& 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
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.
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
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
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" (https://brainvoyage.com),
director of the Pacific Neuropsychiatric Institute
in Seattle and adjunct professor of psychiatry
and human behavior at St. Louis University.
© 2003 The Seattle Times Company