by Ron Kenner
Baldwin Hills, Calif.
December 23, 2012
Part VII: FIRST, TO KNOW; THEN, TO DO
BALDWIN HILLS, Calif., Dec. 21, 2012 -- The Dec. 14 massacre of elementary-school children in Newtown, Conn., created headlines worldwide, yet thousands of other innocents nationwide die needlessly, routinely, with little notice. Many die prematurely because of inadequate regulation, oversight or enforcement.
Others die early because of bribery, corruption, unsafe working or housing conditions. Various fatalities occur because of inadequate funding for safety while politicians keep taxes low so as to get reelected. More workers die from fires and unsafe practices in places like Bangladesh so retailers like Walmart can buy cheap goods for low-cost sale to consumers. We don't have to support such practices.
Sadly, nothing can undo the violence that has been done and the calculated behavior of a madman is unpredictable. Yet with a little more thoughtfulness and a little more sensible, civilized behavior we could save a great many lives. Many die needlessly because of the failure to apply a moment's thought. With only a little conscious effort we could overcome lethal behavioral patterns that regularly afflict us.
With the Newtown victims serving as a reminder of fatalities that could be avoided, saving lives would be a snap. We could, for example, click on our seat belts. We could avoid texting or holding a cell phone while driving. We could pay more attention while driving through an intersection, and not have that last drink just to be sociable before driving home.
As voters, we could save lives by being better informed. We could avoid deaths of children and elderly from food poisoning when a budget didn't allow for adequate inspection. Many others need not die because of the failure to take preventative health measures to act promptly when serious health issues arise.
Sometimes it's unavoidable, but we don't have to live dangerously. Reportedly some 300,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributable to smoking. Not least, we might prevent many casualties or fatalities because of a questionable invasion or war, or because a soldier returned home with post-traumatic stress syndrome and, left untreated, simply snapped.
We could upgrade our infrastructure so that people don't die because of crumbling bridges, dangerous roads, unsafe buildings, perilous working conditions. Another overpass or even a traffic signal strategically placed might save lives. More lives might be saved if we didn't penny pinch, as we have for decades, on Congress providing money for Embassy security.
Yet more lives would be saved if the general public acted smarter, too; if, say, certain truck drivers weren't driving so many hours that they can't stay awake. Obviously we could save yet more lives if we did a better job of educating our workers and the public about safety.
More could be done to prevent massacres by demented or dysfunctional individuals, too. The time is long overdue for dealing seriously with gun control. If we can test drivers before we issue driver's licenses we can do a background check on anyone buying a gun, and mandate the necessary education.
Most advanced nations have more effective gun laws than we do, yet the ready availability of lethal handguns and other powerful weapons doesn't fully explain the latest individual shooting nightmare, the increasing number of such episodes, or the madness in general. A recent study reported on CNN said mass murders now occur in the United State once every two weeks. By that measure, we are now only a few days away from the next. There are good questions to ask and we need to ask them, about individuals and about our larger society.
Some catastrophes are unavoidable. We never see them coming. Yet in the United States we do have a lot of crazies out there, and they deserve more attention. Reportedly some 40 percent of incarcerated prisoners suffer from mental illness, and they go largely untreated. The finding should be stunning yet goes largely without notice or mention. One can only guess how many madmen - many easily recognized as violent and out in society - who ought to be treated in mental institutions (or at least in outpatient clinics) and are not. The number is unacceptable.
The massacre in Connecticut comes as a shock, yet many individuals are like ticking bombs that have gone too long unnoticed or untreated. Ask any psychiatrist or psychologist. Ask any parent with a mentally disturbed child or with a dysfunctional young adult about the difficulty of getting meaningful psychiatric help in our society. Despite even significant threats by disturbed individuals, ask about the difficulty of legally restraining such an individual. We need to deal more seriously with these issues.
The violent event is often not as chaotic or as puzzling as it looks. One might, for example, drop a glass from waist high to the floor nine times in a row without the glass shattering. It shatters on the tenth occasion, a seemingly 'random' event. But that doesn't mean that the other glasses are immune to shattering.
And we can safely guess that when a problem goes untreated or festers, sooner or later something will push the odds and tear, break, give way, bust or explode. Whether it's a housing market, a risky investment, the mistreatment of minorities or individuals, inequality, or njustice, repercussions and revolutions are waiting to address them.
The tenth drop that shatters the glass follows the same laws of physics that applied in the first nine. We ought to start thinking more about how to drop fewer glasses, how to protect against breakage, and how to prevent people from snapping.
Years ago I co-authored a book on the Charles Manson "family" murders and was surprised to learn that up until the Manson trial, despite his having spent most of his lifetime in prison, he had never been psychiatrically tested. Yet even Manson's prison associates knew him as "Crazy Charlie."
Things happen, as noted, because they take their natural course. And given the circumstances of nature and the pressures we live under, many people are bound to crack up.
We can rarely specify "when" and "where" violent behavior will erupt, but we know with remarkable precision that in certain places when the temperature reaches such and such degrees so many people will go to the beach, and we know approximately how many people will get sunburned or have an accident on the way to the beach or on the way home.
When it's a holiday or when it's raining we can guess with amazing accuracy approximately how many vehicles will be on the roads and how many accidents might happen. It's not as if we can't see anything coming, or can't do anything about it.
We can even measure the differences in violence from one culture to another with great precision. In 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, I wrote an article comparing the rate of violence in the U.S. with the rate of violence in relatively peaceful Denmark, where I was living and co-directing a small press bureau with my brother. The disparity in violence between the U.S. and Denmark was so great that the article ran as the lead Sunday feature in the Opinion section in one of the two major dailies in Copenhagen.
Perhaps even dumber than the random acts of violence in the U.S. is our routine tolerance of life-threatening conditions. Thus smoking, for example, kills as many people in a week as died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the terrorist attacks on our nation at home and abroad since. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans are lost to gun violence every two months than we did in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Personally, I think our gun control laws (shot through with loopholes) are crazy. Yet we can't ignore that in places like Switzerland - a small country with a great percentage of military training and where most everyone has a gun - the rate of gun violence is still minor compared to ours. We need to look at the whole culture as well as at the gun control laws and face up to the fact that something just isn't right when our statistics on violence dwarf most other advanced nations.
Among many millions in the U.S., a certain small percentage are bound to "snap." Less understandable and all too widespread are some of our political decisions, such as the George W. Bush Administration starting and building up our military at considerable expense, while offering a tax break for the well-to-do, failing to raise revenues to pay for our war expenditures.
There are so many senseless things that we do in society that it boggles the imagination. We ought to acknowledge how senseless it is to near totally ignore those things we ought to be paying attention to. How many people died needlessly, for years, before we managed to get auto manufacturers to install seat belts? How many more people died needlessly until we got serious about making the public use those seat belts?
After promises and then some delay during the past administration regarding the problem of assault weapons, including after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Gifford, the Obama Administration now has a good excuse to push hard to focus on and seek some sensible action to help reduce the kind of violence that shocked the nation in the school shooting in Connecticut.
The shooting was sad, in the deepest, most poignant sense of the word. It's also sad that so little has been done since the Gifford shooting to face up to some of these problems regardless of the power of the gun lobbies. We shouldn't need an excuse to do the sensible thing.
AR Correspondent Ron Kenner, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has edited about 100 published books, including more than a dozen gold medal/first place national award-winners in nonfiction, dramatic nonfiction, and fiction. Write him at email@example.com.