resides, while all the bad resides with “the other side.”
As he said, “when you start to think like this, then anyone who disagrees, anyone who challenges, anyone that leaves your group, they are apostate, they are heretics, they are blasphemers and the most satisfying thing to do with them is not to lecture them, or ground them, or spank them, it is to burn them. It just feels so right to burn them at the stake.” Strong words.
Again is it surprising that the children of the partisans, who see the hatred, reflect that same hatred in their disputes with their “enemies”? People can’t talk with those they disagree with, so unsurprisingly they resort to violence. After all when the other side is evil, a refusal to use violence against them seems like a breach of trust, a sacrilege. Hatred breeds monsters and our children are the first victims. Both the children who became killers and the children who are killed.