Murrysville, Pennsylvania, is the newest town on our growing list of American locales that have unfortunately experienced chaos, heartache, and challenge to peace within their communities. A disturbed young man, like many that have come before him, walked into a school and began a series of violent acts. Only this time, he wasn’t a gunman. The suspect, Alex Hribal, wielded two knives, which he used to stab and maim twenty of his schoolmates. This takes me back to a conversation I had with a friend in the month or so after the shootings at Sandy Hook. The debate had begun down a dark, political path about gun control and my friend, a fierce supporter of the second amendment, suggested that guns are not the problem in these school shootings. He cited that there are a number of things that can be used as a weapon in a public setting. Ban guns, and someone with a baseball bat could still rampage the halls of a school, pummeling students to death. A knife could be just as deadly. But as I read the news that while nearly two dozen students were hurt, all are expected to make a recovery. And so I think of this concept that a knife could be just as deadly in a public act of mass violence, and I have to say that I don’t (as I didn’t when this conversation was first had) believe they’re anywhere close in deadliness. Had Alex Hribal been armed with even a simple handgun, we would likely be reading about the deaths of these poor students, and probably with a higher count of casualties.
No, a knife is not on an equal playing field with the power of a firearm. Hence the old adage of “bringing a knife to a gunfight”. I wonder, when was the last time that a deer hunter tried to tackle his prey and stab it to death. And yet, while we compare apples to oranges with regard to weapon of choice or availability, there is a certain logic within my friend’s argument about acts of violence, whether in small pockets or on a massive scale. Regardless of whether someone uses a gun, a bat, a knife, a screwdriver, or a hacksaw, the problem is still violence. We have only to look to our northern neighbors to see that something is wrong in our society.
After the 1999 school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, filmmaker Michael Moore made a movie called Bowling for Columbine. In the film, he explored that fact that while Canada’s gun laws are very similar to ours in that private citizens could own as many guns as they want and without much real restriction, they have far less instance of violent crimes involving guns. Really, they have far less violence in general. Moore pointed out that Canadian news agencies don’t have a lot of murders to report about, and when they have opportunity, it often doesn’t run on the front page or at the top of the newscast. So what gives? Largely, Canadian culture is just like ours here in the States. Why do two similar societies with similar gun laws have such dramatic differences in murder rates? We just have that much more violent of a culture.
Unlike Canadian news outlets, American ones run violence first. It sells. Murders, fires, beatings, stabbings, and burglaries all come first. It sells because it appeals to us. Violence is a part of our social fabric. It’s so prominent in the mainstream that researchers estimate that the average American witnesses some twenty-thousand homicides on TV by the age of 16-our most formative years when it comes to socialization and personal identity. It starts when you’re four and see the prince kill the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty, and by the time you’re an adult, you’re desensitized to it.
It’s a part of who we are. Look no further than our language to find evidence of it. According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of Linguistic Relativity, our language reflects common themes, values, and world views within the society that uses it. You can tell a lot about a culture by its language, in other words. Are there a lot of prejudiced slurs? How broad is the average person’s vocabulary? How many words do we have for an automobile? When it snows here in the temperate zone, we call it one thing-snow-unless you live in Louisiana, and then you call it a miracle. The Inuit near and within the Arctic Circle have over twenty words for it. So what does it say about our culture that use words like “kill” so interchangeably in contexts that might have nothing to do with violent deaths? “I got an F. My mom’s going to kill me.” “That guy singing is killing it.” “If my kid buys one more thing on my credit card, I’m going to kill her.” “Do you have an Advil? My head is killing me.” What about when we engage in a friendly game of HORSE? “I’m going to kick your ass.”
We are a violent culture with violent language, violent movies, violent shows, violent video games, and violent sports. And maybe that’s okay to a degree, introduced at an age closer to adulthood. But it’s introduced early in life. Maybe it’s easy to relate, given our instincts. Maybe violence is just natural. The Romans had gladiator games. The Greeks, on the other hand, thought it was just as entertaining to watch a foot race or a discus-throwing contest. Violence may be a part of animal nature, but it serves only the purpose of keeping one safe or obtaining wild game to eat. A cheetah may violently run down an antelope to feed its pack, but the rest of the herd keeps moving. The cheetah does not feel the need to slaughter twenty, eat one, and leave the rest to rot. A female wolf may fight and repel a mountain lion who tries to eat her cubs, but once the mountain lion runs off, the wolf doesn’t run the foe down and kill it out of anger. Violence only serves the most primal of purposes. Otherwise it’s rage. Overt violence is a sickness. It’s unnatural. It’s contrary to the lofty position we hold as the most advanced beings on this planet. And somehow our whole society of over three hundred million people is infected.