Monday, February 18, 2013

Justified

By Capt. Fogg

It isn't common for the U.S. media to make an issue of the level of violence in South Africa, but Oscar Pistorius is a celebrity and the woman he's accused of murdering was a celebrity. The lives of our secular pantheon are important to the public and particularly if the celebrity has to do with sports. Are the successful athletes we love to appoint as role models, whom we love to pretend to emulate, really paragons of virtue and discipline or does their drive, their ego, their motivation spill over into something sometimes less than wholesome? I'm not going to generalize about the famous, but like the U.S., South Africa is a violent nation and one with a long history of violent racism and violent crime, and a population with a large difference between haves and have-nots. The murder rate is high, about 50 per day, and while I read that only about 12% of South Africans own guns, the probability is that many more are not reported and are illegally owned.

White middle- and upper-class South Africans live in fear, and those who can afford to live in gated enclaves behind iron barred doors and windows, behind electrified fences with sophisticated alarm systems and armed security guards -- and they own guns. The standard of living is lower for non-whites, but the level of fear is high for all, and one can argue that it's justified. Guns are used in 77 per cent of house robberies and 87 per cent of business robberies, and they are the cause of death in more than half of all murders. Many burglars are seeking guns over other items.

South Africa is often described as a "gun-loving" country. Yes, of course, if one lives on a remote farm in the bush, there are leopards and lions and hippos and elephants that argue for heavy arms, but I think that for the most part owning a gun is all about crime and a sense of security in a violent nation.


According to Wikipedia, a survey for the period 1998–2000 compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked South Africa second for assault and murder (by all means) per capita and first for rapes per capita in a data set of 60 countries. Total crime per capita was 10th out of the 60 countries in the dataset. A study by the government on the nature of crime in South Africa concluded that the country is exposed to high levels of violence as a result of different factors, including:

  • The normalization of violence. Violence comes to be seen as a necessary and justified means of resolving conflict, and males believe that coercive sexual behaviour against women is legitimate.
  • The reliance on a criminal justice system that is mired in many issues, including inefficiency and corruption.
  • A subculture of violence and criminality, ranging from individual criminals who rape or rob to informal groups or more formalized gangs. Those involved in the subculture are engaged in criminal careers and commonly use firearms, with the exception of Cape Town where knife violence is more prevalent. Credibility within this subculture is related to the readiness to resort to extreme violence.
  • The vulnerability of young people linked to inadequate child rearing and poor youth socialization. As a result of poverty, unstable living arrangements and being brought up with inconsistent and uncaring parenting, some South African children are exposed to risk factors which enhance the chances that they will become involved in criminality and violence.
  • The high levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and marginalization.

Much of this should seem familiar to Americans, and the kind of justification many Americans feel in owning guns is the same. Discussions of gun control in South Africa have understandably become as heated as they once again have in the U.S. after high-profile, heavily-publicized murders, but in neither place will effective debate be conducted without acknowledging the various reasons people buy and own guns, without acknowledging the kinds of perpetrators and their proportion. Not as long as we focus on undoing the latest headline, not as long as we depend on fear rather than fact.

In both nations, the murder rate is declining. In South Africa, after tougher limits on gun ownership took effect in 2004, the number of gun-related crimes has dropped by 21 per cent. The Globe and Mail tells us that  this decrease is not merely because of a general decline in crime in South Africa. One study of female victims, we are told, by the country's Medical Research Council, found that gun-related deaths had dropped by nearly half from 1999 to 2009, while other causes of violent death were virtually unchanged. You'd think you'd hear us talk more about the how and why of it.

In the U.S., gun-related violence has been declining for longer and has declined further. Does this argue that gun control can be effective? I think it does. Does this prompt us to improve our efforts along the same lines and with regard to underlying causes? I think it does, yet in the U.S. I see little effort being made to acknowledge this, to look at what works and what has not worked -- but rather we seem to champion ideas without support of experience, despite experience while demonizing the pragmatic, scientific efforts. Too many of our arguments and most of the angriest seem to have more to do with blaming certain weapons with certain appearances or often fictitious attributes and rely on using certain kinds of descriptions designed to inflame, not to inform -- and may people who agree in principle that there are things we can do to lower the violence and the fear find it impossible to work together, to cooperate through the barrage of  passionate slogans and shoddy shibboleths. Too many of our arguments depend on denial and maintaining, despite the truth, that everything is getting worse as if hope were an enemy, confidence a conspiracy and truth irrelevant.

We Americans seem to think that nothing that works elsewhere can work here, that we are so unique in our nature and the nature of our problems that we retreat into solipsism and blindness. In fact, looking at our history of prohibitions and bans and the emotional dishonesty and selective blindness that supported them, it seems to be an American tradition of long standing.

(Cross-posted from Human Voices.)

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