Can We Stop School Shootings?


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“In terms of human suffering, killings in schools is one of the most anguishing forms of contemporary violence. That’s why we must ask ourselves very seriously how to stop them. So far, I have seen virtually no discussion of the underlying causes of these suicidal outbursts. Virtually all discussion, be it in the media, in academic settings or private conversations, begins and end with the particulars of each individual case: was the killer a loner? Did he just break up with his girlfriend? Were they bullied? And recently, in one op-ed online about the most recent shooting at NIU, were the school buildings run-down and depressing?
No doubt all these things are true; but as a Greek philosopher once said, the first step in the ignorance of any subject is to fail to see the principles for the particulars….”

Author: Michael Nagler, professor at University of California, Berkeley
Published in: Oregon Herald in Portland, Oregon
Date: February 26, 2008

For the full article:
Can We Stop School Shootings?
(672 words)
by Michael Nagler
In terms of human suffering, killings in schools is one of the most anguishing forms of contemporary violence. That’s why we must ask ourselves very seriously how to stop them. So far, I have seen virtually no discussion of the underlying causes of these suicidal outbursts. Virtually all discussion, be it in the media, in academic settings or private conversations, begins and end with the particulars of each individual case: was the killer a loner? Did he just break up with his girlfriend? Were they bullied? And recently, in one op-ed online about the most recent shooting at NIU, were the school buildings run-down and depressing?
No doubt all these things are true; but as a Greek philosopher once said, the first step in the ignorance of any subject is to fail to see the principles for the particulars.
Even if we were to ask ourselves why this tragic phenomenon has hit schools in general it would not quite get us to the underlying reason. The underlying reason is, we have allowed ourselves to drift into a culture of violence. School violence is a symptom; so is gang violence; so are domestic violence, workplace violence, and, yes, “shock and awe” violence – our policy for devastating foreign countries. All of these without exception arise from and feed back into a violent culture, and it is only by addressing that culture — a challenging but doable job — that we will reduce and some day eliminate avoidable and ‘meaningless’ violence from our lives.
There are organizations trying to tackle this mammoth job, but I’m going to address myself to what we can do as individuals. And the first is a no-brainer: boycott violent ‘entertainment.’ For nearly half a century now, psychologists have been presenting overwhelming proof that violent imagery and violent stories increase violent behavior; they and other social scientists only stopped doing this work when it became clear that nobody was listening. Let’s change that. Just say no to TV, movies, magazines and internet offerings that try to use the voyeuristic appeal of mayhem to grab and hold our attention. Families that do this have reported almost universally that they got to know one another better and trust humanity more, saving themselves from a lot of anxiety and disillusion.
That, however, is only the ‘don’t’ side of the story. Modern science — I’m thinking particularly of “positive psychology,” but there is much more — has been doing amazing work on altruism, the rewards of cooperation and service over competition, and other discoveries about the nature of happiness that paint a much more optimistic picture of who we are and how we are related to one another and the rest of life on our planet. This new “story” of humanity raises our image, thus alleviating the low self-esteem that has been shown to cause violence markedly and directly. Learning about nonviolence has also been becoming more possible as the theory and history of that phenomenon which Gandhi called “the greatest force humanity has been endowed with” slowly makes its way into courses, bookstores, and websites (like my own, www.mettacenter.org). Let’s make it our business to keep up with these culture-changing emerging stories.
Then comes the really big step. It’s awfully hard for young people to feel that life has meaning, that it should be our highest value, while we’re telling them from every billboard and TV spot that the purpose of education, and by extension of life itself, is to buy stuff. As Martin Luther King said, “We must change from being a thing-oriented civilization to a people-oriented civilization.” That’s a big change; but as we each simplify our material life and spend more time with the people around us we are enriching our own life while being part of that greater change.
The Devil is not always in the details. Pondering the particulars of each attack has not helped the slightest in figuring out how to stop them. When we focus on what they have in common, getting down to the basic cause, it becomes pretty clear.
Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, where he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program in which he still teaches nonviolence and related subjects. He is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future (American Book Award, 2002) and most recently Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the Other 9/11.