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On the Killin' Floor

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In his most famous blues song, Howlin' Wolf sang
I should'a quit you, long time ago... And I wouldn't've been here, Down on the killin' floor.
The mass killings at Virginia Tech demonstrated that all Americans are "down on the killin' floor." It's easy to dismiss the killings of 33 members of the Virginia Tech community as an aberration: the work of a terribly deranged individual. And it's equally easy to focus on a few specific actions that might make things better: tougher gun control laws and better psychological support for troubled individuals, among others. It's much harder to look at the deep sickness that grips America, our collective addiction to violence, and call for radical systemic change. But that's what's needed: recognition that we are a country of addicts; three hundred million lost souls desperately searching for our daily fix of blood and gore; a nation where the majority of citizens remain in denial that if we don't change our reckless behavior then we'll end up on the killin' floor. In the U.S. there are 81 gun-related deaths each day. Columnist Mark Shields reports: "[Since 1980] Of the 26 developed nations in the world, 83 percent of all the people who died by firearms die[d] in this country." We are the largest manufacturer and exporter of weapons in the world. The US has the largest number of guns in private hands of any country. The ingredient that makes this lethal is not gun-ownership, per se, it is our addiction to violence, which is everywhere in our culture: TV, films, rap songs, video games, Internet sites, popular novels, even children's toys. Given the American penchant for violence, it's not surprising that the Virginia Tech killings dominated the media for a few days; or that they were driven off the front pages by fresh killings at the NASA Center in Houston. What is surprising is that Americans show so little understanding of the root cause of this problem. In the aftermath of tragedy, we restrict our focus to cosmetic fixes - new restrictions limiting the ability of the mentally ill to purchase automatic weapons - rather than address the systemic problem that produced the massacre. Why don't we do something about violence? The simple answer is that we've become a nation of self-absorbed individuals: narcissists who focus primarily on ourselves and, perhaps, the members of our immediate families and, therefore, have little interest in what happens in our communities, much yet the nation. I write this advisedly, acknowledging that there are millions of compassionate people in America - such as those who run shelters for the homeless- who care deeply about their fellow citizens, who believe that they are responsible for the well-being of their brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, twenty-seven years of conservative ascendancy in American politics has exacted a terrible toil on the American psyche. One consequence has been the elevation of the personal good over the common good: "What's in it for me?" "What have you done for me lately?" "Why should I pay taxes for services that benefit other people?" "The best government is no government;" "The market will provide." Conservatives have ferociously assaulted the concepts of government, community service, and civil society. They've promoted the notion that individual Americans are on their own: the idea that individuals rise or fall of their own accord and government has no responsibility to care for them. Conservatives have created a system that deliberately penalizes the "losers." That's not to say that the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, wasn't responsible for his actions; of course he was. But, as his social background unfolds, it's clear that Cho had issues and because of these - extreme introversion and speech problems, among others - he was belittled and bullied by his peers. Unfortunately, Cho fit the same pattern as the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. They were all unpopular kids - young people regarded as "losers" - filled with rage, who had all-too-easy access to weapons. Kids who perceived that they were part of an uncaring community and the way to fix this was to get even, big time. There is no easy fix for the problem that produced the deaths of thirty-three innocent Virginia Tech students and faculty. It won't be solved by placing further restrictions on the sale of automatic weapons - although that seems like a good idea. It won't be remedied by further restricting the activities of American with mental illnesses. It will take changes that are systemic and, therefore, more difficult. The United States, as a community, has to face the reality that we are a nation of violence junkies. We must go through our own arduous twelve-step program: begin with the admission that we are powerless over violence and our lives have become unmanageable. In the process, we have to resurrect the notion of the common good and become a caring community, again. That's a long, hard road, but it's the only way we can get off the killin' floor.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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