WASHINGTON (CNS) — The sound of gunfire can be heard at almost any time on any given day in Ray Kelly’s west side Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore.
While at times it may be days between incidents, violence rises often enough that people are not surprised when it happens.
Kelly and fellow residents don’t like it and want it to stop. Now.
A parishioner at St. Peter Claver and St. Pius V Church, Kelly, 47, is on the staff of the No Boundaries Coalition, a Catholic Campaign for Human Development-funded grass-roots organization working to break down barriers between people, boost understanding and communication, and, ultimately, reduce violence.
Kelly is usually joined by volunteers on walks through the neighborhood to let violence-prone perpetrators know they are being watched.
“Crime and violence doesn’t want to be witnessed,” he told Catholic News Service. “We try to be visible so we can be that deterrent.”
Residents find the work necessary because it’s their home.
“Here, it’s not a matter of people are desensitized,” Kelly told Catholic News Service. “It’s we’ve learned how to navigate it. Every time it happens, there’s still trauma. People are devastated.”
Elsewhere, action on violence is sparse. Observers say American society has become numb to violence.
“Until this recent shooting (in Parkland, Florida), there had seemed to be a sense of desensitization,” said Sister Patricia Chappell, executive director of Pax Christi USA and a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. “Many Americans were feeling like they were crying in the wilderness because their cry wasn’t being picked up in Congress. Part of that is there’s such polarization going on … and it seemed like the sense was ‘Yes, it’s terrible, but it really doesn’t affect me.'”
The mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, has provoked students across the country to challenge elected officials to do something about gun violence in particular. Whether they will be successful is uncertain, but for now, they are being credited for instigating a campaign to change the acceptance of gun violence in society.
Prior to the incident, the country seems to follow the same path: initial shock, horror and anger, a few calls for legislation to limit gun sales especially of semiautomatic weapons, calls for prohibiting the mentally ill from buying a gun and perhaps other reforms before a gradual fading of voices until the next shooting occurred.
James Garbarino, professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago and a senior fellow at the school’s Center for the Human Rights of Children, said it appears people seem resigned to the fact that violence is part of American culture.
He told CNS, violence in the media — television, the news, movies, video games, social media — may in a sense have desensitized people.
“It’s an eye-opening thing when you look at the level and intensity and visual rawness of violence 50 years ago in television and movies versus now. It’s documented in the size of weapons. From the puny .38 (revolver) Humphrey Bogart used to huge semiautomatic weapons,” Garbarino said.
Numerous studies have shown that children and adults exposed to hours of violence through media or personal experience seem to be less empathetic to others in need.
In findings from a study published in 2002, Garbarino, then co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University and two colleagues reported that children exposed to gun violence may experience negative short-term and long-term psychological effects including, anger, withdrawal, post-traumatic stress and desensitization to violence.
They also found that children may be at higher risk for negative outcomes if they were injured in gun violence, witnessed violent acts in close proximity, were exposed to high levels of violence in their communities or schools, or exposed to violent media.
Finally, the researchers determined that parents, school administrators and mental health professionals can play key roles in protecting children from gun violence and helping them overcome the effects of gun-related trauma.
Garbarino said the increasingly savage violence depicted in the media may be a contributing factor to the dehumanizing rhetoric in political and social media spheres as well.
“What’s considered acceptable public speech (today), it’s degrading, it’s dehumanizing. It’s also marginalized groups of people,” he said.
From there, Garbarino added, it’s not a big gap for some to cross, thinking it’s acceptable to harm others, whether mentally ill or not.
Vincent. J. Miller, professor of theology at the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Ohio, concurred that people of all ages have become desensitized to violence, but said his concerns run deeper. He said to a large extent, despite seeing so much violence, people remain hidden from it.
“The violence of abortion is largely hidden from society. We’d have a very different political debate if it were visible,” Miller said.
“It’s worth noting how these school shootings are hidden as well,” he continued. “Media coverage features heartbreaking images of the innocent victims, tearful reunions and stories of dead heroes. We never see a hint of the horrific effects of high velocity rounds on the victims’ bodies.
“I’m haunted by hearing one of the Parkland students break down as she said, ‘I saw bad things.’ It’s rare that we hear even that much,” Miller said. “My God, the horrors those children had to see. Friend’s bodies ripped apart; blood and brains on the floor and walls of their school. If the public had to face images of what has actually been done to these children’s bodies we’d be having a very different political debate.”
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami described the situation in the country as a loss of respect for life.
He complimented a recent piece by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who cited factors beyond the media as contributors to violence. Among Noonan’s points were the breakup of the family as well as abortion and even pornography, which dehumanizes the person.
“If we can tolerate and legalize violence of killing in the womb, then we can see how violence against children 18 or 14 years outside the womb can happen,” Archbishop Wenski told CNS.
“What we’re seeing is a symptom of a deeper malaise. … We have to treat more than just the symptoms,” he said, while calling for a ban on assault rifles and for rebuilding the country’s mental health system.
Back in Baltimore, the No Boundaries Coalition has implemented other strategies beyond walking the streets to reduce violence. One finds a group of “violence interrupters,” former gang members and drug dealers, some of whom have served time in prison, who intervene to de-escalate situations they come across before grave violence breaks out.
Another group works on trauma response and therapy in schools to help children progress beyond committing violence in response.
Besides the activism, the effort revolves around faith in God, Kelly told CNS.
“We have to maintain our faith, because if we don’t have people leading the effort that actually believe that change can happen, then change will never happen.”
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