Part One: Cyclical Hypotheticals
Let us begin by imagining, you know, hypothetically, that an act of tragic violence has happened. A mass shooting, a murder, a kidnapping; any moment where a person negatively affects another person or persons through pain, suffering, and loss.
Typically, in the wake of any said tragedy, a discussion begins. If firearms were involved, a chorus to defend or ban guns unfolds as predictably as the last time. If the act fits under the category of terrorism, the politicos debrief the masses on appropriate changes in the Department of Defense or issues with inter-regional trade or border security or international relations. If race or culture was a component in the tragic cocktail, we will have before us the racial positioning that plays like a broken record about the division of our races and cultures and ethnicities that both sides will yell forth with their same arguments, solidify their positions and, like all of these situations, never actually change a world where these acts continue to happen.
The hypothetical situation, unfortunately, is not so hypothetical.
And for this reason, it certainly is quite cyclical.
It is almost as if we know these things are "just going to happen" so we have gotten good at cleaning up after the mess, of debating about the mess, and not actually preventing the mess. Particularly, our solutions, at best, provide protection. Because we assume that violent acts that create tragedy, suffering, pain, & loss are inescapable, we seek out solutions to make the event less likely or limit the shrapnel of the decision so that the most people possible will be kept from harm. We may even begin a discussion on mental disorders and offer some hypotheticals on containing mental illness so as to curve the likelihood of it leading to a person's capability to act as destructively.
My personal experience and, therefore, my perspective, leads me to consider that a larger societal problem may be in play that, when ignored, as I believe it has been, makes the ideal of preventing these acts seem irrational and keeps the song stuck on repeat. I may now get a little libertarian on us and you may disagree with that and (...I think...) that is okay. But a solution seems possible that is intertwined with the responsibility of individuals acting in accordance with other individuals.
With a societal issue, it may seem irreverent to consider that the solution is not macrocosm in nature, but communal, neighborly, and contextual. If, in Western society, legislating solutions over the past several centuries hasn't led to much progress in this regard or, more specifically in the last century in American society, we may need to consider that solving a society wide issue that hasn't changed much might not be with a stroke of a pen to make an incumbent decision on a society's structure...it may actually involve the smallest scale of people who live together.
We can blame our globalized, industrial, and systemic way of viewing the world as the problem, but it is my perspective that our isolated individualization that has been granted via that globalized, industrial, and systemic world is what needs our attention and, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be involved. Our technological progress and economic comfort has led to an increasingly disconnected way of being community and of being neighbors. Our ability to use, navigate, and experience the world without concern of those using, navigating, and experiencing the world alongside of us has led to a relational dysfunction. Neighborliness is now defined by having a common address as opposed to interconnected interdependency with ourselves, one another, and with the world. When we can live in our own, secluded homes, when we can buy products with no relationship to those on the other side of the products, when we can satisfy our relational desires with a screen and internet access, and when we drive to the places we want to be at to be entertained or to fulfill our daily needs alongside of others doing the same thing with no concern about those moving next to us then we have permission to not know those who makeup the ecosystem of our lives. There is no shared history, no depth of knowledge and, therefore, no responsibility.
Certainly, we can lobby and protest and craft very public structural changes, but if we continue to ignore and, therefore, support our disconnected dysfunction in our private lives, I do not think that we ought to be so surprised at a world of tragedy.
With those means of solution, we may offer some practical protection, but the prevention our cyclical messes and the debates that follow are yearning for what will always be left uncovered.
Part Two: Protection Vs. Prevention
To which you say, "Idealistic rubbish! Of course prevention sounds great, but it isn't practical." You may certainly be correct. A more practical lens will see this as unobtainable in our current norms. However, if our current norms are not only failing us, but might also be the water we swim in that is being neglected, it might be worth a try to make this approach more pragmatic. If polluted water is leading to our destruction, legislation on rules for swimming might help contain or, you might say, protect us, but we may want to address the actual water.
Further, what I am proposing is already a losing battle. It might sound attractive, but actually confronting and altering the problematic water just compels us to quit in favor of the easier and more practical approach of protection. Prevention is an ideal, but it is also already a hopeless one that seems lost. But it isn't lost, we are just losing. I don't see that as a reason to quit trying...especially when it might be easier than we think and when the more notable issue of the state of the water has been so neglected in this larger discussion.
