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Editorials & Opinion: Friday, December 17, 1999

Beyond democracy: carnage and change

by Vernon M. Neppe
Special to The Times

Carnage! Tragic murders in the workplace and shootings at schools, from Seattle and Honolulu to Columbine. It's becoming an everyday event - adults and children committing the ultimate acts of mass violence.

But "it's not the guns that are responsible, it's the people. Don't blame the guns!"

When will we learn? Do we need the 10 plagues before we respond to this? Yes, guns alone don't kill. But guns come with people, and the combination is orders of magnitude more likely to kill than people without guns. A child at school in a fight before may have had a bruise from a fist; now, shootings take place.

The victim is society, and the perpetrator's actions are rationalized according to the latest psychological, medical, social or cultural theory. It's easy to latch onto one of several logical explanations for any of these events:

  • The enticing psychological concepts - alienated; inferior; teased; evil; unidentified mental illness; impulsive aggression; underlying repressed anger; paranoid projection of resentment.
  • The all encompassing biological speculations come next - abnormal brain function; genetics; illegal drug use; treatment not given; medication side-effects.
  • Then there are the popular socio-cultural explanations - distorted family dynamics; powerfully bad influences of clans and gangs; ignored cries for help; too much leisure; availability of weapons of greater destruction.
  • The truth is most likely multifactorial, as it is with most events. More than guns are, however, involved. We should recognize that not all people are equal emotionally, and that logically, the population at risk to become perpetrators is growing as:
  • Acute and long-term effects of recreational drugs play a greater role given their widespread abuse.
  • New societal influences are arising. virtual reality games of destruction, as well as the witnessing of numerous murders every day on TV, have potentially lethal influences. These conceivably anesthetize the horror of violent death, impair reality and ego-boundaries, and provoke identification with aggressive acts.
  • Moreover, subtle influences in certain movies may provoke inappropriate, sometimes even delusional, identifications with characters and actions.

The vulnerable sub-populations may be a small percentage of the whole but their reactions to these stimuli may be dangerously different. Until such risk groups are well-defined, we may need to impose broader limits. We have reached the crossroads.

Our society needs to re-examine factors that can help prevent future catastrophic attacks on groups and individuals. We're compromising everyone's safety by allowing the vulnerable potential perpetrators to identify with killing, to play violent games, to learn know-how pertaining to bombs, to access weapons, and to receive publicity.

We have, paradoxically, gone beyond democracy by allowing equal access to potentially lethal materials. Because we sometimes cannot predict future dangerousness, the necessary, albeit unfortunate, solution may be added controls.

We need to confront reality with change. Solutions exist, though they are difficult and often major.

  • We should not allow easy access to weapons of destruction, such as firearms of all kinds, as this loads the bases.
  • The word "censorship" raises great consternation, but it is time to look at what we are exposing our children and our society to - graphic, concrete and planned violence in the media, in movies and on television.
  • The possibly positive reinforcement of the virtues of aggression in virtual reality and other "action" games should be recognized. Life should not become a fantasy where winning implies killing.
  • Science and knowledge may be neutral and we must not confine such information to a few. But the advent of inappropriate presentation of dangerous information on the Internet (e.g., how to make a bomb) presents an urgent dilemma of producing appropriate rules.
  • Research should be reviewed and, if necessary, further undertaken to establish whether fame-seeking perpetrators of crimes should not have their names published by the media.
  • We must recognize that ultimately the individual is responsible for his actions; but actions are in part determined by availability of the means to the end.
  • Most important, we need to educate. There must be an awareness of the three dangers of firearms - impulsive, planned and accidental acts - and we must recognize that the "firearm-people duo" does much, much more harm than any kind of protection this duo may afford against criminals.

We have gone beyond democracy because we have allowed pseudo-freedoms: Freedom implies safety from harm and the sense of basic security that attends that; freedom does not imply license to act wherever and whenever we choose. We need to urgently review the evidence and act decisively.

Vernon M. Neppe is author of "Cry the Beloved Mind: A Voyage of Hope" (, director of the Pacific Neuropsychiatric Institute in Seattle and adjunct professor of psychiatry and human behavior at St. Louis University.

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