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Passing the Buck to God

In the weeks since the Newtown massacre, opinions about the role of God in what happened have dotted both traditional and social media.  Some people have proclaimed that tragedies like this occur because we’ve removed God from our schools and other public arenas.

Hmmm.

What exactly is that supposed to mean?  Is this a reference to the ban on prayer and Bible reading in public schools?

Lots of folks believe that God is an all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful being.  That means God is still around when prayer is not.  You can’t remove God.

Many believe that God is also a merciful and benevolent being.  That means God is not the type to seek revenge because prayers went unsaid.

I realize what people probably mean is that we would be better behaved if we paid homage to God in every aspect of our lives.

Really?

I guess we’re supposed to conveniently forget that people have used their version of God to justify the most horrendous behavior throughout human history—while some of the kindest souls on Earth do not believe in God.  People have free will, and they can decide to do terrible or wonderful things whether or not they pray to God.

When people say that the problem is that we’ve taken God out of the equation, isn’t it just another way of saying that they think we should all believe exactly what they believe religiously?  For example, proponents of public school prayer may embrace the Lord’s Prayer, but what about Elohai Neshamah, a Jewish morning prayer?  Or Dhuhr Salah, the Islamic noon prayer?  Or a Hindu mantra?  Or a Buddhist prayer?  Or how about a truly American prayer, an Ojibwa prayer?

It’s pretty clear that the school prayer proponents don’t want just any God; they want Christianity in our public schools.  Christians have a long history of imposing their religion on others in a variety of thoughtless, cruel, and violent ways.  This is a past we can do without repeating.

Whether it’s God or a gun, each of us decides whether we will use what’s before us for good or evil.  We decide whether we’ll profit off the sale of assault weapons to civilians, or super-realistic killing-spree video games to young men, or other forms of violence as entertainment.  We decide whether we will accept, condone, or promote violence through our silence, our wallets, our victim-blaming, our refusal to hold offenders accountable for their actions, our denial, and our lack of self-awareness.  Yes, that’s right—our violence is not about God or Allah or Yahweh; it’s about us.

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Resolutions

Advertisements for diet programs, gym memberships, and exercise equipment have been dominating the television screen lately.  Of course!  It’s the time of year that many of us make New Year’s resolutions.  Often, we aim to change something about our individual selves for the better; we resolve to lose weight, stop smoking, or pay off our credit cards.

Rarely do our resolutions focus on making a change that has broader impact.

In consideration of the epidemic of violence facing our nation, wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of us made and kept resolutions to strengthen the health and safety of our communities?

Here are a few ideas for resolutions that can promote wider change:

  1. Make a commitment to stop using “the language of violence to communicate opinions and/or beliefs.”  For the full pledge, go to Know More.
  2. Make a commitment to “stop demeaning the feminine by saying things like ‘you run like a girl,’ ‘you throw like a girl,’ or ‘he cried like a little girl.’  That includes referring to men or boys as ‘girls’ when you are meaning something derogatory. Don’t refer to a woman as a ‘bitch,’ ‘ho’ or ‘whore.’”  Read more at Care2.
  3. Make a commitment to “challenge comments that tease or harass men and boys for not being ‘manly’ enough. Let people know that you find it offensive and limiting.”  Thanks to A Call to Men for this idea and many others.
  4. Make a commitment “to take the time to listen to the women in [your] life and acknowledge that their perspective is valuable and is as equally important as [men’s perspectives].”  This is one item on the Stand Up Guys pledge.
  5. Make a commitment to “interrupt sexist and rape jokes.”  This action is included in the Clothesline Project pledge.
  6. Make a commitment to stop funding sexism.  “Refuse to purchase any magazine, rent any video, subscribe to any Web site, or buy any music that portrays girls or women in a sexually degrading or abusive manner. Protest sexism in the media.”  This is one idea on Jackson Katz’s list of 10 Things Men Can Do to Prevent Gender Violence.
  7. Make a commitment to “ask first.  Whether it’s holding hands, kissing, or more, it’s important to communicate.”  This idea and others come from White Ribbon Campaign.
  8. Make a commitment to support passage of the Violence Against Women Act and/or other policies that hold violent offenders accountable.  For the latest developments on VAWA, go to http://4vawa.org/.

Here’s to 2013!  May we each take steps to promote safer, more peaceful places of learning, working, playing, worshipping, and living.