Enough of this rambling. Get on with it. Okay.
An example of protection versus prevention.
Let’s say someone is planning to rob you. They depart from their home, drive to your location, and wait nearby until the space looks empty as to avoid detection. But then they see you are inside, with the lights on, and there are friends over. Which means the house they were intending to rob is actually throwing a party.
Or let’s say they get up closer to the house and see a security alarm and multiple cameras and a very large, dangerous looking dog.
Or as they approach the door they see you in a kevlar vest and a combat knife between your teeth staring out the window armed with a rocket launcher.
Have you prevented the robbery?
In 2016, a 20 year old woman was murdered near where I live. She was kidnapped off her bike riding down a country road just a quarter mile from her home and 2 miles from where the school district campus is - meaning it is a pretty highly traveled country road.
And once it happened, everyone got really scared. If you were a woman, especially a young woman, you immediately thought you would be next. Lots of people wouldn’t go outside, no one was running on the roads anymore, and there was this lingering fear that we were vulnerable and, certainly, not safe.
So naturally, the reaction was to get protective. The common conversation went, "I need to learn self-defense. I need to carry a gun with me at all times. I need to upgrade my security system. I can only leave the house if I am with a large group of people."
But here’s the thing - does that prevent the next terrible thing from happening?
This, then, is the difference between prevention and protection. If you do any of those things, you are now protected. If the person who is going to rob you comes up to your home and sees that the robbery will be impeded by actions you have taken to protect yourself, the robbery won’t happen.
If a person has decided in their mind that they are going to rob someone or that they are going to kidnap someone - you making that more difficult might guarantee that it won’t happen to you. But in that moment, the act isn’t kept from happening…it isn’t prevented...it is just passed on to whoever the more vulnerable person is.
If I’m holding a rocket launcher, I’m not going to get robbed. But my neighbor might.
Here’s the deal, you either give everyone a rocket launcher or the most vulnerable will still be unprotected. You either protect everyone to the same level of security or you leave the negative thing to happen to whoever becomes an easier target.
The question becomes, then, how do you prevent something?
I know for that particular kidnapping in my community, there could have easily been dozens of individuals who could’ve been targets that night. And, sure, maybe our community could’ve have poured tons of resources or energy into protecting all of them, but complete protection is extremely difficult to guarantee. Prevention would require something else.
Prevention will only happen if we somehow rid the intention of the one who has decided to act.
Protecting yourself will just send the robber to the next house.
Part Three: So what do we do? - [Two Notes on Communities + Society]
Prevention will require you to change the mind of the robber in the first place; to rid the intention. So how do we do that?
In the short term, we can certainly protect ourselves and I am not condemning those decisions, but we as communities and, therefore, as a society must play the long game and begin asking questions of how we can prevent these acts from happening. We have to consider why someone would consider robbing or kidnapping or murdering or carrying out a hate crime or mass shooting as a possibility.
The protection perspective will always assume there is a "bad guy" who we need protected from. There is this mysterious evil lurking about and we gotta keep it from getting to us. But what do you always see after a violent act happens? The sister speaks out or the father or their neighbor and says, "I didn't think they were capable of this." I see a problem rooted in the projection of "bad guys" who are something more akin to their own species like the demogorgon monster from Stranger Things that somehow made it into our existence. It is the same pattern that has been present since (and before!) Popeye. We are a bunch of Popeyes and Olive Oyl's and Bluto is out there and we need to stop him. We play to the entrenched water of our economic, political, and social systems that, as alienated, isolated neighbors, we fail to see that we are just a bunch of humans navigating the world interdependently. Ignoring this assumes that the "bad guy" is already going to do the evil, violent, terrible act and our only option is to continue to isolate as opposed to recognizing that they are one of us.
However, what happened in my community is 2016 was a neighbor killing a neighbor. It was someone's son and brother who lived among us, who went to school, who worked and fixed machines for people as a daily part of life. People saw him, shook his hand, and knew his name. Anyone could have been the target that July night. But it's also possible that anyone could have been the perpetrator. This does not, and I emphasize this, mean that we are responsible for what he did. He still made that decision. I don't buy the, "We should have just had a talk and paid attention and so this is on us." We should have had a talk and paid attention, but what culminated in a death was a plant that was nurtured well before someone enacted evil. We couldn't have taken responsibility for his decision. We could have lived together in a way that made that a much less desirable option by being responsible to him.
