Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Legacy of Violence

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Legacy of Violence

Article excerpt

The symptoms are easier to see than the disease. During the past few weeks these symptoms have included the continuing national agony over the culpability of several young men accused of beating Reginald Denny during last year's riots in Los Angeles. A while ago the shooting of a Japanese exchange student by a Louisiana homeowner occupied our attention, and in between, the local news has carried stories of murder and mayhem that have periodically caught our eyes. We pick up other phrases from headlines and news reports: Rodney King, David Koresh, a drive-by shooting or perhaps "a disgruntled postal worker."

The fragmented and fragmentary presentation of these isolated instances of violence in the media encourages us to see them as separate events and to search for a cause for each outrage that is finite and understandable.

The postal worker was stressed out, the religious fanatic "out of touch with reality." The assailants were racists, or, to take another view, victims of racism. The gunman was a troubled loner. Video games prompted the assault, rock music encouraged the suicides. The shortest bumper sticker answer is to say simply that "Society," a convenient and colorless abstraction that seldom includes the person using it, is to blame.

But few have been willing to wonder aloud whether all these immediate causes, none of which we seem able to regulate or remedy, actually stem from long-established characteristics of American society that we don't really want to change or even examine. The fierce competition between individuals that sometimes sanctions violence is a legacy of our history.

We deplore the daily body count on the streets of St. Louis, but the highest urban murder rate in our history occurred not in modern-day Detroit or Los Angeles, but in San Francisco in the turbulent years following the Gold Rush of 1849.

The L.A. riots held the nation's attention for a while, but our bloodiest race riots actually took place 130 years ago during the Civil War, itself a bloodletting of unparalleled proportions. …

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