Thursday 27 October 2016

It's not just guns, it's America's culture of anger that is the killer

Tim Stanley

Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30

Alison Parker and Adam Ward
Alison Parker and Adam Ward

The murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward was a postmodern nightmare. Vester Lee Flanagan II, who went by the name Bryce Williams, shot and killed his victims live on TV. He also filmed it himself and posted it on Twitter.

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His motivations were a mix of the personal and political - Flanagan was a sad individual, who wallowed in imagined victimhood and wanted to start a race war on behalf of black people. This whole case tells us so much about the state of the modern American psyche. One thing it doesn't tell us very much about is gun control.

In the aftermath of shootings like these, there is always a push for gun control. That's understandable, I'm not unsympathetic. But - and this seems rather important - the Democrat proposals likely would not have denied Flanagan access to a gun.

President Obama wants to ban assault weapons - Flanagan used a handgun. Obama wants stricter background checks - Flanagan appears to have passed a background check.

No, the only way to make sure that men like Flanagan can't access handguns is to totally ban and confiscate handguns. Not only is that political unfeasible and unconstitutional, but it would trigger a civil war.

To a large segment of the American population, guns represent personal responsibility and independence. You'd have to prize them from their cold, dead hands.

It's odd, but whenever there's a multi-person shooting, politicians tend to have a lot more to say about the weapon used than about the shooter. That's because yes, guns do end up in the hands of the wrong people.

It's also because politicians want to be seen to do things and controlling guns is the obvious thing to do.

But it's also because Left and Right prefers to shy away from a critique of what is ailing American culture.

America's problems are not unique. We have violence issues in Europe too: just last week a man tried to shoot up a train, using a gun that he presumably bought on Europe's sizeable arms black market. Moreover, the US crime rate is actually declining.

This tendency to erupt when reason should have prevailed is behind so much of the social chaos in America.

But America does have two big problems that have coalesced to bring tragedy. The first is related to mental health. Having mental health problems does not mean someone is prone to violence. On the contrary, studies show that it is a poor predictor for violent behaviour. But extreme cases can combine with other factors to trigger psychotic episodes.

One is the over-prescription of dangerous drugs. Another is laws that make it very hard to commit anyone. A third is universities and businesses that are reluctant to intervene, despite obvious warning signs.

A fourth is the sheer cost in America's insanely complex and expensive healthcare system of treating someone who is ill. The cruelty of America's refusal to deal with this problem is reflected in the high rates of incarceration for people with mental-health problems.

It indicates that a) they aren't being diagnosed until they have their first psychotic episode and b) prisons have replaced proper facilities and community support when it comes to managing tough cases.

Background checks for gun purchases can never work properly in this environment. If the ill are not properly monitored and the paper trail is thin, they are next to useless, other than in instances where people have previously been locked up.

America's second issue is the culture of escalation. I love America, I sincerely do. But it has an anger problem. Flanagan was a classic example of a man who sought conflict and when he found it, escalated it into hysteria and - crucially - politicised it. In reality, he was probably just a mediocre journalist.

But he imagined that he was the victim of a conspiracy and that he had to fight back. This tendency to erupt when reason should have prevailed is behind so much of the social chaos in America.

It's there in the cops who turn up to every incident with sirens wailing, guns waving - shooting young kids who just needed a stern talking to. It's there, too, in people who think that rioting is a proportionate response to a perversion of justice. It's there also in the use of the death penalty - not only to kill a killer, to make him feel pain, but to win a politician votes.

At the heart of a deeply Christian culture is an eye-for-an-eye attitude. It is wound up, of course, by a media that positively revels in violence, racism, homophobia and false victimhood. It's significant that Flanagan filmed himself. He wanted to "share" his violence with the world, performing in the way that this ego-centred culture dictates.

Against this background, the debate about guns is small fry. Sure, make the background checks tougher. But nothing is politically possible beyond that - trying to do more will only whip up ancient hatreds.

Isn't it time to acknowledge that individuals are ill and need help? Or that there's something rotten about the wider culture?

Irish Independent

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