While I was working at Peace Bridges in Cambodia, my friend and colleague Mony once explained how terrifying it was to live through the civil war. One description particularly stuck in my heart: it was cheaper to buy bullets than rice.
I spent a very busy weekend last week welcoming the Lunar New Year with my Buddhist community. It was a great joy. We chanted and meditated, packed emergency meal kits for a local shelter, drank tea, shared delicious meals, sang karaoke, gave and received new year dollars and oranges and red envelopes, bowed in gratitude, took group photos, cleaned up after ourselves (more than once!), and generally celebrated the joy of sharing life together. I felt at home and safe. And yet, in the back of my mind, I was aware of the grieving communities in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California. Then, on Monday, two high school students were shot and killed at a charter school in Des Moines, Iowa in an apparent feud between rival gangs. Three days, three shootings, three settings: community dance center, workplace, and school. As Stephen Collinson observed on Tuesday, “Everyday life is a soft target. Anywhere can become the venue for the next preventable tragedy.”
Everywhere we go, whatever we do, there is a background sadness that, in our society, bullets may not be cheaper than rice, but life is cheaper than bullets.
We are not even through the first month of 2023, and yet we have already had thousands of reminders of how violent, desperate, and afraid we feel, living in this society. As of the morning of January 26, 2023, the Gun Violence Archive had documented 3,030 gun violence deaths in the first weeks of of January (1,314 due to homicide, accidents, and defensive uses; 1,716 from suicide). We already have witnessed 40 deaths from mass shootings and 6 deaths from mass murders. 21 children (age 0-11) have already died, alongside 102 teens (age 12-17). Again, these statistics are from January 1 to January 26, 2023.
We talk pretty frequently about gun violence because, unfortunately, we have to talk frequently about gun violence. When we experience violence on this scale, you can’t go far without encountering it. The reminders are nearly constant, as are the justifications. One of the criticisms I heard most often in response to my last reflection on gun violence, for example, was that I didn’t talk about all the lives that guns had saved. To be honest, that’s not a conversation I’m very interested in having. At the most, it seems to me that we are simply proving that we have managed to create a very dangerous, desperate society where we must be constantly hypervigilant, always aware that violence can break forth anywhere, at any time. It simply affirms what has been apparent to those who have lived as part of a marginalized community, or to those who have studied history, or to those who have the courage and empathy to step into solidarity with those who suffer: our society is sick.
Gun violence is obviously a problem, but there is at least one glimmer of truth in the terribly callous and ubiquitous response that “guns don’t kill people; people do.” Gun violence is a symptom of our collective dis-ease; it both perpetuates and is sustained by social norms that have blossomed out of a history of shared trauma and violence. What is it about our society that so effectively waters the seeds of violence in us?
In the case of the shooter at Monterey Park, a person who spoke daily with the man said that
“his whole life was going down, … . He had no job, he sold his property, very few friends, and I believe that he had no close friends, … . No family, no kids, no job, no money. He was hopeless and desperate.”
And in Half Moon Bay, the San Mateo County Sheriff explained that “There was nothing that would have … raised us to have any concern with [the shooter] at this time, prior to this incident,” that this was just one of those times where someone “snaps.” But the man had at least some history of workplace violence; one situation even resulted in a restraining order that included a restriction from owning or buying a gun for a short period of time. That was about a decade ago.
In the case of schools, the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments makes the connections clear:
“For students to learn, they need to feel safe. It is essential that all students be able to attend schools that provide a safe environment where they can thrive and fully engage in their studies without the distraction and worry about physical safety concerns.
• Physical safety is essential for a safe and supportive learning environment in which students and staff can thrive.
o Physical safety is related to higher academic performance, fewer risky behaviors, and lower dropout rates.
• Risky behaviors, such as acts of violence, imperil safety for students and staff, and undermine the teaching and learning climate.
o Students who feel safe are more likely to stay in school and achieve academically.
• Physical safety is important for students’ feelings of connection and belonging to school and their educational experience.
o Students who are not fearful or worried about their safety feel more connected to their school and care more about their educational experience.”
These things are well understood and supported by both research and pedagogical wisdom. But we also all know the reality. The 2022 State of School Safety Report (a project of Safe and Sound Schools) reported that “Only 68 percent of students reported feeling safe at school.” This means that about a third of our children do not feel safe at school. There are many more details to this experience, and the entire study is important and worth your time. However, for the moment I want to simply bring attention to the public safety concerns that are included in the research, including: active shooter/attack, intruder/unauthorized visitor, bomb threats, bullying/cyberbullying, aggression/discrimination (“toward a minority individual/group”), sexual assault/abuse, substance abuse, gang activity and recruitment, youth trafficking, food insecurity, neglect/abuse, and homelessness. These are all real problems, and the report is very correct in addressing them in this study. But lurking behind their reality is, again, the question of why these public safety concerns are so commonplace that we need to address them like this?
Meanwhile, three more communities have joined the already thousands of US communities in processing the trauma of a mass shooting and the heartbreak of losing loved ones. Everywhere we look, we see the indications that our society is very ill. As a nation, we hold space, tending these open wounds, these seemingly unending cycles of violence. And we are back to that question: What is it about our society that so effectively waters the seeds of violence in us?
