Our Violent Nation

By Bob Litton

When I was a child in grade school during the 1940s, there was no obvious need for electronic detection devices or armed guards patrolling the hallways, at least not in my hometown of Dallas.  Ironically enough, there was some alarm about the possibility of an atomic bomb attack; photos exist of children in my generation huddled under their classroom desks, as though that would help protect them.  Also, our general acquaintance with violence in films was quite sanitary, and the reality of a weapon’s effect was diminished by the absence of visible blood.  Our cowboy heroes shot the guns out of the outlaws’ hands, and the Indians galloping around the wagon train’s circle simply fell off their horses.

Of course, in the real world there was actual violence, especially during the decades immediately prior to our own and in the larger cities of Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas. And even in Dallas, the decade before, there had been the days of Bonnie and Clyde.   In the Dallas of the 1940s, there were reports of the escapades of gangsters Benny Binion, Herb Noble and Cecil Green;  but those guys seemed to concentrate on killing each other,  not children in the schools.  I do recall one episode of a man being shot in the back of the head while viewing a movie at the Capitan theater;  my brother Elbert was there that night and claimed that the bullet whizzed right over his own head.   Nonetheless, these were incidents most of us children never witnessed, although we might have heard our parents talk about them.  And the only images of bodies evidencing bloody ends were those in the Police Gazette, which my father read.

In the 1960s, things changed.  Fictional violence on television and in movies became more constant, ubiquitous and explicit.  Racial protests and consequent beatings were televised, and the Vietnam War was brought home daily through our TV sets.

In 1965, a French/Italian group produced The 10th Victim, which depicted a fictional international club known as the “Big Hunt”.  A participant could win fame and fortune by surviving five rounds as hunter and then five rounds as prey.  According to the Wikipedia article on this film, “…big wars are avoided by giving individuals with violent tendencies a chance to kill in the Big Hunt.”

That was followed in 1967 by Bonnie and Clyde, “…one of the first films to feature extensive use of squibs — small explosive charges, often mounted with bags of stage blood, that are detonated inside an actor’s clothes to simulate bullet hits.  Released in an era where shootings were generally depicted as bloodless and painless, the Bonnie and Clyde death scene was one of the first in mainstream American cinema to be depicted with graphic realism.” (Wikipedia)  When I first saw Bonnie and Clyde, I was shocked by the graphically realistic ending, but I also applauded it because it shunted the chimera of “painless and bloodless” violence.  Now, more than half a century later, I’m not sure my approval was justified.

The previous year, the nation was shocked when Charles Whitman, atop the University of Texas tower in Austin, shot and killed 11 persons on the campus below after having already killed his wife and mother at home and four persons within the tower.  A group of varied medical professionals later concluded that a tumor in his brain might have caused his violent behavior.

In 1968, another film — this one patterned on the UT-Austin massacre — was released, contemporaneously with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Its title was Targets, and it included a cameo role for Boris Karloff as a retired horror film star.  Although the main character in Targets, a Vietnam veteran, does kill his wife and mother before going out on a spree of killing anonymous victims, his shooting takes place not on a college campus but first on an oil storage tank at a refinery and then from the stage of a drive-in theater.  Karloff appears on the stage for a guest appearance, after the film is over and just before the killer arrives.  As Wikipedia describes the film’s finale, “…the old-fashioned, traditional screen monster who always obeyed the rules confronts the new, realistic, nihilistic late 1960s ‘monster’ in the shape of a clean-cut, unassuming multiple murderer.”  Karloff slaps the killer down and then utters sardonically, “Is this what I was afraid of?” (Rotten Tomatoes)

I will spare my readers mention of all the Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis films of similarly violent content.  I think we can all admit that we have surfeited now on decades of bloody films and television.

Presently, the nation is finally locked in a real debate over what to do about gun violence, especially in our schools.  This debate is a positive event…if it leads to anything effective.   As is the case with other major social issues that are being debated — immigration, birth control, marijuana, sexual orientation — both sides have valid arguments.  I have a “side” regarding gun violence, although I don’t have much in the way of a totally effective solution to offer.

