The tragedy in Isla Vista has left my precious Santa Barbara community—and the nation—reeling. The senseless violence, claiming the lives of innocent young people, has stimulated many different conversations…Conversations about mental illness, about more stringent gun control laws, about violence against women, about inappropriate parenting and the rise of narcissism.
No one, myself included, wants to accept that we are utterly powerless, and that the rising tide of mass murders cannot be stopped. We should all be asking ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues, our communities and our government officials—what can we learn from Isla Vista, from Newtown, from Aurora, from Columbine?
Is there anything we can do to prevent this kind of violence in the future? Even if we only make a dent in the numbers, we will have made a difference. There will not be one answer or a quick fix. Hopefully, we will respond on many levels.
The Mental Illness Issue
When stories about mass murder break, spotlights are often focused on mental illness. Experts and armchair therapists alike weigh in on possible diagnoses, lack of adequate or appropriate treatment, and decry the culpability of parents, psychiatrists, and an underfunded mental health system. Although an important part of the story, it is only one piece of the larger puzzle.
What are the dangers of limiting ourselves to the conclusion that these crimes are the result of improperly treated mental illness? One negative outcome is that we further stigmatize all forms of mental illness—including the many diagnoses that have no significant correlation with violence at all.
For example, in the case of the I.V. massacre, the perpetrator was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. What most of the reporters failed to mention was that people with Asperger’s or other autism spectrum disorders are not typically violent. In fact, people suffering from these and other mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
In the absence of more complete and accurate information about mental disorders–putting horrific crimes like this into a broader context–we increase levels of fear in our culture about all those who are challenged or appear different. This increase in fear and prejudice can further isolate the very people who need more of our attention or more community resources to ensure their and our health and safety.
The Issue of Violence and Guns
Let’s start with the facts…most violent crimes are not committed by the mentally ill at all. When this issue was highlighted after the Aurora movie theater shooting, Time magazine reported that “looking at the rates of violent crime overall — homicide, for instance — the best estimate is that 5% to 10% of murders are committed by people with mental illness.”
Most violence in America is perpetrated against family members, partners, friends and neighbors—not strangers. From 1993 to 2008, among homicides reported to the FBI for which the victim-offender relationship was known, between 73% and 79% of homicides were committed by offenders known to the victims.
According to recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice, between 1993 and 2011, around 70% of all homicides and less than 10% of all nonfatal violent crimes were committed with guns. Most crimes of gun violence are committed by young men, ages 18 to 24. Issues of mental illness emerge as more significant in mass murders. However, in the past, the NRA has opposed backgrounds checks even for those diagnosed as severely mentally ill with a history of violence. Are we perhaps ready to do something different now?
Even though we have the highest rates of imprisoning people in the world, America has not solved the problem of violent crime. If both sides of the political fence really wanted to curtail violent crime, America would follow the lead of Australia and pass significant gun control laws to protect us from each other.
Passed in 1996 after a mass shooting left 35 dead in Tasmania, Australia’s law banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and also established a mandatory buy-back program for newly banned weapons. Not only have homicide rates since gone down but suicide fatalities were lowered enormously as a result of gun control.
Given that homicide and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death among teens aged 15 to 19, this is a public health issue of enormous significance. Each day in America, 5 children or teens commit suicide and 7 children or teens are killed by guns. What might happen if this statistic was featured every day on the nightly news?
In the aftermath of the killer’s 140 page “manifesto” and his multiple YouTube and Facebook rants, millions of women have been publicly sharing their experiences with sexism, violence and misogyny. They are being joined by men on Twitter, in blogs, and in op-eds around the country.
In response to outcry about the killer’s premeditated violence and hateful rant towards women, the Twitter response #NotAllMen began to surface. In a collective display of female protest, #Yes All Women was born. Here is a taste of the ongoing conversation…
#NotAllMen are murderers and rapists! (Most women of course know this already).
Here is a tiny sample of responses…
#YesAllWomen when the cops ask me “What were you wearing?” when I reported an attack and attempted rape.
#YesAllWomen because the odds of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067, while a woman’s odds of being sexually assaulted are 1 in 6. And being afraid of sharks is seen as rational while being cautious of men is sexist and “bitchy”.
#NotAllMen are the same but #YesAllWomen live in fear of not knowing the difference between a genuinely nice guy and a potential attacker.
Although some of the conversation has included angry and misogynistic rants, thousands of men are adding their voices of solidarity to the conversation. Author Neil Gaiman wrote, “The hashtag NotAllWomen is filled with hard, true, sad and angry things. I can empathize & try to understand & know I never entirely will.”
Or, in the words of New York Times writer, Charles Blow, “Fighting sexism and misogyny isn’t just women’s work.” It will take men joining in the battle. Yes, all men. Given the magnitude of the oppression of women worldwide, this conversation might start to break down barriers between men and women, raising awareness globally through social media.
Violence Grows with Income Inequality
I’d like to add one more thread for reflection. There is building evidence that as the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, violence becomes more and more commonplace. Measuring the level of income inequality may turn out to a better predictor of violence than almost anything else we can think of.
Harvard’s Ichiro Kawachi, M.D. and psychologist Bruce Kennedy discuss this and other issues in The Health of Nations: Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health. Their much lauded book examines a number of indicators of health, on which the U.S. is slipping, contending that our “consumption cancer” has led to many of our most serious problems, including the rise of violent crime.
With more people working longer and longer hours, we spend less time with families and friends. These factors lead, they argue, to higher rates of violent crime and incarceration, to weakened social bonds and to the outsourcing of the care of our children. We all know the adage, “it takes a village to raise a child” but where have all our villages gone?
What can each of us do, starting today, to make the world a kinder, safer place for our families? These are conversations that we need to keep on having until we see evidence of change for the better.
If more and more people ask the hard questions and we practice more compassionate listening, with representation from all political persuasions, races, genders, ages and social classes, perhaps then, and only then, will the I.V. tragedy and all the other senseless mass crimes have served a broader purpose. To engender hope for a more peaceful future, we must rebuild our communities and stand up against the fear and hatred that so readily lead to violence.
Let’s keep the difficult, deeper conversations going this time.