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Mass shootings upon shootings: By the end of May with its bloodbaths in Buffalo and Uvalde, the United States had endured more than 250 mass killings and  nearly 19,000 gun deaths, since the start of 2022.

With anguished cries to “do something” falling on deaf political ears, the American narrative defaulted once again to vacuous remedies for violence in such memes as “mental health” and “hardening schools.” As usual, pro-gun politicos admonished liberals not to “politicize” the anguish of victims’ families “so soon” with their calls for limits on the kinds of assault weapons that had just killed their children.

Media, as usual, reported even the most cynical political claims as the bipartisan terms of debate, but with little context beyond what might be “politically feasible” on the issue, given the gridlock of Congress.

Facing My Inner Batman

I admit that, as a grandfather of a third-grader, I’ve been seething with a furious sense of futility. Although a peacenik of The Sixties, I imagined exacting Batman-level vengeance upon morally corrupt politicians beholden to the National Rifle Association.

It struck me, though, that such visceral anger never really abates and easily diverts people from the deliberative discourse we’ve avoided about the roots of our underlying fears. The turmoil so far rumbling through this young 21st century won’t subside until we start listening to ourselves, recognizing who we are together, and thinking through where we want to go.

The hard fact is that in the United States, too many vital concerns are being overlooked in plain sight. Teachers, nurses, police, emergency operations of every kind, most recently those fighting fires like the recent New Mexico conflagrations—people deemed in the COVID pandemic to be “essential workers,” are so overburdened and underpaid that they are leaving service positions in droves.

Our national and very urban storyline expects nothing less than first-responder heroics whenever the cameras click on. In that little town of Uvalde, pop. 16,000, life was whistling along on that fateful day of the shooting with those 19 children happily winding down the last of school before summer by dressing up for “Fancy Free Day.”

The fatal missteps by police in that unthinkable hour were horrific. But there’s also been a tone of arrogance in the opprobrium heaped on those officers by politicians—deflecting from their open-gun policies—with media second-guessing every detail about what the school police chief didn’t seem to understand about charging in immediately. Small town cops who took active-shooter training—why didn’t they all become X-Box action figures in a shocking real-life moment?

The emotionally charged judgmentalism being broadcast about their “incompetence” begs the underlying question of why first-responders are made to bear the weight of a dysfunctional system that allowed such a tragedy to strike a tiny spot on the US map.

Challenging the Status Woe

Might it be possible to hold leaders in government, industry and religion to a standard of tolerance, empathy and decency within an aspirational vision assuming that each person has intrinsic worth, to call into question divisive appeals from the outset?

I’ve worked for almost five decades in the journalism of aging and the ageism resulting in issues from job discrimination to the kind of negligence that led to so many nursing home deaths early in the COVID pandemic. And I can point you to our  archive of hundreds of articles our program has helped to generate in news media across the country over the past dozen years with stories examining problem areas, like elder abuse or job discrimination, but also realistic solutions in every corner of later life in America.

However enlightening such in-depth social coverage is, the national narrative continues adhering to the old news media saw, “If it bleeds, it leads,” to boost ratings and online traffic.

I don’t know how to change that, except to stress that our societal order of “influencers” and community leaders needs to start challenging what I call the Status Woe by calling out our fear narratives. Leadership needs to convene Americans around conversations that will move us around seemingly intractable divisions and toward viable answers.

The trepidations dominating the top of the 24/7 news cycle, though, have piqued at the apex of anxiety so far this year. In the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, media mainstream and social remedies have become distilled to multiple false choices: banning assault rifles vs. “red-flags” for dangerous people; halting “evil” people vs. identifying those with “troubling” behavior; finally “doing something” vs. compromising for the politically political.

Guns vs. ‘Mental Health’

The false choice of “gun control” vs. “mental health” is particularly revealing. Although the political prescription of mental-health legislation seems to be a solution everyone supports, its restrictive context of violence prevention really translates into surveillance of and intervention with those identified as being “at risk.”

