By: Dr. Joseph R. Armenti, Esquire ©
“Non est enim in rebus vitium, sed in ipso animo.” [For the vice is not in inanimate objects, but in the human spirit itself.” Roman Philosopher Seneca, (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.)].
“Sound practice presupposes sound theory.” (1) The recent vicious shooting deaths of students and teachers at a High School in Parkland, Florida have left many wandering and wondering in a fog of sorrow: “What action can be taken to stop the violence in schools which has so dramatically increased over the past decades?” This shooting has sparked protest marches, school walkouts, and calls for legislative action. Quick feel good fixes that do not address the healing of violence will neither insure that these dead have not died in vain nor console grieving parents. The parents of these slain, like the biblical Rachel, are weeping and will not be consoled, for their children are “no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
“No one age can develop a theory with ready-made answers for every day, every age.” (1a) Only sound, comprehensive, contemporary, interdisciplinary vision will form an enduring foundation for effective action against the murderous vice we see in school shootings. The new government commission being assembled in response to this recent mass shooting at school in order to investigate the problem and make recommendations on school safety should not be swayed in its opinions by superficial solutions which do not reach the heart of the problem, the healing of violence – especially, violence which has become so routine on the streets of Chicago and other big cities in America that it does not make the headlines or provoke marches.
Immediate responses to this horrible school shooting put forward through the media have had little to do with the healing of violence. These solutions are primarily in the nature of “law enforcement” strategy which seeks the “containment” of crime. For example, if violence were to erupt in a school, then armed guards stationed at the school would be called upon to contain and neutralize the perpetrator. That this “containment” theory does not always work is evident by the fact that at Parkland the school security person, a sheriff who was armed and in uniform, a
stayed outside the school listening to the massacre of students and faculty inside without ever going inside to confront and kill the murder. Confusion still exists as to whether the sheriffs at this school were directed to form a perimeter around the school and not go in; but other law enforcement agencies have stated clearly that where there is an active shooter law enforcement on the scene has the duty to use sound judgement and act with courage by confronting and neutralizing the active shooter.
Yet, another attenuated form of the containment solution suggests that the best approach to dealing with shootings in schools is to merely inform law enforcement when someone displays signs of abnormal behavior. Let law enforcement take care of the problem because that is what they are paid to do; they are the professionals. However, that this does not always work either is again evident in the Parkland shooting. In the Parkland case, the entire system of law enforcement manifested itself as broken: the FBI had multiple notices that the shooter was a threat, but did not follow up; the local Sheriff’s Department had dozens and dozens of calls to the house where shooter was living over the preceding months. Local law enforcement even had a note in the file that he was “a school shooter in the making” (November 30, 2017). This strategy of report in order to contain a threat to students did not work in this case – even though there have been instances where police did act on the reports and successfully thwarted a potential mass shooting in a school.
Another theoretical solution is the “armed camp” solution – which again does not address the healing of violence. The central idea is to have armed teachers to deter or to neutralize a shooter in the school. However, some counter argue that teachers have enough stress without having to worry about having to get a gun out of a lock box on campus, and then try to find and then terminate with extreme prejudice an active shooter. In the past month, however, there have been three reported incidents involving the misused of guns by teachers in schools which endangered children. Arming teachers has its own set of attendant problems. Furthermore, “hardening” the schools by these tactics in an effort to pre-emptively deter a school shooter ignores the fact that in many school shootings, the shooters commit suicide; arming the teachers will not necessarily deter a depressed person who has lost all hope and considers all human beings as worthy of death as himself. Lord Byron who was honored by the Greeks with a statue in Athens gives us all a deep insight to this troubled mind:
He hated man too much to feel remorse,
And thought the voice of wrath a sacred call,
To pay the injuries of some on all.
He knew himself a villain – but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
… He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, croach’d
And dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood. . .
