Restoring 'Valuing Life' as an American Value

Crime has fallen in recent years, but, judging by the horrific shootings that seem to take place almost daily in every conceivable kind of venue, it doesn't feel like it. As a people, we have gone from the outrage over the atrocities at Newtown and Aurora (and all those that preceded them and the daily shootings in gang-ridden neighborhoods) to a sense of not yet resignation, but certainly of war weariness. We're not as shocked or horrified when these events take place and that is terrifying.

After the siege at the Columbia, Maryland mall this past weekend, the Mid-Atlantic media was awash with stories and speculation about the shooter and the incident. But the media deals with the immediacy of each situation and fail to examine the big picture. In journalistic jargon, they "bury the lead" and the lead is, "Yet Another Young Man With Firearms Wreaks Havoc: (#) Dead, (#) Injured, Millions Terrorized." Yes, we need to know the motive (if there is one) in each particular circumstance but wouldn't good journalism delve into the phenomenon and hold public officials and all of us accountability for its persistence?

The response and the angst to many shootings is mostly regional and short-lived. Even those that strike a national nerve, notably Newtown, which felt like such a watershed moment, dissipate once our political leaders have moved beyond outrage to a grinding halt over partisan differences and their failure to do what wise leaders do -- put national interests over political differences and find practical solutions.

We are rightly proud of the rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" our forebears declared for us in 1776 but it appears that one aspect of "liberty" -- the right to bear arms -- has, by default, been allowed to trump the other two.

Liberty in America encompasses much, much more than the Second Amendment, but that is not the primary point I hope to make here. Rather, it is about life, the pursuit of happiness and every manifestation of liberty that makes life and the pursuit of happiness possible. Freedom from gun violence, and from the injury and death it causes, is a part of the equation, but what about the people who commit these atrocities and the smaller-scale shootings that happen daily? What does it say about Americans as a people when individuals, for whatever reason, curtail others' rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through senseless violence?

Let's stipulate that the primary reasons for people causing injury and death with guns is because they are criminal, they have an untreated mental or organic illness in which violence and lack of impulse control occur, or they have reached a point of desperation but lack the knowledge and skill to deal with adversity in relationships and circumstances in constructive ways. It is very unlikely that a society could ever prevent these kinds of conditions from ever happening, but the fact that the U.S. is one of the most violent societies on Earth suggests that attending to these things is fundamental to achieving our aspirations for life, liberty (including freedom from violence) and the pursuit of happiness.

How do we as a nation address the factors that lead to or result in certain people who are more prone than the rest of us to commit violent acts? Well, we can't prevent injuries or genetic factors that cause a predisposition to violence and a lack of impulse regulation, but we can, if we are committed as a society to valuing life, make identification of those who are afflicted with violent thoughts and behaviors, not to mention criminality, more readily understood and commonplace, both in the institutions of our communities (e.g., schools, community agencies, congregations) but also in families. And we can remove the mystery of what to do once a disposition or predisposition to violence is detected. That is, we can help people understand when and how to engage law enforcement and how to provide for the safety and treatment of those at risk of committing violence.

That is a campaign in and of itself but it would not be sufficient. There are not enough treatment options for those who are mentally ill in general let alone those on the fringes who are severely disturbed and at risk of committing violence. (And at-risk is an apt term: some people lack the internal controls to prevent violence. They are ticking bombs that do not have the ability shut their explosive impulses down. An external intervention -- a virtual bomb squad -- is needed to ensure their and others' safety.) If we value life as a society, we will invest more in the identification and treatment of people who are afflicted with severe and dangerous mental and organic illness.

Identification, treatment, intervention and the other element is prevention. There is prevention in the sense of identifying and treating people who are at risk of acting violently, and there is also prevention in the sense of becoming a people who actively value life and eschew violence. Beyond rhetoric, that means investing in those things that are good for society in any event -- quality early childhood education and quality education through young adulthood; high-quality child and youth development programs in the community, again, through young adulthood; a culture that fosters positive connections among people and alternatives to bullying and violence; opportunities for adequate income and economic mobility; ready access to medical and mental health care.

These are not add-ons. They are well accepted in our society, though they are not supported at levels at which they need to be for this to be a society which maximizes its human potential and which genuinely and proactively values life. The key is universality of these resources and opportunities, availability to all people as the ingredients of life and as a part of fulfilling of our democratic ideals, including the value of life and freedom from violence. And, like it or not, some of those who do not experience these resources and opportunities and whose afflictions and misbehaviors are not detected and treated are more susceptible to harming themselves and others than those who have the life-building ingredients and human connections to be whole and safe.

We tend to treat each crisis or problem in society as something that needs its own solution. Ensuring that we bring the best of all three sectors together around a culture of valuing life -- ensuring that we all have access to the same life-building opportunities and experiences, and detection and supports for those who are off-track in some way -- develops a more effective workforce and more effective citizens, and, by the way, prevents violence.