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Only a cultural revolution will end violence.

Sunday afternoon in midtown Kansas City. Half a block from the old Redemptorist Church, just down the street from the national headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in front of a visitor's motel window, two men erupt over a soured drug deal. One decks the other with a left hook, bashes his head on the concrete walk.

Vibrations crackle off those few violent moments, insinuate the evening. Men and women pace the long balconies like caged cats.

Past 2 the next morning, the visitor bolts awake. Outside his window, a bellowing cop is leveling his 9mm Beretta at three men. The parking lot swirls with police lights. It's just another Kansas City Sunday, nightmare penumbra of the American dream.

Or is it the penumbra? Violent death rides like an apocalyptic horseman through our daily news. Last week saw the acquittal of a Louisiana man who gunned down a bewildered Japanese exchange student. In the small Pennsylvania town of Red Hill, a 15-year-old high school student shot dead a classmate who had been taunting him for being short.

Neither incident, only two among God knows how many, involved any criminal activity, no big-city wildness. The exchange student was an Asian on his way to a Halloween party, but everyone else involved was white. This is an indication of how devastatingly deep violence is in American culture.

Firearms alone kill about 34,000 Americans every year, as compared to only a handful in countries such as England or Japan. No wonder the Louisiana case has been such a frontpage scandal in Japan. The Japanese perception of the United States as an almost insanely violent society has been reinforced.

In that same light, Florida last week started an advertising campaign in Europe -- damage control against perceptions there after foreign tourists were attacked and murdered in Miami. We can learn a lot about ourselves from the way others see us.

Obviously, controlling guns would help. There are about 200 million of them in this country, with 4.2 million new ones sold every year. But even guns are only a symptom of a far deeper cultural dilemma, our version of the Balkan nightmare.

This country was born in violence, raised on conquest. What colonial diseases didn't do toward decimating the indigenous peoples, brute force did. Vast landscapes were "conquered," their environment mutilated. We fought a horrendous civil war that turned region against region, brother against brother, and took about 365,000 lives.

All the literary and cinematic distortions notwithstanding, the American frontier was a violent place. In the Western fastness where little or no law existed, violence was often the arbiter. The gun was sometimes seen as about all that stood between the individual and a hostile, hardscrabble environment; it became part of the American myth and, in some parts of the country more than others, it has the staying power of myth.

This all happened in a few hundred years, a blink of time. Other cultures have had far longer to come to terms with the violence inherent in the human condition. But that is no excuse.

Even the social restraints we have accumulated are fast deteriorating. Ask any public school teacher who has to deal with the growing threat of student violence, with mindless irresponsibility and flagrant disrespect. For some young people -- not all of them in the inner city, by any means -- violence has become the solution of almost the first resort, a cultural necessity, and they are loath to let it go.

What's more, students are embracing that culture of violence at an ever younger age. If we don't discover ways to counteract it, the nation will soon find itself in a social morass far deeper than the national debt. Nothing less than a cultural revolution is called for, a fundamental shift in our collective psyche. And that is a tall order.

Education is the key, of course, but that cannot be left entirely to the schools. Some of them are already finding it hard enough simply to cope.

The church has an obvious role here, but that would entail something of an ecclesial revolution as well. Too often church teachings have been molded by the culture, rather than molding it.

Regardless of religion's role, sports are the predominant American liturgy these days. You can bet more young people find their role models there than they do in church. So rooting gratuitous violence, including spectator violence, out of sports would be one significant and doable place to start. Charging the mound, throwing elbows or swinging hockey sticks should cost players more than a few bucks or a few days suspension.

Stricter standards and controls on sports combined with increased social pressure on TV moguls for more responsible programming would be a solid start. Violence sells. But to promote it because of that is mindlessly cynical and deeply damaging to the nation's spirit.

Still, our solutions will have to root far deeper than sports and TV if we are ever going to turn this culture toward peace, toward a renewed sense of community and a common cause.

Where are all the flower children and other war protesters of the 1960s? Are they too smothered in the system to take up another potentially more dangerous challenge even closer to home?

A lot of folks ridiculed those peace-loving, peace-living people from a generation back. But better our kids bear flowers than 9mm automatics.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 4, 1993
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