Can't we now ask: Isn't there something powerfully troubling about this year of mass killings, one after another after another?
The seven people killed in Fort Worth were shot dead in a church by a deranged man shouting anti-religious epithets. Might that not move us to a touch of reverence before we descend into our "it's guns/it's the culture" shouting matches? Reverence in this case is defined not as saccharine expressions of empathy for the dead and the wounded but as a willingness to contemplate what might be wrong with us.
We need to face the fact that we are an exceptionally violent nation.There is no developed country like ours when it comes to killing.
But we don't like to think that of ourselves. Each time one of these horrible things happens -- at Columbine High School and in Atlanta and in Arkansas and in Los Angeles -- many perfectly sensible things are said: that someone quite mad or troubled is behind the latest horror; that individuals are accountable for what they do and their responsibility should not be diluted by blaming society; that our talk-crazed media culture is too eager to draw big lessons from isolated acts.
All true, but also an evasion. "This mania is unknown in any country in the world," Father Robert Drinan, law professor and former congressman, said the other day on CNN. Again, you could say many other countries have had deadly shooting sprees. Other places -- Russia and South Africa come to mind -- have bigger crime problems. You might reasonably urge that we not get hysterical, since we are finally having some success in bringing crime under control.
But Drinan is still right: There is a lethal combination in our country of a violence-prone culture and gun laws that are more permissive than in any comparable nation. There is no getting around either fact.
If we're honest, we'll ask if there might be a link between the culture of weaponry and the culture of movie and television violence -- two different forms of glorification of the very aggression we claim to despise. And we might acknowledge that the frontier spirit we revere as part of our history and culture may have a dysfunctional side when it comes to shaping our current lives in cities and suburbs.
We also need to make distinctions between ordinary crime and lethal acts, as Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins pointed out in an important article two years ago in the journal The Responsive Community.
"What sets the United States apart from other countries is not our high crime rates," they wrote. "What sets the United States apart is our distinctively high rates of lethal violence. Our cities have no more property crime than major cities abroad. . . . But the rate of violent death from assault in the United States is from 4 to 18 times as high as in other G7 nations; and this is largely a consequence of the widespread use of handguns in assaults and robberies."
In an interview, Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, colorfully explained the distinction between violence and violence leading to death. "You're just as likely to get punched in the mouth in a bar in Sydney [Australia] as in a bar in Los Angeles. But you're 20 times as likely to be killed in Los Angeles."
Zimring rightly cites these facts as an argument for tougher gun laws. But he's too honest an analyst to pretend that gun laws explain everything. Americans, he says, are also more likely to kill people with knives than citizens of comparable countries. There is something in our culture, he says, that makes us "much more likely to consider it legitimate as part of getting into a fight to use means that threaten deadly results."
So, yes, we're back to guns and the culture. Is it possible this time that the president and his political opponents in Congress might recess the usual argument and encourage an objective look -- fat chance, I know -- at the causes of violence and a bit of national soul-searching leading to action?
"I don't know of a law -- a government law -- that will put love in people's hearts," Gov. George W. Bush of Texas said in response to the Fort Worth slaughter. Of course that's right -- and utterly irrelevant. You don't have to love someone not to shoot them. We don't ask politicians to make us love each other. We ask them to criticize attitudes and ideas that lead to more killing and to pass reasonable laws that will make killing less likely.