There is not just one answer, but, over the years, we are gradually understanding ourselves and the conditions that make both violence and wholeness more likely. To take just one example, in 2003, Steven Wineman was asking some very similar questions, resulting in a wonderfully helpful book titled Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change. Reflecting on how Sandra Bloom and Michael Reichert described the USA as “a traumaorganized society’ in which people are routinely exposed to ‘traumatogenic environments,” Wineman pointed out that social justice movements, especially “since the women’s movement began to unmask childhood sexual abuse,” have helped us have more awareness and understanding of how violence causes trauma, and how unhealed trauma can create conditions where we are more likely to choose to act violently. Oppression, he wrote,
“is generically traumatizing. Racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and economic brutality all routinely violate people’s integrity and repeatedly render people powerless in the face of overwhelming personal and institutional forces. The social experience of people of color, gay people, women, workers, poor people, children, and disabled people is saturated with abuse, humiliation, violence, and negation of personal worth.”
Building on the insight that Aurora Levins Morales offered, that “abuse is the local eruption of systemic oppression, and oppression the accumulation of millions of small systematic abuses,” Wineman pointed out that no one can “emerge unscathed” – “ours is a sickening society — a society in which toxic social conditions create psychological and physical illness by routinely traumatizing people.” I’ve come to understand this as a kind of generic oppression, where we learn from an early age to accommodate injustice. We internalize the notion that injustice, and the trauma that goes with it, is inevitable if not natural. It is simply normal, the way things are. And so we consider it unsurprising, for example, that it is possible for our co-workers, friends, and family members to one day “snap” and murder others. That the notion of “snapping” in this way is a common concept should bewilder and shock us. It should not be an explanation; it should be understood as a symptom of our society’s illness, an indication of our need for healing and change.
Having an environment – at home, school, work, and in the community – where we both feel and are safe is a major component of social and personal well-being. It feels like this should go without saying, but our constant exposure to violence and collective inability or unwillingness to do anything substantive about it makes it important to say these things aloud. Take, for example, last Monday’s school shooting in Iowa. Des Moines Police Sgt. Paul Parizek explained that :
"These are supposed to be our safe spaces, and this school in particular, it's one that the police department works very closely with, … . The school is designed to pick up the slack and help kids who need the help the most, the ones who aren't getting the services they need for a variety of different reasons. To have it happen here, it's going to be a horrible impact on the community."
Part of that horrible impact is, to return to Wineman’s words, the way in “which toxic social conditions create psychological and physical illness by routinely traumatizing people.” This includes both acute stress (such as directly experiencing or witnessing a violent act) and chronic stress (such as living with the anxiety that violence is always a possibility). These stressors undermine our wellbeing and limit our ability to thrive. Combined with our broader sociopolitical contexts and histories, and we are also increasingly vulnerable to what Wineman described as "mass scapegoating" -
"People's sense of victimization is commonly played out politically through the mobilization of fear, hatred, and scapegoating of targeted groups (or institutions or nations) who in various ways are identified as threats to their well-being and as sources of their victimization. The major actors on the right surely understand the vulnerability of traumatized people to populist appeals for mass scapegoating - though undoubtedly they would not describe their politics in these terms. The manipulation of traumatic victimization into political expressions of rage and hatred downward at stigmatized and relatively powerless targets - rather than upward at power elites and at structures of domination and oppression - is one of the lynch pins that sustains the status quo."
I have friends and acquaintances, on both the right and the left, who passionately believe the solution to these problems is for more people to have more guns. They have told me, more than once, and often quite passionately, of how naïve I am to disagree with them. But I remain unconvinced, and not least because many of these same folks view the other as their enemy. Their guns are, at least in part, to protect themselves from each other. It appears much more likely to me that this faith in violence, and the guns that both embody and symbolize the power of this violence to impose their will on others, is naïve. At the very most, violence is a short-term solution that, if left unhealed, creates more long-term problems. Even the protection that guns promise come at the expense of the threat of violence, and often with violent acts. We cannot heal ourselves with guns, but we can traumatize ourselves with gun violence.
So many of our solutions focus on ramping up threats, stockpiling weapons, training more and more people to be prepared to use violence, and generally reinforcing our habits to reach for violent solutions. I understand this. I understand that we have created a society where these things feel like the best options available. But I cannot see any way in which these are healthy long-term solutions. At the very least, I urge you to consider these as short-term measures to help us deal with the constant, crisis-filled emergencies we have come to accept as everyday life. At the very least, let’s increase our support for developing and funding trauma healing for wounds that already exist, and social programming for addressing the injustices that marginalize and traumatize people in the first place.
This approach may be especially hopeful for all of us who belong to oppressed communities and felt torn between the hope for a healthy, healing, whole life and world, and the helplessness mixed with an often overwhelming rage that simmers in our traumatic grief. As Wineman noted,
“When we view trauma from a political perspective, two truths emerge which stand in stark tension with each other: that trauma can psychologically debilitate people in ways that help to perpetuate domination and oppression; and that trauma can help to spark personal and political resistance to domination and oppression. I believe that it is critical to develop our understanding of both sides of this tension. It is in the push and pull between the ways that traumatized people are damaged and defeated by oppression and the ways that traumatized people stand up to oppression that our prospects for mobilizing effective social change movements rise or fall.”
As another day begins in the USA, always potentially filled with violence, I choose again for my grief “to spark personal and political resistance to domination and oppression.” I dream of a day when my friends no longer feel the need to carry a gun to a grocery store. I dream of a day when someone “snapping” and committing acts of violence is unheard of and bewildering. I dream of a day when we’ve learned to live together in such a way that no one has to depend on marginalizing, exploiting, or traumatizing another human being to try to meet their own needs. And I dream of a day when no one feels the need to harass me into buying a weapon, because we have made it possible to live together with compassion and wisdom, where everyone feels and is safe.