Friday, December 21, 2012

Reason #268: Normalization

Littleton. Blacksburg. Aurora. Newtown.

There is naturally a wealth of opinion out there on last week's shooting, and it won't be letting up anytime soon. For my part, I think gun control, mental health, and violent media are all worthy of examination while simultaneously not being the real problem. But there is one thing I want to add to the conversation that I don't hear much about.

The towns I mentioned above are just that--towns. Suburbs. The sticks, more or less. Nobody is surprised anymore at the unstable young men behind these massacres. We may not understand the profile, but we're damn sure used to it. But everyone continues to be shocked at what quaint, idyllic, sleepy little towns this sort of thing keeps happening in. As if we're all completely certain that that's what produces sane, healthy people. As if nobody's noticed yet that This Sort Of Thing does not happen in urban schools.

One could argue that the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, in Tucson, is an exception to this, but having been to Tucson myself, it's not exactly a bustling metropolis. It's a big city, but with all that desert out there, its population density is only around half that of a northeastern city like Pittsburgh or Cleveland--and nowhere near that of ultra-diverse cities like Philadelphia or New York. Lord knows New York and Philly have their own issues with violent crime, but traditional homicide, by and large, is going down, while random shooting sprees are going up.

Population density, and by extension, diversity, are what I'm talking about here. I don't mean to say that people in small towns are naturally less empathetic or mentally stable than people in cities, but I do think that those who are are far more likely to stay that way in a small town. The urban experience, to me, is the greatest normalizer of human behavior yet to be conceived. Not in such a way as to make everyone homogeneous and boring, but to foster a greater understanding of, and connection to, people who are not yourself.

Early word is that Adam Lanza's mother was a survivalist--that could be true, or an exaggeration, or outright wrong. But to hear her friends talk, she was absolutely very protective of her sons, and very hesitant to even discuss their home lives, or the manner in which she was raising them. The ironic thing is, a lot of people move to the suburbs for exactly that reason--the desire to raise their children in the environment of their choosing, free of the "unhealthy" influence of city life.

But with city life comes a degree of peer review. And with peer review comes--well, if nothing else, public scrutiny. As it was, Nancy Lanza was free to teach her sons whatever she wanted them to learn, free to surround them with whatever environment she wanted them to be conditioned to, and free to ignore or rationalize whatever troubling behavior she wanted to ignore or rationalize. As were the Harrises and the Klebolds, the Chos and the Holmeses.

I don't have any more answers here than anyone else. But I can't help but wonder, if these kids had grown up in Denver, or Richmond, or New York City or Philadelphia, whether someone might have noticed something. Or whether things would have turned out the way they did at all.

Further Reading

How Likely Are You to Be a Victim of a Mass Murderer?

Wikipedia - List of United States cities by population density

Wikipedia - List of rampage killers

Sandy Hook elementary school gunman Adam Lanza learned to shoot from his gun-collecting mom

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