Certainly, more legal options, such as “red-flag” laws could save lives by enabling authorities to intercede with those who so often precede their mass mayhem by signaling their parlous intentions. That potentiality includes not only late adolescent males, but also disaffected adults, such as the San Jose, California, transit worker who, at age 57, killed nine former coworkers in 2021. For years his bullying behavior and threats went unheeded.

Yet, following the bullet-riddled events of this May, as congressional members met for “bipartisan” action, Republican leaders pledged to block any limitations on assault weapons, large ammunition clips, or access to firearms, while blandly agreeing to consider only measures aimed at controlling behaviors of the potentially dangerous.

That’s far from supporting comprehensive measures that would embrace those under stress, especially youths, in programs providing broad access to emotional care. Mental health care in private and government health insurance is yet to reach parity  with usual medical coverage.

How can we reconcile the wish of most people for schools to help children grow both intellectually and emotionally with the fact that US educational institutions have widely eliminated positions for counselors and school nurses since the 2008 recession?

What would a narrow focus on identifying children who seem to pose a danger to others actually accomplish, and how might school districts do that equitably? Would difficult youth be singled out by algorithms? How about nerds, like I was, youth who don’t quite fit in, or the cool kids, such as those depicted with awkward charm in a film, such as John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club? Would young people acting tough be scrutinized as potential menaces ripe for discipline or suspension at the first signs of misbehavior?

Am I projecting too extremely? Actually, US schools have only in recent years been under the microscope for their history of misusing suspensions, particularly for Black and Latinx children. What else would you expect from a behavior-health system based on fearing our own children with trepidations that, as poet David Whyte has written, “sews everyone into the straight jacket of immobile fear”?

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What politicians and, too seldom, media outlets, don’t mean by mental health is a well-funded system of educators and counselors trained, not merely to confront kids who may seem coiled and ready to strike others, but to provide a compassionate and nurturing network crafted to meet each child’s needs on the path toward maturity, while helping them overcome obstacles—including issues at home.

However, in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting, while every GOP leader from Texas Governor Greg Abbott on down declared the need for more attention to “mental health,” few media reports noted that Texas ranks last in the United States for mental health access across all ages. Also, the number of school counselors there have been long below national standards. What would genuine development of a mental wellness system do to help those teenagers before they decide to arm themselves—are able to do that so readily. We already know that most young perpetrators have backgrounds of being bullied and battered.

An effective mental health system would actively destigmatize social taboos that deter people from seeking emotional counseling. It would make psychological help widely accessible and affordable.

Pediatrician and former California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, MD, author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity has said of psychological trauma, “When we recognize this to be a public health crisis, then we can begin to use the right tool kit to come up with solutions.”

Just think of how much more resilient and economically productive the United States would be today, had we not incarcerated a huge segment of our population, Black males, leaving wide swaths of communities in squalor. Beyond raw racism, American authorities promoting policies such as long “three-strikes’ sentences and “broken glass” policing that ruined so many young lives with hasty arrests, cost the nation an incalculable measure of prosperity.

Just think of the added wealth, innovation and even tax dollars we’d have reaped had our system invested in educational and other opportunities designed to help each youth, as the old Army slogan said, “Be all that you can be.”

Listening to Ourselves

As our frightful stream of random violence pervades the news, what especially concerns me is the undertow of dismay and distrust that derails us from posing essential questions beyond how to keep us safe. Every incident or controversy should elicit questions of what might repair our culture’s road ahead, and toward what kind of future will elevate American life. How can we begin to listen to ourselves think through what makes sense, what kind of society we want to help us live long and prosper together?

Reflecting on our sorry world recently, poet David Whyte, wrote of Russian’s Vladimir Putin seated at his 20-foot table. Whyte imagined humanity finding the courage to meet our fears and preempt any future evil by bringing / every hidden edge into the light, by bringing / our inner troubles into the conversation, / where heads are allowed to lean close / to one another at a table shortened / to the point of mutual understanding.”

