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What Is to Be Done?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- Regarding last week's mass murder in Oregon, what is there to say that is new? There was a day in America when such an atrocity was almost unheard of. There were family feuds, mafia murders, and I guess what were called juvenile delinquent murders, though they were comparatively rare and for the most part ignored.


Growing up in Chicago, I recall a family friend -- a celebrated Chicago police reporter -- who told my parents on the occasion of the grisly murder of three young boys that such crimes happened in a big city more often than we might think, but usually journalists would not report them. The community was fearful of encouraging "copycat" crimes. So with the Oregon massacre and those like it possibly the authorities and the media should divulge little information to the public. Perhaps the name of the killer should be expunged from all stories.

The current phenomenon of mass killings began in the middle 1960s in Texas. To be specific, it was 1966 at the University of Texas where a deranged coward climbed atop the campus bell tower and "introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space." That is how Dr. Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has studied such murders, characterizes the current phenomenon of mass murder. In Texas in 1966 it left 16 dead. In Oregon it left 9 dead. Since 1966, there have been 160 episodes of a lone gunman committing such an act.

Something has gone haywire in our society -- or perhaps I should say in our culture. Before 1966, there was an abundance of guns out there. Since then gun control has been tightened repeatedly, but the murders have gotten worse. There are now some 300 million guns at large in America. Only a fool or a desperate politician in the midst of a campaign would believe more gun control is going to do much beyond making it difficult for law-abiding citizens to acquire guns.


Ideally, every American should be revolted by a gunman fatally shooting unarmed citizens. For that matter, every American should be revolted by a terrorist exploding a bomb in a public area. There was a day when Americans were revolted. Think back to the era of the cowboy and the era's immediate aftermath, the first half of the 20th century. Think back to the era of dueling.

Such thoughts may seem anachronistic, but it might clarify your thoughts about mass murder. In the not-so-distant past the perpetrator of such an act was hated. He would be better off taking his own life than taking the lives of others.

What has changed? For one thing, I suspect our current "nonjudgmental" state of mind has gone wildly too far. For another thing, our culture insists there is something "interesting" about the homicidal loner. And then there is the whole question of violence in our society. In the arts, in entertainment, everywhere violence seeps into our lives. Sitting at home in the comfort of one's television room many people seem to yearn for a jolt of violence. Back before the lout at the University of Texas shot 16 innocent people, you could barely see such violence on television. Now it is even used to advertise products: a pop bottle that explodes for some visual effect, a flying pizza, that sort of fantastical thing. Maybe those who remonstrate against America having a culture of death are onto something.


It is difficult to foresee a world in which a mass murder explodes on the scene every few weeks, and yet it is equally difficult to foresee a world in which we shall have prevented them from happening. Just as gun control in a society with some 300 million guns is impossible, police action that prevents a lone mass murder seems to be impossible. On this problem I am stumped. So is Hillary Clinton, though she cannot admit defeat.

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