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January 17, 2011

Is America “coarsening?”

Steven R. Berryman

There are currently more dead via gun play than the total days elapsed in the year for Prince George’s County, MD. An Asian man in the Wellington Trace subdivision of Frederick County shot members of his family before killing himself.


These headlines occurred in the shadow of the Arizona shooter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; his Glock held a magazine of 17 rounds of 9mm ammo in a single clip, plus another single bullet in the chamber if he so chose. Just for the record, this is the same weapon favored by the Virginia Tech shooter.


Ironically, the manufacturer calls this special type of semi-automatic pistol a “safe action,” referring to the reduced possibility of accidental discharge.


With so much breaking – and tragic – news, who could blame local newspapers for looking like police blotter reprints? And they do.


But…Is America itself “coarsening,” and if so why? And coarsening compared to what?


Another’s column reminded me that unresolved conflict had – relatively recently – been routinely handled by pistol duel; just ask Aaron Burr about Alexander Hamilton! This, the gentlemen’s choice of the elite.


Now, should we consider Mr. Burr and Mr. Hamilton to be mentally sound and competent to proceed with this most drastic measure because it was somehow rational or justifiable? Both of these senior statesmen had consented to rules and consequences resulting in death.


American culture and heritage certainly does not condone murder by firearm, but combined with opportunity, and motivation, killing has been an option since Cain and Able. The premier weapon of the day is – of course – the usual choice, be it sword, blunderbuss, knife, club, or poison. The last one favored by the fairer sex, as it’s more “passive.”


But with or without the stigma of “mental illness,” murder is murder, Glock or no.


Somehow having a political motive for a shooting, or other murder, makes it more understandable as a fanatical act, and thus skirts mental evaluation. Also, a stoning as response to the violation of a religious law escapes scrutiny too many times, being called “cultural.”


Thanks to political correctness!


In America, with a sophisticated mental health system, it is assumed that a societal safety net will eventually pull the mentally ill out of the mainstream, and toward an institution.


The murderer of John Lennon and John Hinckley, who nearly assassinated of President Ronald Reagan, fell through the cracks, but were later institutionalized. Want of everlasting fame, or seeking the unrequited love of a movie actress deemed insane, but not political verve.


The “Catch-22” is that one must be crazy to commit murder, especially with the penalty known to be harsh, let alone the threats from biblical references to morality. Yet, our criminal justice system takes great lengths to seek the death penalty many times due to the shocking nature of particular criminal cases. They will avoid the possibility of an exculpatory mental illness decree by denying any relevance of undetected past behaviors, for instance.


A political aspect can be entered into a murder case – where one had never existed – simply because of the level of public outcry. “There is no remorse,” or “We must avenge this heinous act” could be the rallying cry by those involved.


Is America coarser as a result of the bitter times of a recession, and consequent partisan bickering; this over the Internet or talk radio, available to our generation as never before?


With unlimited class kick-boxing and the National Football League, is violence somehow tolerated as mainstream more than at any other time?


Think back and compare this to Nero and the feeding of Christians to the lions on a warm Roman afternoon as sport!


Upon examination, the rational observer cannot blame Glock pistol technology or a perceived coarsening for a human condition that commits murder. A mental illness typically does not result in a murder, and a murderer is not automatically deemed to be mentally ill.


Still, how do we respond to Columbine School, the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre, and the Congresswoman Giffords tragedies?


If routine screenings by primary care physicians, school psychologists, and brush-ups against the law enforcement community, resulting in clinical court ordered mental evaluations, can’t be adjusted and fine tuned to look for a “future-failure” of humans, then we are surely doomed to repeat tragedy.


Blaming bad political discourse as coarsening or firearms as the fuel of discontent is but a road with a dead end.


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