The Corsair, Canto I, XII
Another theory may be called: the “elimination strategy;” namely, eliminating the sale of such weapons used in school shootings altogether as a wave to prevent the violence. This “elimination” suggestion, however, simply ignores history and the ancient truth: “Non est enim in rebus vitium, sed in ipso animo.” [“For vice is not in inanimate objects, but in the human spirit itself.”]. (2) No advanced civilization has ever arrested a gun for committing a crime.
In order to take sound action regarding today’s problems citizens and governing bodies do need to look back into history – for although life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backward. (Kierkegaard). Most educated Americans know the old saying that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it – but, unlike the Founding Fathers, many people today speak without ever searching out the historical truths needed to produce a sound theory as a basis for sound practice.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution was designed to secure the just and righteous liberty of citizens of the United States. Sound minded citizens have the constitutional right to possess and bear arms responsibly. This sound practice can be supported by reviewing history. Looking back into history, over one thousand, five hundred years ago, during the last days of the Roman Empire (around 450 A.D.), a writer named Priscus of Panium, a Roman diplomat and Greek historian, made a critical observation (now hardly remembered) about the effect of an unarmed citizenry on that society. He noted that the Romans within the Empire lived in fear while the barbarians did not. Why? Because the Tyrants – “the establishment” – stripped many Romans of their ability to carry weapons while the barbarians carried them: “… the Scythians (Huns) live at ease. . . but amongst the Romans, since on account of their tyrants not all men carry weapons, they place their hope of safety in others and are thus easily destroyed in war. . .In peace misfortunes await one even more painful than the evils of war because of the . . . injuries done by criminals.” (2) Our Founding Fathers, who were learned in Greek and Latin (not generally taught in public schools today) and the history of Western Civilization agreed that our citizens should be provided with the means to defend themselves against such fears and tyrannies; and, therefore, acknowledged the sound minded citizen’s right to possess and to bear arms. Our great Founding Father, George Washington himself, said: “A free people ought . . . to be armed. . .” (First Address to Congress, January 8, 1790).
Guns which are inanimate objects and gun manufactures which produce these inanimate objects are not “the cause” of the murderous violence seen in schools today – or anywhere else. Guns are not essential for mass violence and destruction of human life. In Boston, the Islamic terrorist Tsaraev brothers used a “pressure cooker” to bomb the public at the end of a marathon race both killing and maiming citizens. [Russia intelligence had warned U.S. law enforcement that these radical islamists were terrorists prior to the bombing, but the FBI failed to see them as a threat after vetting them.] In 1994, one of the “third world” governments ordered hundreds of thousands of machetes to be distributed so that its supporters could hack to death its opponents in Rwanda. “The U.N. Assistance Mission to Rwanda’s (UNAMIR) commander was aware of a shipment of 500,000 machetes three months prior to the beginning of killing, but the U.N. Department for Peacekeeping Operations denied his request to confiscate the machetes claiming it exceeded UNAMIR’s mandate.” (3) Estimates range from 500,000 to a 1,000,000 tribesmen being slaughtered with machetes during a period of 100 (one hundred) days. People have been killed in the millions long before the invention of the gun: knifes, tomahawk, spear, javelin, arrow, sword, and after its invention with other weapons such as the atomic bomb. In none of those cases did the “inanimate object” do the killing; it was the animate spirit of the person controlling the object that did the killing. We must not confuse the inanimate implement with the living mind, spirit, and will to do deadly violence with that object or else we shall never come to anything but superficial “solutions” that will never protect the vulnerable members of society, especially children.
Many law abiding citizens own far more powerful weapons than those used in the various school shootings, and yet, these sound minded citizens never use these guns in an illegal fashion. Certainly, reasonable restrictions on the ownership and use of very powerful weapons- such as nuclear weapons, etc., are prudent and just. Restricting persons with a history of mental instability from owning or using guns is a rational measure. Universal background checks prior to concluding the sale of a weapon to a person is not unreasonable. However, it must be remembered that there is a tremendous illegal gun market that supplies weapons to sick-minded people making them even more dangerous. Stopping the illegal trade in weapons is very important. Until the day comes when weapons are imbued with artificial intelligence and can act on their own in an independent robotic fashion, the responsible entity at fault for killing children with a firearm is not the inanimate object, but rather the “spirit”, the whole person, of the shooter.