While the US gun debate and media coverage have been confined to mass shootings, multiple other countries – Great Britain, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, to name a few – have all but eliminated episodes of mass slaughter with prudent gun controls, while also reducing the number of less newsworthy incidents of violence and suicides.

In fact, half of the gun deaths in the United States from January to June 2022, were suicides, 10,000 losses that international data has shown for years could be hugely diminished but for easy access to guns. Data has long shown that most people who get past that moment of despair do not try it again.

Swirling around all of our conundrums is a profound wish for eye-to-eye respectfulness. Especially in times of so much anguish, and well before people feel pushed to aggressiveness, the simple compassion of asking “how are you?” cannot only prevent unnecessary altercations, but more fundamentally, may inject the vaccine of caring into our social order. Although empathy is seldom integrated as an operating principle in our justice and social welfare systems, instances of shared fellowship and kind regard happen all the time.

Amid the societal quakes of May, I also observed a quiet moment that calmed the kind of neighborhood scene that can escalate to a troubling interaction. One morning recently, a homeless man reclined on a couch in front of our building. The sofa was to be picked up, but the recycling company’s policy is not to interact with a sleeping person. The tenant felt she needed the man off the couch and enlisted her father to help. Fortunately, the tenant also texted the building manager, who said she’d handle the situation.

The manager then spoke respectfully with the fellow, asking first how he was, then explaining that a crew would soon arrive for the couch. She offered to warm him a meal, plus provide another to take for later. “He’s exhausted,” she told me. She agreed he could rest there until the truck arrived. When the movers pulled up a couple of hours later, he was sitting up, and she reminded the man of their agreement and, handing him the food, thanked him, as he gathered his things and left.

“Out of Many, One”

Our culture tends to smile wanly at—and quickly forget—allusions to responding first with kindness. Aside from health and social services, our institutions become easily subsumed to budgetary cuts at the first cries of “inflation” or “deficit spending.” But we seldom devote resources to deliberate strategies of respect and compassion as a policy norm, in spite of evidence that humane approaches, say in housing or education, save money in the long-run.

Such measures are not niceties, but are necessities, as we are seeing with the failure of prevailing fear-based policies, which are frequently directed at people deemed not to belong in a community.

In the meantime, media trend to prattle on about diversity without actually reflecting a spectrum of perspectives. One major factor is the increasing concentrated of media outlets, especially in smaller and medium-sized communities, by corporations, resulting in the atrophy of local news coverage.

As a result, dominant media narratives clump more than ever around the kind of adversarial scripting that leaves little room for nuanced community reportage, the kind of storytelling that requires hiring more reporters.

I’m not advocating for feel-good happy news, but strong reporting on cross-cutting developments, such as about the growing impact of intergenerational families at a time when anti-Baby Boomer rhetoric is escalating in political reporting. These and other rich subject areas, and the public that needs to know how those issues affect them, too commonly get short-changed.

In the meantime, few politically savvy voices are guiding Americans to take a deep breath and calm our collective anxieties well enough to consider how best to regain the peace of mind everyone truly wants.

Among the stunning revelations of the January 6 House Committee hearing on June 9, I was particularly struck by the perspective of an outside observer, British filmmaker Nick Quested, who documented that day’s events. As a committee witness, Quested, posed a wonderfully clear-eyed question for us Yanks to ponder. He asked “why Americans are so divided, when Americans have so much in common?”

Recently, UC Berkeley professor and former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a surprisingly poignant blog post titled, “Empathy and Activism: How to Cope With So Much Pain in the World,” wrote, “My wish for you in these trying times is that you not become immobilized or numb or selectively empathic—that you continue to respond to the suffering of others with concern and activism. In my experience, taking action – even a small effort to alleviate the suffering of others—is one of the most important means of remaining fully human at a time when the world’s pain can otherwise be overwhelming.”

That outcome, I’ll add, can be hastened with a shift of the American narrative to one of possibility for our collective lot, one seen eye-to-eye with respect to the founding moto of this country, still shown on the Great Seal of the United States: “E pluribus unum,” or “Out of many, One.”