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Scott Lukas

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Is college tragedy a result of our culture?

The topic of people snapping in our society is now more important than ever. We learned that the Virginia Tech killer bought a gun on Friday and then used it in the killings. He may have also had a record of depression and may have been involved in other incidents on campus.

At some level, I feel that the tragedy will be attributed to what in criminology we call the “born to be bad” perspective. Years ago, crime was explained by demonic forces inside the individual because the society of the time could not deal with its own political and social forces.

Later the “born to be bad” perspective was rooted in abnormalities of the brain and body. Some of these ideas were based in Greek theory and notions about fluid imbalances in the body but later these explanations were connected to biological aspects of the brain and subsequently psychological conditions.

I am not doubting that some people have predispositions but some criminologists talk about the environmental triggers that allow these predispositions to be activated.

Here is my main concern: By attributing this tragedy to individualistic factors, we lessen the idea that our violent society has a role in this and other shootings. A “born to be bad” explanation of why people snap allows us to sleep better at night knowing that it was the work of someone who snapped and was predisposed to snap.

If we took a more holistic perspective and asked, “What if this is a result of our culture?” then we might be able to prevent future tragedies. I believe we must also ask, “Why do we allow people potentially prone to violence to have access to handguns?”

As a society we must begin to question our gun culture and ask if we want dangerous people like the student at Virginia Tech. Just as we should not give an alcoholic a bottle of whiskey, we should not provide the means for disturbed people to kill others.

Just as a person going through Alcoholics Anonymous training has to say “I am an alcoholic,” I believe as a society we must undergo therapy and say “We are a violent society.” If this is done, then we can not only begin the healing, but possibly prevent another such example of snapping. Though snapping can be rooted in individualistic or “born to be bad” explanations, I believe society is the major force that causes people, even those so predisposed, to see violence as a means of dealing with problems.

Furthermore, I believe that we need a Department of Peace, as Dennis Kucinich has called for, that would deal with promoting peace in the home, in our schools and in our foreign policy. As a nation and community we must stand up against violence and immediately begin dialogues on nonviolence.

As Thich Nhat Hahn said, “And once we have the condition of peace and joy in us, we can afford to be in any situation. Even in the situation of hell, we will be able to contribute our peace and serenity. The most important thing is for each of us to have some freedom in our heart, some stability in our heart, some peace in our heart. Only then will we be able to relieve the suffering around us.”

Let us begin such a dialogue now.

– Scott Lukas, the chair of the sociology and anthropology departments at Lake Tahoe Community College, has a forthcoming text on criminological theory (co-edited with Stuart Henry) with Ashgate Publishers. He was a graduate student at the University of Iowa during the school shooting tragedy of 1991. He is the founder of the Gender Ads Project (www.genderads.com), a Web site dealing with violence and other issues related to advertising and popular culture.