The Epidemic of Mass Violence

A society's burden

Published on December 16, 2012 by Abdul El-Sayed

It is human nature to want to distance ourselves from tragedy. Distancing protects us from the truth that “it could have been us.” At the same time, it shields us from the creeping suspicion of our own culpability, that uneasy anxiety that perhaps we could have done something to prevent the tragedy. That tendency plays out most vividly in the immediate aftermath of the gruesome displays of violence that took the lives of innocent children, women, and men in communities in Oregon and Connecticut, forcibly gripping our national attention.

Yet continuing to distance ourselves prevents us from addressing the deep, underlying issues at hand. From Columbine to Blacksburg to Aurora to Clackamas to Newton to many other communities in the United States, gun violence against innocent civilians has become an epidemic.

And what is clear about epidemics is that they befall populations, not individuals. The undeniable fact, then, is that we are all vulnerable—and partly responsible because we perpetuate the space within which these types of events can occur.

We have incubated a society that glorifies violence, perpetuates social exclusion and isolation, and makes it easier to access guns than psychological help.

Violence has become a mainstay of American society. Legions of teenagers, for example, lined up last month excitedly awaiting the release of “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2,” a first-person shooting game that allows the player to wield an assault rifle and shoot at will, often in civilian settings. Its rollout was the single largest entertainment launch of all time, besting both the “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” cinematic releases.

Our society also perpetuates social isolation and mental suffering. This climate promotes the alienation that produces perpetrators of tragedies like this one. Researchers have shown, for example, that a climate of alienation was one of the most common similarities between schools where mass shootings like this occurred.

What’s worse, while our society believes that buying and carrying guns should be an inalienable right, we have decided that accessing quality mental healthcare shouldn’t be. So if you find yourself angry or unhappy, it’s too easy to go buy yourself a gun and too difficult to talk to someone who can help you through your issues. In that regard, both the ready accessibility of firearms and the low accessibility of mental health care create the environment that allows massacres like this to recur.

Some argue that raising questions about the underlying causes of this epidemic or what can be done to stop it is inappropriate at a time like this. They call this line of questioning overly political or insensitive. Unfortunately, it’s clear that they have bought into the false reality we all want to construct for ourselves out of vulnerability and fear of what serious and honest introspection might turn up. After all, if we cannot resolve ourselves to addressing the issues that have created these catastrophes in the first place, such as ready access to firearms, then we doom ourselves to relive this serial nightmare over and over again. And what better way to venerate the memory of the dead and the grief of their loved ones than to make sure the tragedy that has befallen them does not repeat itself? These innocent people cannot have died in vain.

Meanwhile, our efforts to distance ourselves continue. Our media will go on to describe, in bone-chilling detail, the evolution of the perpetrators of these awful shootings, constructing post-hoc narratives for them that place them somewhere between lunacy and evil, far removed from the rest of society. These are but individual sideshows for larger societal problems—yet another feeble attempt to allay our fear of vulnerability and to absolve ourselves by casting the shooters as bad seeds, hermits, lunatics, or dispossessed, rather than the ugly and unfortunate manifestations of a more insidious disease afflicting our whole society.

Edited by Karestan Koenen and Jordan Lite. Additional Research by Joshua Brooks.


Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training. His research explores how our social realities make us sick. Abdul is also Fellow at Dēmos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary engages healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on social inequalities and disease prevention in light of health trends. Follow him at @elabdul.

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Wow. Some of the comments have been deleted. I love censorship

4 or 5 of the above comments were made by the same person, lololololol.

If you truely believe this, you are pathetic. “Jesus loves guns”????

i hope that some day, americans will understand the pain that the muslims go through when american drones kill our children, when israel slaughters our babies, and when our mothers are widowed. Not by the 10’s but by the 1000’s…i may sound insensitive but i think the reaction to these shootings are way out of proportion to the number of deaths, i say this comparing the american media reaction vs death rate found in the the middle east. What? Is middle eastern life cheaper?

The solution is more guns.

    If you conservatives believe outlawing guns won’t prevent gun violence, why do you believe outlawing abortion will prevent abortions?

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