Why are Americans killing each other?

May 09, 1994|By Derek Peck

MAYBE I'VE been away too long, living abroad and away from the madness. But when I recently returned to the United States after three years in France, I was horrified by the regularity with which I heard and read about murder. Not, however, murder in the traditional sense -- as if there existed some rosy, nostalgic era of clean, clear murder -- but murder all over, murder in spades, random, indiscriminate and cold.

American violence, it would seem, has finally hit warp speed. Reading the paper these days is like descending into a blitz delirium of murder and mayhem. But not only the press informs me of America's death wave; I hear stories from my friends, too.

One buddy was held up on his front lawn by three men toting semiautomatic handguns -- one pointed at his head, one in his side and one, I suppose, for appearances. The men demanded his money and fled. Thank God my friend was not hurt.

My cousin's girlfriend was not so fortunate. Two weeks ago, while closing down the pizza restaurant she managed, an 18-year-old avenging the firing of his buddy shot her several times in the head and back.

And here I am, left to tell myself that America was violent before I went away. Perhaps the recent wave is so poignant for me because I had forgotten and what I do remember was never like this.

Living in Europe, you stop following holdups, homicides and drive-bys long before you stop following football. The first, most fTC important thing you let go of from your culture is the fear.

It's clear to me now that fear and distrust of one's fellows permeates our society. Every contact with a stranger is guarded and tainted by suspicion. And although this is pitiful, it's somehow understandable considering the current state of affairs where anyone might kill you for any little thing.

Such public-circle carnage is particularly troubling to my European friends. What am I to say to them when attacks on Europeans become commonplace in Florida? Go to Egypt, you'll be safer?

Ironically, though much has been made about the danger to foreign tourists traveling in Egypt, many more have actually been killed in Florida. And for what reason? That's precisely what's so frightening about violence in America; there's no discernible reason at all.

In Egypt they kill to exert political pressure. Reasonable perhaps, however unpleasant. But in America you might get killed because you're in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone suddenly goes off, or because you're driving a rental car, or driving your own car too slow in the fast lane, or because you scare some old-timer by knocking on his door at night, or just for someone's kicks, or because you quarrel with someone who's packing.

This brings me to the issue of gun control.

The NRA's argument that the violence is committed only by criminals is incomplete. The guy who shot up a San Francisco law office last year and the man who opened fire on the Long Island Rail Road in December were not criminals; they were angry men.

In theory, a healthy society shouldn't need gun control. But this isn't a healthy society.

The problem in America is not so much that people have guns, but that they feel they need them, and are compelled to use them for everything from protection to gaining respect.

Still, making guns more difficult to obtain is one small, necessary step to stopping the blood bath. But we should be aware that it is only a stopgap measure.

Gun control will not end violence, it will only stem the bloodshed. We must confront America's violence in its totality. This means not only limiting access to guns but changing the way they are seen. We must curb the show of violence in television and film so that guns lose their entertainment value. We must rescue the children of America's poorest communities so that something a gun is no longer seen as a way to liberation. And we must ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in this country.

As a society we must step away from the madness before it engulfs us completely.

Derek Peck writes from Paris.

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