Newtown, Connecticut: The Suburbs Strike Again

The Ghetto It Ain't
The Ghetto It Ain’t

In the wake of yet another US mass shooting – and this time, featuring the murders of 20 small children, being particularly hard to understand – we see ourselves going through the same old rehearsed positions.

Step 1: Unite momentarily in expressing outrage.

Step 2: Select one of the following positions according to your stance:

Anti-gun: Blame it on the guns.

Pro-gun: Defend right to own guns as an important component of liberty, despite the obvious costs.

Gun-nut: Claim that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen if the teacher/janitor/children had been armed.

Step 3: Wait until the next inevitable shooting, and repeat.

It proves very difficult to conduct a discussion on why these events actually happen. You’ll be given a stock position: too many guns, or not enough guns, and any deviation from this agenda results in the debate being shut down.

Yet, take a step back from the heat and emotion of each immediate event and some statistical correlations can be easily made. To start with, the vast majority of these events happen in the United States, a country with less than 5% of the world’s population. That surely is significant. But dig deeper, and even stronger correlations are revealed.

The US actually appears to have two separate gun problems. The first accounts for most gun deaths: it is the carnage that takes place in the poor, mostly non-white inner-cities. This first problem seems easy to explain: poverty, lack of opportunity, disenfranchisement, and a highly profitable (and competitive) illegal drugs trade. The second consists of an epidemic of random mass shootings, as we saw in Connecticut last week. Look at these problems as a single issue, and the statistics are confusing; separate them, and perhaps things become clearer.

The inner-city shootings, accounting for the vast majority, cloud the statistics. Separate out Newtown-style events, and something else emerges. Here’s the weird thing: despite the fact that the vast majority of gun crime is carried out by poor non-whites in urban areas, these mass shootings are completely different. The perpetrators are almost entirely white, and middle-class.

Now let’s look at a couple of much bigger trends:

Trend 1: Urbanisation. for most of the 10,000 years of human civilisation, we have been increasingly inclined to urbanise; to move together into increasingly populous and compact cities. In 2007, for the first time, the majority of humans lived in cities.

Trend 2: Decline in Violence. It’s fashionable to believe that we live in dangerous times (often encouraged by authoritarians who profit from an increase in fear), yet violence has been on the decline for thousands of years. Indeed, there appears to be a direct correlation between urban living and the decline in violence. We tend to idealise ancient, rural lifestyles, but the realities are far more brutal than we imagine. Around 15% of deaths in primitive societies are violent, compared with 3% in states. And murder is estimated to have fallen between tenfold and 50-fold in Europe between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. These facts contrast heavily with the constant claims that mass murders are somehow a “product of modernity”.

And now here’s a third trend, over a shorter scale:

Trend 3: The Suburbanisation of America. The United States was following the same trend of urbanisation as Europe, although it was more rural than Europe. And then, along came the car. Although on paper, America continued to urbanise, in practise, its development skewed off the 10,000-year path of urbanisation. Cities are places where people are forced to live in close proximity to, and meet with, people unlike themselves. The suburbs allow people to cluster closer together than in rural communities, and yet never have to interact with each other. Big houses, bigger yards and – most importantly – cars, ensured that the civilising process of urbanisation almost ground to a halt. The peculiarly American behaviour of white flight accelerated this process. Civil rights frightened white Americans, and they took their families, and their cars, to the edges of the cities into the suburbs and – another American peculiarity – the Exurbs. Exurbs are rural communities under a new name.

The American suburbs are a paradox: modern on the surface, but able to maintain the ignorance and prejudices of rural communities that cities tend weaken and break down. America’s suburbs are bland, dull, soulless and allow ancient human fear, ignorance and prejudice to be preserved, under a civilised shell. They allow the frightened, the ignorant and the racist to ignore the places where human cultures are made: the big cities. Now you throw in gun ownership on a huge scale, and you get the same effect as if you flooded rural Africa with guns – that experiment too has been tried, with the inevitable, horrific results.

Here’s my prediction: the next school shooting will take place in a mostly white, middle-class suburb that looks just like 10,000 other places in America. The perpetrator will probably be white, but this isn’t a racial thing: as middle-class non-whites also head for the “safety” of the suburbs, the chance of a school shooting by a black, Asian or Latino person increases. The shooter won’t be a black or Latino gangster, nor will he be a gun-totin’ redneck.

I believe that restricting gun ownership will reduce these types of events, but certainly will not eliminate them. Thanks to the rise of the car, cheap oil, and suburbia, America lost its way almost a century ago. Only a return to high-density urban development, as the nation once achieved so spectacularly in Manhattan and Chicago, can complete the job of civilising its population.