Accepting and Assigning Responsibility for Violence

My generation grew up listening to songs such as Universal Soldier,
Who Killed Norma Jean? and Who Killed Davy Moore. Such songs
reminded us that there is a web of responsibility for violence and suffering.
With violence and suffering being, at least in the broader media, being all pervasive it is hard to avoid knowing that people are hungry, people are homeless, people are full of despair, people are killing and being killed. We can’t legitimately turn away and claim that we don’t know that there are wars and civil conflict, social injustice, political oppression and personalised acts of
violence occurring.

One approach to assigning responsibility and sharing accountability is legal in nature. Much of the media coverage of the killings at the recent killings at Virginia Tech focused on the acts of an individual. Some commentators have mentioned the need for gun control. Rarely addressed is the web of people who profited by the deaths—all those who were directly involved in the production, distribution and sales of the weapons and ammunition chose to be involved in making sure that there are weapons available for large scale, depersonalised violence. In different areas courts and legislatures have held tobacco companies and even individual bar staff responsible for the harm caused by the sales of their products. In the U.S. some municipal and state governments, as well as public interest groups, have attempted to use the courts to hold gun manufacturers, distributers and/or sellers responsible for the harm their products have caused. Those that sold the guns used at Virginia Tech did little or no background screening of who they sold the weapons to. If courts can hold bar staff at least partially responsible for the injuries caused by a drunk driver, it is reasonable to consider that those that provide the weapons used in an act of violence could be help liable for their negligence. Indeed, it is hard to not view the profits of manufacturing, distribution and sales of weapons as the profits of crime.

A less legalistic approach is to look at the tapestry of social relationships
and information that supports the use of violence. From violence sanctioned
by religious leaders to invasions of other countries to violence based entertainment, the use and advocacy of violence as a legitimate problem solving technique or a source of fun can not be easily avoided. What happened at Virginia Tech is not unique. Nor is the death toll unknown. The April 23, 2007 Toronto Sun had a very vivid cartoon—a calendar with each day labelled Iraq and the daily death toll marked. Given the pervasive acceptance of violence by those with power, it is not surprising that violence will be embraced by those on the margins.

A more personal approach is to look at ourselves. Do we find violence funny? Are jokes about suffering a way of downplaying the seriousness of the issue? Do we make excuses, like “Boys will be boys” when our children are violent or the victims of violence in a school ground? Do we consider martial arts a worthy discipline? Do we make appologies for the violence of our friends, aquaintenances and loved ones? Do we consider what happens we when we pay for war? Does our own way of describing ourselves, our status, our employment depend on violent images? In what ways do we, through precept and example, show in our individual lives that violence is okay?

If we are going to ever live in a world free from war, free from violence, then our shared responsibility in perpetuating such evil must be acknowledged. If we accept our individual and social responsibility, that would be a first step in changing our personal and collective behaviour away from violence reinforcing to life enhancing.


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