It is true that the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights contains an amendment that allows for gun ownership by individuals…because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.  The picture I see the writers of the Constitution having in mind is of a musket perched above the citizen-farmer’s fireplace which the farmer might take down to go out and hunt bear, deer, and squirrels; or the citizen might take it down to respond to his local colonel’s call for volunteers to go out and fight the Indians or the British.  I don’t see our forefathers imagining an AR-15 or an AK-47 hanging above the fireplace for the angry citizen-farmer to take down and go pulverize his neighbor for stealing his chickens.

The National Rifle Association folks like to argue that mental illness, not gun ownership, is the problem.  And it is true that in the cases of Whitman and the Korean student, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 persons at Virginia Tech in 2007 — both of whom had sought medical help before going on their rampages — mental illness was a primary factor.  However, in the cases of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the Columbine massacre and Adam Lanza at the Sandy Hook massacre, the role of mental illness cannot be determined because all three never sought psychiatric help.  And I find it a bit implausible that Harris and Klebold, if both were supposedly mentally ill, could have cooperated in carrying out their scheme.  There was some speculation about the influence of bullying; and on that ground I can see some substantiation of the point.  I think it is possible that both wanted revenge on the bullies; and, to show the magnitude of their rage, they increased the number of their victims.

But there is another type of mentally disturbed person: the one who kills or attempts to kill others simply to draw attention to himself or herself or out of vengeance.  Among these are John Hinckley Jr., who wounded President Reagan in 1981 in order supposedly to win the admiration of Jodie Foster; and Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon to death in 1980 because Lennon had reportedly made a remark about being “more popular than Jesus” and had recorded a couple of songs (“God” and “Imagine”) which had incensed Chapman.  Hinckley claimed insanity; Chapman pled guilty. Hinckley was placed in a psychiatric facility; Chapman was sentenced to life in prison.

Anyway, the NRA has to-date rebuffed any proposals for background checks, and how can one determine mental health status without a background check? Moreover, psychiatrists and other health care providers are resistant to divulging the comments of their patients because of confidentiality concerns.  This is understandable, since without a confidentiality guarantee many mentally ill people will not seek help.

The NRA has also claimed that the vast majority of gun-owners are law-abiding citizens who are careful about how they keep and use their guns.  But, lo and behold, what happened last January 19 — “Gun Appreciation Day”: a total of five gun enthusiasts were accidentally wounded at gun shows in Raleigh, NC; Medina, OH (a suburb of Cleveland); and Indianapolis, IN!

Then there is the NRA’s complaint to a Senate Judiciary Committee that immediate background checks would cost gun dealers a lot of money, create a huge pile of paperwork, and result in yet another bureaucracy.  Wow!  That definitely is too great a burden!  Much better to allow half-wits and crazies to buy guns and shoot up schools than mess with all those regulations and forms.

The NRA — and others — say that the only rational way to handle the school safety issue is to make expert shooters of teachers, principals, bus drivers and/or assign police officers to patrol the schools’ hallways.  What happened to the argument about expense?  Frankly, I was shocked to read that many teachers are willing to pack pistols.  Has anybody wondered about the possibility that a teacher — regardless of the amount of firearm training he or she has had — might accidentally misread what a student is doing, think he is threatening somebody, and shoot him.  Or what if there is a genuine threat, but the teacher misses the culprit and hits another student, or a bullet ricochets off a wall and injures or kills someone. Beyond the possible unintentional deaths and woundings, the school and the teacher could be wide open for a lawsuit.

As I wrote above, I don’t have any sure-fire solution to this gun problem, although I kind of like the Big Hunt idea in that movie The 10th Victim.  (But, I realize it is unrealistic and innocent bystanders might get hurt.)   I only know that random violence was virtually non-existent when I was a child, and that single fact leads me to the conclusion that my country has become a nation of crazies — and not all of the crazies are the murderers I wrote about above.  We are a Violent Nation.



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