Also, changing the mind of this person (or the "robber" in the previous example) to rid the intention is not something that occurs in the moment immediately before the act. I'm all for the act of peacemaking that talks the person out of the decision while they are coming to get your TV. But that, too, is protection. It stopped the act in the moment, but it didn't rid the act from possibility.
So what might prevention look like?
Again, it will be confronting the isolated individualism, disconnection, and resulting dysfunction of our culture. I believe it will be the active decisions we make in the small places where we are and where we have the power to influence and nourish relationships. It will be sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors belonging to each other in a way where those acts are not considered. If the possibility comes from a lack, the alternative of creating fulness will register the decision either unnecessary or unthinkable because we have filled the lack with what was missing in the first place; we have confronted the problem of the water as opposed to the symptoms of the water. We made the decision as people to play the long game with one another.
We can talk about "peace" for the world, but if we do not have peaceful people who make decisions of peace in responsibility to who they are and where they are, then it won't happen. I believe it was Gandhi, who certainly could envisage peace on a macro scale, who said, "If you want to bring world peace without being a person of peace, then you are vastly mistaken."
That's my stance; that our public problem can be best solved in our private spaces of life that we have control over.
Here, then, are two notes that I hope will infiltrate our next discussions on preventing tragedy.
It will begin by reimagining our situation as communities.
Can we, as neighbors, nurture actual relationships with neighbors? As in, the people you have contact with and drive alongside of and share the landscape of your geographical proximity with. When you know someone intimately who is in a position to murder, steal, or commit a violent act, you can be present enough to make that option become impossible for the person in consideration. This can only happen relationally (and with a presence that involves much contact over time)
If my brother has predestined a life that will lead to the taking of another life, that is a soil that involves me. Though I am not ultimately responsible for what my brother would do with that soil, I am responsible to him; to be a present, life-giving relationship that also brings me life. This brings new light to the declaration of Cain in the primitive narrative of Genesis. Yes, you are your brother's keeper.
Until we overcome our disconnected, isolated, independent way of living together, we won’t have the relationships to actually prevent individuals from bringing forth tragedy. I do not mean that we are there when they are loading up their ammunitions to carry out the act. That is not a relationship, that would be a coincidence. I mean we are there, in fidelity, over time, in a way that has allowed us to thrive. Is it any surprise that some of the most recent research on addiction and drug overdose claims that the most likely remedy is strong, connected relationships? Currently, even in a rural community like mine, our best articulation of neighborliness is that we share a common zip code and we may know someone’s name. We no longer do necessary things for each other because we don’t have to - technology has made us independent. We must transition to actually knowing each other’s stories and sharing in each other’s lives.
You can't legislate neighborliness. You can't legislate connection. You can't create a national structure that enforces the fostering of relationships. Sure, this might help protect us from a higher possibility of these things happening, but tragedy will only be prevented if individuals make decisions with other individuals to be invested in each other's lives over time.
Communities in intimate relationship with each other.
Neighbors that actually belong to each other who not only know the names, but know the stories that compose the fabric of the person across the table.
Unobtainable? Yes, unless we give up the norms that have allowed us to not have these relationships. Small communities that do this and then are "globally" connected to other small communities of neighbors doing this sounds like an attractive, but possible solution.
Relationships, yes, but then, we have to do the long, hard work of re-imagining our situation as a society. We must change our human posture towards the world around us.
Most violent crime is predicated by some form of longing or absence. People steal because they feel like they need to. People are violent when they are overtly isolated or when a form of oppression, even if it is only perceived oppression, makes them feel like their only option is to commit that unimaginable act. If we remain insular, looking out for our own rights at the expense of others, there will always be someone who feels like there is no other option than to act destructively.
Until we are willing to make our interests the interests of the whole, until we begin putting aside our rights to make sure everyone’s needs are met, everyone’s voices are heard, and everyone feels interdependent, we will always have something to prevent.
Unfortunately, this costs us something because it is trading the dominant and lauded norm of cultural ego-centrism for empathy. This will also cost us something because we tend to be defensive and until some good people decide to do the vulnerable thing and start making this normal, it won't happen.
Can we change our posture towards the vast array of human beings that surround us? If not, we will allow the polluted water to stay polluted and the same, predictable hypothetical cycles will just continue on as normal.
