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Tilly: Breaking the cycle of violence

BY ZACH TILLY | SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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At least 12 people and a gunman are dead after a shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Monday.

This is, of course, only the most recent of mass shootings in a tragically long line. Since 2006, there have been 32 public shootings in which at least four people died. Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, and now Washington — the list just keeps growing.

Tragedy on this scale has become horrifyingly commonplace.

Even the post-shooting call to action has become rote — a fact appalling in its own right. The writing, the reporting, the mourning have become routine. What is abhorrent has become ordinary; our collective call for change has become the expected day-after-a-tragedy refrain.

By the sheer strain of repetition and the deafness of our representatives, we’ve lost our voice. The choice we face now is whether to let mass killings become a part of the fabric of our society or to change the boom and bust cycle of attention and outrage that allows mass shootings to keep happening.

We have to disabuse ourselves of the idea that these mass shootings are isolated incidents born each of its unique circumstances that we could never hope to understand or control. In many of these cases, the shooters have long histories of mental-health issues and access to big, efficient weapons such as AR-15s.

Universal background checks and improved mental-health care — two non-invasive measures with wide support — wouldn’t stop all killings, but they would be a good start.

We should set aside the fallacious argument that guns kill people across America every day and that it would somehow be hypocritical of us to act in response to mass shootings. As if doing nothing would be nobler than to fix either problem.

We must do away with the notion that talking about solutions in the wake of horrible tragedies is off-putting or exploitatively political. Our calls for a solution aren’t knee-jerk reactions to an isolated shooting — they are responses to a well-established trend that’s dominated the country’s political discourse in fits and starts for years. To ignore this clear trend of violence is to bury our heads in the sand.

Let’s also stop pretending that the greatest threats to our well-being are forming abroad in such countries as Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.

When we fail to improve our mental-health systems or restrict access to dangerous weapons for people with a history of mental illness, we create a national-security concern far greater than that posed by the faraway terror suspects — suspects our government has no qualms about obliterating with Hellfire missiles, by the way.

The attention and resources we devote to curbing mass shootings are dwarfed by our massive efforts snuffing out terrorists overseas (not to mention the civil liberties we are willing to cede to allow the government to do that job) — even though mass shooters pose a much greater threat to Americans than Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

On the margins of our society, we are creating and arming our own terrorists through inaction.

Our public-safety priorities are out of whack, and Americans continue to pay the price. The deaths in Washington on Monday were tragic, as were the deaths in DeKalb, Blacksburg, and Hialeah. We owe it to all of the victims to break the cycle of violence that persists in America.


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