Humans are violent by nature — in spite of all protestations to the contrary. Compassion is something we learn, something we have to teach ourselves. When it comes to war, for instance, we are able to switch off compassion when the numbers are very large and if we as a collective are at war, then justification comes easy. But an incident like last Friday’s shooting at an elementary school in the United States allows us no justification or vindication of blood lust at all. That a young man of 20 should enter a school and shoot young children — most of them between the ages of six and seven — puts our ability to make sense of things under severe strain.
For the rest of the world, the frequency with which the US suffers from these episodes is equally inexplicable. It cannot be that Americans are naturally more violent than other humans — such racial discriminations usually fall apart at the earliest when confronted with the human experience as much as with the human genome. The horrific gang rape in Delhi this week underlines why such thinking is counterproductive. The answer has to lie in behaviour patterns and in social conditioning.
Since 1982, there have been apparently 62 instances of mass murder in the US, using guns. And for most observers, that’s where the answer begins. Humans can be brutal, disgusting and venal. Put a weapon in their hands and they become much worse. Make that weapon efficient and the effects are deadly.
Adam Lanza used guns which his mother owned legitimately to kill her in their home and 20 school children and six other adults at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. This happened just days after a gunman killed two people in a shopping mall in Oregon and a few months after another young man entered a movie hall in Aurora, Colorado to open fire on people at a Batman premiere.
It is hardly surprising that the shooting in Connecticut drove US President Barack Obama to tears. We are able to segue between natural death, legitimate state-sponsored killing and murder but the completely unprovoked deaths of small children are difficult to twist your mind around.
Even more inexplicable for the rest of the world is the regularity of such incidents in America and the ease with which the perpetrators have managed to acquire the guns used. As inexplicable is the reluctance of some Americans to make the connection between easy gun availability and the frequency of such acts of violence. In the rest of the world, criminals or terrorists usually engage in such behaviour for some kind of real or indoctrinated gain. Random, meaningless acts of mass killing are rare elsewhere in the world and yet so common in the US.
Mention gun control however, and the US Constitution pops out. It seemingly makes no sense that the right to bear arms is more important than the damage that bearing arms does to a society. There are 270 million licenced guns in the United States according to a recent survey, about nine guns for every 10 people. It’s a mind-numbing number. And accidents and disasters are inevitable. When you consider that so many of the shooters are mentally disturbed, the idea of having firearms as drawing room décor seems even more bizarre. Americans have twice as many guns as Yemenis, as has been pointed out recently, and yet Yemen is seen as lawless and is an al-Qaeda base.
Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine after a similarly horrific school shooting in 1999, seemed like a wake-up call at the time. But the gun lobbies and the constitutional guarantees were too strong to effect any change. For the sake of America’s children, one can only hope that the world’s most powerful nation will acknowledge the damage it is doing to itself.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona