The Killing Fields… why not a Department of Peace?

I was in Houston last week at the time of the recent shooting in nearby Santa Fe.  In the aftermath of this event, the chief of police posted on Facebook that he had reached his point of no return… that, in spite of his upbringing and his feelings about gun ownership, he could no longer support the notion that the Second Amendment was somehow an expression of God’s permission to own a gun.  It was, in Texas, a pretty startling statement and was quickly followed by a statement by the state’s Lieutenant Governor that the problem was not guns but the lack of “hardened” schools.

Observing the aftermath of the tragedy at close quarters, having the opportunity to discuss the situation with a Texas state trooper who will soon be a member of the family, combined with a 4 hour plane ride gave me a lot of thinking time and a lot to think about.

It seems we’ve reached a point in positional thinking about guns in which each side has so refined its thinking, talking points and commitment to its deeply held beliefs, that no compromise is possible.  With each positional justification, the language gets harsher and the response by those holding the opposing position increasingly visceral. In a conclusion that will not shock regular readers of this blog, I found myself considering the Russell Ackoff theory… i.e., the difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.

What if the debate about who should own guns, which guns, and how many is a just a distraction from a much larger issue… one that may be more frightening than a school shooting? What if our inability to arrive at acceptable regulation of gun ownership is based on a faulty analysis of the problem? What if the problem is much deeper and much harder to accept? What if the problem is more related to our historical and persistent reliance on violence as a solution?

I recalled piece about the then recent Parkland shooting by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.  It was entitled “If We Want Kids to Stop Killing, the Adults Have to Stop Too”.  I decided to revisit the piece and wanted to share the basic ideas offered by Taibbi and some very serious implications for education/educators. I think you will find it equally interesting and troubling.  More important, however, are the possible conclusions and implications that we might need to consider as we help our students learn how to be in their world.

In introducing his thinking, Taibbi offers

Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old just arrested for shooting and killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, supposedly … There will be lots of hand-wringing in the coming days about gun control, and rightfully so – it’s probably easier to get a semi-automatic rifle in this country than it is to get some flavors of Pop Tarts – but with each of these shootings, we seem to talk less and less about where the rage-sickness causing these massacres comes from.

On the rare occasions when we do talk about it, the popular explanation now is that guns themselves cause gun violence. As the New York Times put itafter the Vegas massacre, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

This makes sense. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we tried real gun control as a solution (we won’tof course).

Taibbi describes the variety of explanations for the violence that lies behind these tragic events… deep seated racism, violent video games, music lyrics, movies, etc.  While each of t hese likely plays a role in the growing acceptance of violent solutions, Taibbi notes that in offering such explanations, we continue to show off “our amazing incapacity for introspection”.  The story of our land is filled with violent conflict. So deeply ingrained is this thinking that we declare “war” on problems such as poverty, drugs, illiteracy, etc.

Taibbi continues…

OK, sure. But what about the fact that we’re an institutionally violent society whose entire economy has historically been dependent upon the production of weapons?

And how about the fact that we wantonly (and probably illegally) murder civilians in numerous countries as a matter of routine? Could that maybe be more of a problem than 50 Cent’s lyrics? No? Really?

In an era of incredible division and political polarization, military killing is the most thoroughly bipartisan of all policy initiatives. Drone murders spiked tenfold under Obama, and Trump has supposedly already upped the Obama rate by a factor of eight. The new president apparently killed more civilians in his first seven months in office than Obama did overall, making use of our growing capacity for mechanized murder.

Taibbi acknowledges that his observations about the relationship between societal endorsement of military killings and societal violence among civilians might be considered “hippie-ish whining”, but when we look for why violence is so prevalent how can we not at least entertain the possibility of a deep relationship.  Our steadfast refusal to examine such a relationship is captured in the response to a proposal by Congressman Dennis Kucinich in 2001 to create a “Department of Peace”.

Although he never said we shouldn’t have a defense department … “He just happened to believe we should make nonviolent conflict resolution a organizing principle in our society”.

The corresponding Peace Department’s goals were to be aimed at transforming the way we look at the world, and would: “…promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution…”

The bill languished in “legislative purgatory” until Kucinich’s retirement in 2012.

It is here that Taibbi offers the point of entry for us as educators.

We’retrained(italics mine) to accept that early use of violence is frequently heroic and necessary…We just don’t believe in peace. We don’t believe in nonviolence. The organizing principle we’re going with instead involves using technological mastery to achieve order by killing exactly the right people.

This is despite the fact that “precision” killing turns out to be less than precisein reality, whenever anyone bothers to check. And we don’t dwell on the misses, like those millions of Indochinese men, women and children we once massacred with bombs and chemicals and evil little pellet-mines. It’s always the enemy who doesn’t value human life, who thinks “life is not important,” as General William Westmoreland – one of the early users of the term “body count” – once said about “the Oriental.”

The point of entry for us…

Do we as educators believe in violence as a problem solving strategy?  Do we believe in Kucinich’s non-violent conflict resolution as an organizing principle for our school “societies” ? What do we believe?  What policies and practices are intentional/accidental in our school cultures that reinforce our beliefs? What policies and practices should we change to focus on doing the right thing?  How might Gleason’s research on what he called “the bind”** affect our thinking, our actions?  What fears might be keeping is from creating cultures of non-violence in our schools? What experiences do our kids have in our schools that reinforce physical or emotional violence as the default response to conflict, to hurt, to disappointment?  What experiences might we provide for kids to make non-violent response their default reaction to these things?

** David Gleason’s research, based on the recent UCLA study about dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety and depression, indicates that we, as parents and educators find ourselves in “the bind” – the realization that the stories we have helped to transmit to our children no longer work but our fears cause us to continue to adhere to them and, further, to continue to transmit them to our children.

Final thoughts from Taibbi…

Gun control? I’m all for it. But this madness won’t stop until we stop believing that killing makes us strong, or that we can kill without guilt or consequence just by being “precise.” What beliefs like that actually make us is insane and damaged, and it’s no surprise that our kids, too, are beginning to become collateral damage.

One thought on “The Killing Fields… why not a Department of Peace?

  1. Rich, This is marvelous. I am just reading it, as I got way behind while we were away and just cleared out two weeks of “POLITICO Morning Education” from my inbox. The analysis of our culture of violence is excellent and resonates with me in many ways. Just laughing, however, as a Clevelander at your lifting up Kucinich. He is lately known as a fan of Khadafi in Lybia. And Bill worked for him all those years ago when he was our mayor. The crazy, creepy, inexperienced people he brought in to run the departments were not peaceful. We were extremely relieved when Rich Cordray beat Kucinich in the gubernatorial primary. However, that detail removed from your piece, it is excellent and very thought-provoking.


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