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The SHES – VAWA Connection

Media coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHES) massacre has focused on the 26 children and women who were murdered in the school on 12/14/12.  However, let’s not forget that the gunman first shot his mother to death in their home.

And let’s keep in mind how often gunmen kill the women they allegedly love or have loved.  Here is a sampling of incidents that have occurred since the Newtown incident.

  • On/around 12/14/12, a Missouri man shot his wife, the teenage boy for whom they were guardians, and then himself in their home.
  • On 12/17/12, a Michigan man shot the mother of his 2-year-old son, shot her sister, and then shot himself in their van.
  • One day later, a Colorado man was released from jail on domestic violence charges.  His ex-girlfriend had taken refuge with her sister and brother-in-law, so the Colorado man went to the home of his ex-girlfriend’s sister and shot his way into the home.  Then he shot his ex-girlfriend, her sister, and her sister’s husband before killing himself.
  • On 12/20/12, a Pennsylvania man broke into the apartment of his ex-girlfriend and their 4-month-old baby, and shot his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.  A North Carolina man shot his mother in her home and then shot himself in a parking lot about a mile away.  An Arizona man, whose ex-girlfriend had a restraining order against him, shot his ex-girlfriend, and later shot himself in his own home.
  • The next day, a Texas man shot his mother and then himself.  An Indiana man drove his vehicle literally into the home of his ex-girlfriend, went into the home, shot his ex-girlfriend, and then shot himself.
  • On 12/23/12, a Utah man, whose wife had a protective order against him, went to his estranged wife’s house and shot her boyfriend, whom he encountered on the back porch, before turning the gun on himself.
  • On Christmas Eve, a New York man, who served 17 years in prison for bludgeoning his grandmother to death, apparently killed his sister, set the house they lived in on fire, and then shot four of the firemen who responded to the blaze before killing himself.  A Georgia man shot the mother of his 6-month-old son and then shot himself in the apartment that they shared.  A Wisconsin man stalked and then shot his wife while she patrolled the streets in her job as a police officer.
  • A Pennsylvania man shot his wife during an argument and then shot himself on Christmas.
  • A couple days later, a Kansas man shot his grandmother and her husband before shooting himself.
  • On 12/29/12, a Virginia man shot his wife and then himself, leaving their 12-year-old daughter an orphan.  A Texas man stabbed the mother of his children to death during an argument and then killed himself with a gun later.  Another Texas man shot himself after shooting his wife.
  • Today, a Kansas man killed his grandmother and her husband before shooting himself.  And Illinois police are reporting the death of two people in what appears to be a domestic related murder-suicide.

We don’t just have a school shooting problem, we have an epidemic of gender-based violence on our hands.

According to a national survey conducted by CDC, millions are harmed by severe physical violence, sexual assault, and stalking each year.  Most of the victims are women, and most of the perpetrators are men.  To put the numbers into perspective, imagine that the four or five women you care about most in your life are standing before you; one of them will likely be physically assaulted and one of them will likely be raped in her lifetime.

In an effort to address this epidemic, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was enacted in 1994.  VAWA works to hold offenders accountable and to provide services for victims.  Despite its name, VAWA’s provisions apply to both women and men.

Every few years, Congress reauthorizes VAWA, and VAWA has had a history of strong bipartisan support until recently.  Most of us believe that VAWA’s provisions should protect all victims of domestic, sexual, and dating violence, but some elected officials don’t seem to share that conviction.  The current version of VAWA that passed the Senate includes new provisions to better protect immigrants, members of LGBT communities, and Native Americans.  As of this writing, VAWA reauthorization remains stalled because House leadership opposes the protections for Native Americans.

Right now, jurisdictional loopholes exist that allow non-Indians to commit violent crimes against Native women on tribal lands without consequence.  And non-Indian men know it; non-Indians commit 88% of violent crimes against Native women on tribal lands.  Is it any wonder that native women experience much higher rates of violence than women in other groups?  Once again, think of the five women you care about most; about two of them will be raped and three of them will be physically assaulted in their lifetime.

So what does the beating of a Native woman by her non-Indian husband on a reservation have to do with a school shooting in a Connecticut town?  Everything.  Both are examples of men’s violence against women and children.

We need to work harder at sending the message that we do not condone violence against any person or group of persons.  We need to recognize when our policies themselves are violent, and we need to take steps to change them.