I believe that the best approach to healing violence in our society involves a comprehensive, open dialogue (not an emotionally charged shouting match). An interdisciplinary approach which does not automatically exclude insights from the sciences and religion is needed to address the sources of violence. A cultural component to the problem of violence needs to be recognized and addressed along with any psychological element. Since the 1960s a steady decline in higher values and an ascendance of lower values, of a morbid nihilism, of violent forms of “entertainment” seems to have been taking place. Culturally, there has been greater increase in a sense of entitlement in all social classes, from poor to wealthy, over the past decades. A year ago, I asked a secretary who had spent 30 years at Main Line academy for girls what was the biggest change she had seen in the students during all those years. She replied diplomatically: “They are all good girls, but I think that there has been a noticeable increase in their sense of entitlement.” A feeling of entitlement can lead a person to be more easily and deeply offended by not getting what he or she believes that they deserve. And, a deeply offended person can turn violent. What will turn away a person from such violent feelings?
In our American culture the ancient philosophic value of arête, moral excellence, as a way of life has been de-emphasized in favor of crude materialism and constant “excitement.” The fundamental dynamics of arête articulated in Ancient Greek Philosophy were well known to the Founding Fathers of the United States who read and wrote letters in Latin containing references from ancient authors written in Greek; e.g., Jefferson and Madison. Prudence, Courage, Justice, Sound Mindedness (phronesis, prudentia; andreia, fortitudo; dikaiosyne, iustitia; sophrosyne, temperantia) were among the virtues that the ancient Greeks and Romans recognized as being absolutely necessary for a person to become a good and useful citizen both in peace and war. The on-going confusion of “religion” with “morals” may have led some administrators to the mistaken belief that instruction in these ancient Hellenic principles violates the separation of Church and State, even though it does not.
The sources of violence must be properly understood before meaningful action can be initiated. Part of that discussion ought to involve the studies of Dr. Thomas Hora. The internationally known existential psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Hora (1914-1995), a founder of “metapsychiatry”, made an enlightening study on sources of violence in our society. (4) Of the hundreds of newscasts and newspaper articles that I have seen and read since the shooting in Parkland, none of them made an in-depth discussion of the sources of violence pervasive in our society as Dr. Hora did. He identifies several on-going sources: 1. Sensory violence – an assault on the senses; 2. Emotional violence – affecting mood e.g., depression, rage reactions, emotional states of excitement; 3. “Mental violence, producing disturbed states of consciousness and disturbances of the ability to reason coherently” (4); 4. Chemical violence – (drugs) which affect the total human organism from within. Existentially, such stimuli that causes stupefying “excitement” in the person have become a dominant element in society which is itself an end-goal of sensory, emotional, mental, and chemical violence. Dr. Hora underscored the fact that this “Excitement is counterfeit happiness.” (p. 409)
In his writings, Dr. Hora combines both his studies in psychiatry and his religious understanding of the Bible to produce his analysis on healing violence. Biblically, according to Hora, the human being is said to be “at home” in the body while living on earth. Mankind is subject, therefore, to a “mental dynamism” requiring a continual “self-confirmatory ideation.” (italics in original, p. 410). The ego of a person maintains its self-awareness through pleasure and pain derived from self-confirmatory stimulation (proprioceptive awareness). The stimuli may come from sensory, mental, emotional, or chemical sources. Dr. Hora believes that there is some proportionality between violence and the lack of spiritual values and “spiritual self-identity.” (idem.) Sensory violence is found in street crimes, vandalism, graffiti, blaring rock and roll music (acoustical violence), etc. To this list we could add violent video games which are ubiquitous.
