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American Violence

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Beginning with the urban drug wars and the Rodney King riot all the way up the spectacular lynchings in Texas and Wyoming, and now the mass murder/terrorist strike by teenagers in their own high school, the 90s is a decade made numb by civil disorder.

In between came the incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, involving dubious law enforcement assaults on separatists, which led to the terrorist bombing at Oklahoma City Ð'-- the single worst terrorist act in American history. Since then, law enforcement agencies have thwarted twenty-four major domestic terrorist attacks.Ð' Shootings and bombings at abortion clinics, the slaying of abortion providers by right-wing fanatics and racial disturbances, some of which involved flagrant police brutality, added to the mix. Meanwhile, mass murders and serial killings grew to such a degree they became a part of popular culture, inspiring everything from an OscarÐ'-winning motion picture to trading cards.

Violence is our mother's milk. It has given us an incredible breadth of freedom and personal liberty. But it is also our demon rum that threatens the fabric of that freedom and liberty.

The epidemic of teenage killings in our cities, black church burnings and abortion clininc violence, Neo-nazi skinheads and white Separatists, home-grown terrorism, and the rise of hate crimes have brought face-to-face with an aspect of our culture most generations have found too unpleasant to contemplate. Not until children began dying in the streets in unprecedented numbers and disgruntled white males begin forming paramilitary organizations did a general concern about violence begin to re-appear.

When you consider our high crime rates in conjunction with events such as Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the shoot-out in Waco, Texas, the Rodney King beating and riot, the Crown Heights, NY, riot and the lynchings in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, NY, in 1986 and 89, it's difficult to disagree with the Indianapolis prosecutor who concluded, "Violence is becoming a way of life."

Still, kids-as-shooters brings a re-newed strain of violence to the tumultuous American landscape.

Prior to the three-year blood-spree of school shootings, enough corpses were already littering the inner city landscape to convince us that we had waded knee-deep into a crisis of violence. In spite of declining crime rates, the lonesome sidewalk chalk lines that blight our cities joined the dust-covered bodies twisted in the wreckage of the Murrah building as frightful symbols of societal dysfunction. They are the latest incarnation of a disturbing fact of life.

Teenage murders may be unprecedented, but violence is not. The past has followed us right up to today. Several national magazines recently ran alarming stories about the epidemic of criminal and group violence. Rolling Stone in "A Pistol-Whipped Nation" and both Time and Newsweek ran alarming cover stories about the "virtual epidemic of youth violence." Newsweek's "Teen Violence: Wild in the Streets," decried the number of young people carrying guns, using them, being shot, and being killed. Accompanying all this was a casual if not blase attitude indicating that, as one expert quoted in Time put it, "Violence is hip right now."

Several weeks later, Time was back again, in wake of President Clinton's crime bill and the murder of Michael Jordan's father, with another cover story, "America the Violent: Crime is spreading and patience is running out." The writers argued America was in a crime wave characterized by wild violence that was moving into the suburbs, into hospitals, malls, and McDonald's. According to UCLA criminologist James Q. Wilson, our cyclical rise in crime and violence will get worse as baby boomer babies get older. But more important, "as we have had an artistic and economic explosion (since the 60's), we have had a crime explosion." Which Mr. Wilson attributes in part to "the dramatic expansion in personal freedom and personal mobility, individual rights, the reorienting of culture around individuals."

This analysis does nothing to explain similar covers about the Oklahoma City Bombing. Newsweek May 1, 1995 showed a fire fighter holding the bloody body of baby. A week later the magazine cried, "The Plot" over the blurred image of Tim McVeigh. Time labeled

his visage, "The Face of Terror" on its cover. Poverty has nothing to do with this. Neither do the "excesses" of the 60s. Yet it is consistent with our history.

Running for president in 1968 Richard Nixon said, "We cannot explain away crime in this country by charging it off to poverty Ð'-- and we would not rid ourselves of the crime problem even if we succeeded overnight in lifting everybody above the poverty level. The role of poverty as a cause of the crime upsurge in America has been grossly exaggerated." Like Wilson, he tried to blame it on the permissive ways of the Sixties. He succeeded, but the era ended and violence didn't. After over a decade of strict sentencing guidelines, harsher penalties, and the restoration of the death penalty, the problem in many areas has only grown worse.

If it isn't either permissiveness or poverty, what is it? Political extremism? Indebtedness? Cultural discord? Social discontent? Guns? It's all of these things Ð'-- and a lot more. It is nothing less than the weight of our past coming down on us.

Consider the following:

Tabula Rasa

For the people who settled here, the New World was more than a virgin land offering the promise of a better life. From an institutional standpoint, the New World was a tabula rasa, ready to be molded any way the European colonists and their African slaves cared to. In fact, the unformed nature of the New World Ð'-- the absence of governmental and institutional impediments Ð'-- actually encouraged it. Only its vastness and the anger of the native people offered any hindrance. The Indians for the most part were swept aside violently.

Colonists such as the Irish and Scots from various border lands in Great Britain brought violent aspects of their culture with them, and see them take root and spread westward. In the absence of pre-existing governmental infrastructure and effective law enforcement meant that frontiersmen often felt compelled to take matters into their own hands. No one was present to prevent extra-legal action that settlers believed necessary for their survival.



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