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Where Violence Thrives

Whether we’re talking about youth violence, sexual violence, or intimate partner violence, all of which can involve gun violence, there are similarities in the lists of risk factors for perpetrating these crimes.

Violent offenders often have antisocial beliefs and attitudes.  They tend to be aggressive and hostile.  They are frequently involved in drug and alcohol use.  Perpetrators have typically been exposed to violence, such as witnessing family violence, being physically abused, or being sexually assaulted.  They commonly hold very rigid gender roles, equate manhood with aggression, and exaggerate their male stereotypical behavior.

Relationships play an important role.  Violent offenders often have families fraught with instability, maltreatment, patriarchy, and other unhealthy interactions.  Gang involvement increases the risk of certain types of violence, while rejection by peers increases the risk for others.  Low academic performance and unemployment are also common among perpetrators of violence.

People who commit violence don’t evolve in a vacuum.  They are influenced by family functioning, friends’ behaviors, and community dynamics.  Impoverished neighborhoods, socially disorganized neighborhoods, and violent neighborhoods increase the risk of perpetrating violence.  Communities that tolerate violence and fail to enforce sanctions against these crimes also increase the risk of violent offenses.  People in these communities live with many stressors, have fears, and lack faith in authorities to effectively address violence, which raises the risk of committing violent acts.

People see the lists of risk factors and still miss the point.  People who perpetrate violence are abusing their power in a particular situation.  In addition, many of the risk factors for perpetrating violence are examples of people and/or institutions abusing their power over others.  Reconsider the father who dominates his family, the law enforcement officer who refuses to file a police report, and the society that reinforces inequalities.

We each need to recognize our own power and refuse to abuse that power.  That would be a good first step to eradicating violence in our world.

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Not Ever, Never, or Never Again

What can we do to make sure this never happens again?  It’s the common sentiment in the form of a question that most of us toss about, and fewer of us work hard to answer, after tragedies like the Newtown massacre.

Preventing violence has many forms.  The kind of prevention we practice the most is the kind that takes place after violence has occurred.  This prevention aims to decrease the negative effects of the violence on the victims and to keep the problem from happening again.  Examples of this type of prevention include crisis services for victims, interventions with offenders, and policy changes.  The official name for what I call “well-after-the-fact prevention” is tertiary prevention.

Sometimes we’re on the ball earlier.  We realize that violence is likely to happen, and we take action to deter it.  We still have a problem, but less damage has been done by the time we intervene.  Examples of this type of prevention include educational activities, media campaigns, community-based programs, and enforcement of appropriate sanctions.  This is formally called secondary prevention—what I think of as “in-the-midst-of-an-emerging-problem prevention.”

Primary prevention is the type of prevention that we should think of first but usually consider last, if at all.  Primary prevention is the often-neglected gold standard in the violence prevention world.  This is the “pre-problem prevention” that focuses on addressing the risk factors associated with perpetrating violence.  Primary prevention efforts strive to keep individuals from developing the characteristics that allow them to see violence as a viable option.

Tertiary prevention tends to get more attention and support.  It’s all about healing.  Risk factors for perpetrating violence don’t play any role in this approach, and most of us can’t name the qualities that are tied to violent behavior.

However, if we want to be more effective in our efforts to prevent violence, we need to be aware of the factors that increase the risk of perpetrating violence.  And then we need to take steps to counteract those factors from rearing their ugly heads.

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A More Conscious Kindness

The Newtown massacre has captivated the nation’s sympathy, more so than other violent incidents in recent history.  Two weeks after the murder of 20 children and seven women, media coverage continues.  People are still talking about the changes they want to see.  A super strain of compassion is driving us to commit random acts of kindness, and to drown Newtown with so many gifts that they have been forced to nicely beg us to stop.

Rarely does an act of violence galvanize the nation the way that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has.  Why is that?  What exactly about the Newtown murders makes us behave with such caring and conviction?

On 12/23/12, Huffington Post published The Unbearable Whiteness of Suicide-by-Mass-Murder, an article by Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek.  The authors explain how our response to violence is shaped by race.  When the shooter is white, we’re quicker to attribute his behavior to him having a mental illness.  When the shooter is not white, we’re more likely to assume his behavior is the result of the culture within which he lives.  Either way, we divest ourselves of responsibility for the shooter, regardless of his race.