Dr. Hora theorizes that the healing of violence lies in a turning away from materialistic self-confirmatory ideation and “self-confirmatory involvement.” The human being must be provided an environment, must be helped “to transcend his self-confirmatory materialism” (p. 411) for violence to even begin to be healed. From Dr. Hora’s existential-religious-psychiatric point of view, the human being must “walk in the spirit” and constantly seek to manifest the “divine intelligence and love” in daily thought and action.
Inspired by the writings of Dr. Hora, Professor Bernard Tyrrell, Spiritual Director of Gonzaga University, formulated a new therapy for healing violence which addresses the existential-religious dimensions of human existence from the Christian perspective: “Christotherapy.” (5)
An important work that also needs to be brought into the discussions concerning the healing violence in our society was recently authored by Professor John Kounios of Drexel University in Philadelphia. (6) Dr. Kounios’ book gives a prescription, a plan, a method that would be helpful for every person who has reached the age of reason, especially for high school and college students and faculties in understanding themselves in the process of achieving their greater potential. Dr. Kounios’ study has gained an international audience. He himself has appeared on television program: “Through the Wormhole” hosted by the famous actor Morgan Freeman. Professor Kounios has also been interviewed by reporters from Japanese television, and Time magazine. His very valuable approach is based on current research in neuro-psychology. Unfortunately, the limitation of space in this short article does not permit me to discuss his important insights at length. Nor does this limited space permit me to discuss other relevant issues from neuroscience that are very relevant to the understanding the workings of the teenage brain such as “chronic stress” which can damage the structure of the hippocampus “critical to memory and learning” – including impaired LTP and the actual “elimination of synaptic connections.” (7)
We cannot discuss all of the strategies such as extended background checks, better reporting of aberrant or violent behavior to institutions engaged in the determination of fitness to purchase a gun, etc. Workable and carefully structured containment strategies ought to be implemented; however, they do not address the underlying catalyst to this type of murderous violence. I believe that the mental health community must also take greater action to warn the public of the imminent danger of a potential violent person. Years ago, I was legal counsel in a criminal trial in Philadelphia when I learned there was a mental health care professional in the courtroom who had specifically come to warn us that one of his patients (who was in the courtroom at that time) had indicated that he had an ideation of do harm to certain people that would be called to testify. As a result of his timely information, a heavy police presence was ordered by the Court to appear and remain in the courtroom. The trial went forward to conclusion without any violent eruptions. This is but one example of a public beneficial service that a mental health care professional can perform.
In closing, I would like to suggest that the conversation so dominated by theories such as “containment” and “elimination” do not even begin to approach the issue of the healing of violence which ought to be the primary focus of any new government commissions related to these shootings. I cannot in this limited space even raise all of the issues that need to be addressed, but I have suggested that a different focus is needed to approach the healing of violence. All of the weeping and shouting in the media and the political “stop-gap” measures to calm voters will not give us a sound theory on which we can build a long term sound practice. Comprehensive discussions both theoretical and practical need to be organized. School shooting data exists going back over a century so that today’s researchers can actually tract this data showing the increase in school shootings which were a rare event in the beginning of the 20th century to an epidemic in the 21st century America and then compare that trend with other parallel trends such as the breakdown of the family, the rise in perverse philosophies, etc. Researchers also need to study this data in conjunction with the decline in religious institutions, (8) and the elevation of the sources of violence in our society; e.g., the glorification of violence in ever more intensely violent video games as well as ever more intensely violent movies and TV shows. However, mere empirical, statistical studies will be insufficient to reach a sound theory. Cultural issue discussions must be mindful of including the impact of degenerative, depressing, nauseating productions considered as modern forms of “art” – productions which attack the good, the beautiful, and the true. (9) Existential, philosophical issues such as rise of nihilism, (the notion that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value) in western culture predicted long ago by Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Soloviev and others also needs to be an element in the discussion on healing violence.
