What’s Left: Victims of Violent Culture

Elton Steinberg

As other employees went home to enjoy their weekends, Aaron Alexis plotted a massacre. On Saturday, Alexis set his eyes on a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun and bought it for just over $540. That evening, he returned to a Residence Inn where he truncated the stock and barrel of his new purchase. On Monday, Alexis drove a rental car to the Washington Navy Yard, entered the Naval Sea Systems Command and proceeded to massacre twelve unarmed civilian contractors on the third and fourth floors of the premises. This tragedy ensued while the mass shootings in Newton, Aurora and Tucson remained in the recent memory of Americans who continued to question how irresponsible or mentally disturbed individuals such as Alexis are still allowed to go on mass shooting-sprees and how policymakers refuse to act meaningfully. Responsibility was and will continue to be the central issue. 

September 16, 2013 will elicit a different response depending on who is asked to comment. Gun rights advocates might begin anticipating attacks on their sacred right to bear arms, while gun control advocates might raise their fingers with the intention of saying “I told you so.” There will likely be a debate for a few weeks about who and who is not responsible enough to conceal a handgun or keep an assault rifle for hunting and protection against an inflated government. The question of who is sufficiently responsible to own firearms remains the main concern, but no one will take responsibility to make an essential difference.

I propose that responsibility essentially be viewed differently. Rather than attempting to define which citizens are honest and which ones are not, or which citizens fall on a certain end of a spectrum, it might be more appropriate to understand that individuals generally do not make entirely independent decisions no matter how mentally stable they are.

As much as individuals would like to believe that they are entirely responsible for their own actions, they are capable of being instigated to act by external factors of which they can be entirely unaware. In a culture in which violent media is abundant and violence itself is venerated, it might be helpful to consider the culture’s implicit effects on its citizens behavior. While each individual act should be attributed to the iniquity of a particular individual, the notion that every individual can and should be entirely responsible for his or her own actions is questionable.

In a culture that predisposes many to act violently, it does not make sense that guns abound and public mental facilities remain so few. Even the libertarian argument that individuals should be capable of living the lifestyle of their choice as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others weakens when individual responsibility itself remains suspect. The debate then becomes not about who is honest, dishonest, or any other of the buzzwords pundits use and students regurgitate. Rather, it becomes centered on why we allow the proliferation of firearms to continue when we cannot affirm or even assume the responsibility of citizens not to use firearms against one another. In this context, the proposal that shootings would be less frequent if every ‘responsible American’ owned a firearm is laughable.

Contact Elton Steinberg at [email protected].