However, we allow our view of the gunman to also cast a shadow on our view of the victims.  Victims who are murdered by a sick individual are likely to garner more of our sympathy than victims who are murdered because we believe they are members of a violent culture (unlike ours, of course).

There were 16 mass shootings in the United States in 2012.  Sandy Hook was the deadliest, followed by the Aurora movie theater shooting in Colorado in July.  Any guesses on the third deadliest massacre this year?  I’ll give you a hint.  In August, an Army veteran walked into a suburban place of worship and opened fire upon the families, killing six people.  Do you remember?  That shooting took place inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

On 12/25/12, Alternative Radio rebroadcast a talk by Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.  Kumar shares how our concept of Muslims as violent extremists has manifested in both blatant and subtle acts of racism against Muslims and anyone we perceive as being Muslim.  In one example, she mentions how little attention the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek received in comparison to other mass shootings.

On 12/26/12, KPFA conducted an interview with Beth Richie, author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.  Richie explains how black women are both victimized and then criminalized, while white, middle-class women are more likely to be seen as innocent victims who are taken up as national causes.  She notes that the mainstream movement argues for innocent victims instead of looking at the ways that race and class position some women to be more vulnerable to violence.  Richie shares that even when black women are murdered, the media tends to tell a story of the women’s wrongdoing, criminal records, and so forth, instead of telling the story of their victimization.

Twenty children were killed in Newtown.  Over 530 youth, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, have been shot to death in Chicago since 2008.

Our compassion and support for the Newtown families are appropriate responses.  Isn’t it time we spread our caring and kindness around?

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Countless Victims

Depending upon which news account of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting we read or hear, we are told about different numbers of victims.  Some reports emphasize the 20 children.  Many accounts also include the six school personnel for a total of 26 victims.  A small number of stories reference the 26 people murdered at the school, plus the mother killed by her son, the gunman.  Hardly any news reports include the gunman in the death toll.

The Newtown gunman shot his mother.  This woman is no less a victim of homicide because her son is the man who shot her.  This woman is no less a victim of homicide because she owned the gun that was used to kill her.  A young man made the decisions to develop and carry out a plan to massacre children and women and then to kill himself.  He, alone, committed these heinous acts.

As it turns out, we’re a judgmental bunch when it comes to victims.  We tend to believe that a person must possess the innocence of a newborn and the purity of a saint to be considered a true victim.  We look closely for perceived mistakes and flaws to disqualify people from receiving full victim status and the full warmth of our support.  Very few people emerge from this scrutiny without being blamed in one way or another for what happened to them.

The older the victims, the less likely we will see them as innocent, but some of us will actually find ways to blame children for harms committed against them.  We often take into consideration whether victims are somewhere we feel is appropriate and at a time we deem appropriate, and then we assign some degree of responsibility to the victims for their victimization.  If we think that the victims were engaged in less than upstanding behavior at the time, or ever, we tend to feel they deserved whatever happened.  We like to believe that victims had control over the violence committed against them because we like to believe that we are smart, strong, and good enough to avoid being victimized.

We especially like to blame victims who have been harmed by someone they know.  We are quick to hone in on the victims’ behavior and to neglect a thorough examination of the perpetrators’ behavior.  The victim must have incited the perpetrator to do what he did.  The victim must have known the perpetrator wasn’t stable, but failed to take action.  Why did the victim stay?  We fool ourselves into thinking that we would never allow ourselves to be in such a position . . . until we are.

Our victim-blaming ways offer us a fleeting sense of security while ironically decreasing our actual level of safety.  Victims of some crimes are too vulnerable to deal with society’s misplaced scrutiny that they don’t ever come forward.  We need to hold offenders accountable instead of making victim-blaming excuses for their behavior.  Perpetrators commit crimes because they can and, too frequently, without facing many consequences.  We should expect violent offenders, not their victims, to answer to us as citizens.

The reality is that each of us will find ourselves in circumstances where we do not have the power, where we are at the mercy of others’ decisions and actions.  Whether we are crossing a busy street, buying lunch at a restaurant, or sending our children to school, we make numerous decisions each day that essentially entrust others with our health and safety.  Sometimes strangers do very bad things, but most often it’s the men whom we love and should be able to trust who hurt us.  And then society is quick to kick us when we’re down.

Nobody deserves to be murdered or sexually assaulted or beaten or bullied.  Thinking anything else is just another way of condoning violence.

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