3. A Note On Guns
Yeah, I said two notes...but just one more for fun.
Because gun usage and gun control is a pragmatic topic at the center of this discussion. Reading this, we could come to the conclusion, then, that your gun could protect you and, on the other side, limiting gun access could bring more protection. However, it is of my opinion that both of these common declarations still only focus on protection.
From mental illness to ease of access to assault rifle condemnation or defense, there is still an assumption that the violent tragedy is unavoidable if we center the conversation around guns.
Even if you own the perspective of “a good guy with a gun,” you haven’t addressed why there are bad guys with guns. You also assume that you are a good guy — which, in my experience, most people assume that they are the good guys even if we are certain they aren't quite as good as they think. I have met lots of people of who claim the good guy with a gun solution and, I gotta say, I don’t trust some of them with a gun. Of course, I would say I am a good guy with a gun , too — but in the words of Jim Jeffries, “Sometimes, we all get sad.” Essentially, the problem isn’t solved as simply as we might desire.
We also assume that this theory is true — slight problem is that the FBI did a study on this exact topic finding it to be vastly inaccurate. You can read this study here: “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” [For a comedic condensed version — you could watch this instead: “Jordan Klepper: Good Guy With a Gun”...while you might not agree with the ideology behind the Daily Show, they do present the FBI research in a visual way].
Now, I’m not saying that we eliminate guns — that conversation is drastically complex, as well. I live in a rural area and there are clear uses of guns that do not result in violence or tragedy and are actually capable of furthering a community’s life together. If you poll our local high school, I would estimate 90% of the youth either have a gun or have access to one. Certainly, this can be alarming, but it also reveals another dimension to the gun perspective as rural areas have a proportionally minimal amount of violence with guns compared to urban and suburban areas — even though they have a higher amount of guns present.
My voice is not going to weigh in well on the gun control issue, but that’s not my concern here.
My concern is preventing tragedy — and that discussion transcends guns themselves.
This brings back the question of why bad guys with guns exist. Are they just innately bad and so we should just come up with a meter that measures badness and eliminate gun access to those folks? Sounds like a good idea, but, let’s be honest — that will not play out the way we might think. Also, abolition towards certain people that we have decided shouldn’t have access to certain things has proven ineffective in the last couple of centuries with a variety of objects in question.
However, if we work with what we know about active shooters of this sort, there seems to be three components:
- Mental instability (sometimes illness, but it also comes in other harder-to-recognize forms).
- Access to guns.
If you only focus on the third element, you fail to address the first two. But it make sense that we wouldn’t focus on mental instability or isolation — because those fixes are hard. Those solutions will require consistent action on a regular basis by groups of people together — which pull us out of our own comforts and rhythms.
We don’t want that kind of responsibility. And not to mention, you can't legislate that kind of responsibility.
Maybe we could say that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun or a bad person with a violent, disruptive, disconnected intention is with a good community of people intimately connected on a regular basis.
Protection allows us to stay distant.
Prevention will involve the hard work of relational connection.
In the short term, I do hope our society continues to iron out the perspective on guns, but I also want to challenge us to think more distantly about what will actually bring forth prevention.
Part Four: Conclusion
The answers are a long ways away. Call me an idealist, but the largest, most effective, culture-altering revolutions have begun with this process. From Gandhi’s rebellion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s confrontation, positive change has aimed for prevention over protection.
Mitigating the tragic potential embedded in our way of life has always begun with the ideals of changing how people act towards one another interpersonally and changing the posture with which people view one another as human beings culturally.
So in a disconnected culture with dysfunctional communities and relationships — my hope is that we can begin to consider these two ideas, yet again. My hope is that we can change the discussion from:
Protection to Prevention.
From independent antagonists to connected neighbors.
From a world full of “others” to a world full of fellow human beings whose peace will come from our own capacity to foster interdependence.
Whether it be globally in response to terrorism, mass shootings or other acts of earth-shaking violence, or the violence that fractures our very communities — let’s reimagine our human story by starting with true neighborliness (especially with those who might seem to be the hardest to relate to) and by moving from ego-centric selfishness to selfness in how we view, interact with, and relate to the vast array of human beings that surround us.
The long game of true prevention might be our only shot because until we can create a new normal, there will always be something to prevent.
Instead of pursuing the avoidance of the negative, let's pursue the possibility of attaining the truly positive ideal in the small spaces where we are.