The new blue-ribbon commission being form by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos must include a panel member who is very familiar with current and relevant interdisciplinary fields of study, a person who can address the dynamics of whole person; to that end, Secretary Devos would be well advised to persuade Professor John Kounios to join the commission because he can present singularly valuable insights to the commission which will be of benefit to us all in the quest to find a sound theory and practice leading to the healing of violence.
(1) Joseph Papin, “Post-Conciliar Perspectives,” The Dynamic in Christian Thought, Volume I, ed. Joseph Papin. (The Villanova University Press, 1970), p. 1.
(2) Roman Philosopher Seneca, (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.) Ep., XVII. The sentence is not easily translated since “animo” in Latin also signifies other notions such as “mind”. However, the “idea” expressed by Seneca appears to be referring to the whole person (thought, emotion, and behavior); and, therefore, “spirit” appears to me to be a more appropriate translation. “Vitium” can also be translated by: “fault” “guilt” “vice” “crime” “moral defect”, “offence”, “sin”, “violence”. Thus, the sentence may also be translated: “The fault is not in things, but in the mind itself.” The point is a contrast between the inanimate object which has no responsibility and the animate mind, the seat of reason, which does have responsibility for actions.
(2) Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 2 (1983), p. 269.
(3) Mandy Otis, “How to Prevent Genocide,” Borgen Magazine, November, 2016. http://www.borgenmagazine.com/prevent-genocide.
(4) Thomas Hora, “An Issue of Urgent Contemporary Relevancy: The Healing of Violence,” ed. Joseph Armenti, The Papin Festschrift: Wisdom and Knowledge, Essays in Honour of Joseph Papin, Volume II, [Villanova University Press, 1976], pp. 408ff.
(5) Bernard Tyrrell, “Christotherapy: A Theology of Christian Healing and Enlightenment Inspired by the Thought of Thomas Hora and Bernard Lonergan” Ibid., PP. 293- 300.) Subsequently, Professor Tyrrell has also written two books on the subject and method of Christotherapy.
(6) John Kounios and Mark Beeman, The Eureka Factor, Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain. (Random House: New York, 2015). This book was primarily written by Dr. Kounios.
(7) Frances E. Jensen, MD with Amy Nutt, The Teenage Brain. (Harper: New York, 2015), p. 174. There is no room in this short article to integrate insights from the great psychologists and psychiatrists of the past and present; e.g., Freud (death wish, subconscious), Jung (extraversion/introversion), Adler (the inferiority complex), Allport (functional autonomy), Carl Rogers (self-actualization, person-centered therapy, unconditional positive regard), William Glasser (reality therapy), Erik Erikson (identity crisis), Viktor Frankel (logotherapy), (Maslow, Peak Experiences), DSM III, IV,V, Seligman (the optimistic child), Rathvon, (unmotivated child), Karl Menninger, (man against himself), etc. as they relate to this subject.
(8) https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/ruined-cathedral-becomes-shooting-gallery. A church once known as the Cathedral of Kensington (in Philadelphia) Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church which began to decline in the 1960’s is now a heroin den.(2017) This is a symptomatic and symbolic transition occurring in our society. More than half of the churches in Philadelphia have closed. In July, 2017 the following was also reported: The Archdiocese of Hartford is closing 26 more churches and merging 144 more; in New York, 18 more are closing; in Chicago, it is estimated that another 100 additional Catholic churches will be closed by 2030; in 2012, Milwaukee announced that half of all the churches would be closed or consolidated by 2020; in Cleveland beginning in 2009, over 36 churches were closed in just 15 months.
(9) Pontynen, Arthur and R. Miller, Western Culture at the American Crossroads (ISI, Delaware, 2011).
Dr. Armenti is a member of the North American Brain Injury Society who practices law in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.