This article was originally published in May, 2022.
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Uvalde, Texas. Buffalo, New York. Houston and Amarillo, Texas. Laguna Woods, California. Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 35 dead and even more injured. That was just this week. It brings us to 199 mass shootings so far this year. That’s on par to roughly match the 693 we had in 2021 and the 611 in 2020. American violence is accelerating.
After declining for 30 years, the American murder rate has risen sharply over the past two and a half years. From 2019 to 2020, it jumped 30%, the biggest jump in 60 years. We’ve talked about mass shootings and violence in general before, touching on mental health, policing, and systemic racism. But I feel like there is more to it, something less concrete, something I believe a lot of other Americans can sense too.
Four months ago, I read an article entitled, “Why Are So Many Americans Killing One Another?” It introduced me to the concept of “anomie.” In sociology, this term describes a point at which social norms begin to fall apart or change drastically. Social norms are unwritten rules, values, and expectations that generally govern how people interact. The theory holds that when societies go through major changes and crises – economically, socially, and politically, the old social norms become weaker. This leads to more chaos, violence, and strife. Sounds like America to me.
Is this civil war?
I’ve seen more than a few articles lately questioning whether America is headed for a second civil war. When you think of civil war, such as the American Civil War or those in other countries, you envision clearly drawn battle lines. Two or more sides, be they religious, political, or economic groups, fight it out in real, literal fields of war for control of the nation.
Causes for concern
This traditional view doesn’t exactly fit our situation. We don’t have the north versus the south. It isn’t that obvious. Instead, we have a lot of concerning symptoms that characterize an ailing nation.
Horrific acts of violence are a near daily American occurrence, and most don’t even make the headlines. We have more people in jail than any other nation on earth. One in 5 of the world’s prisoners are in America. We have more guns than any other country on earth. We even have more guns than people, and people are buying guns now more than ever. There were over 45,000 gun deaths in America in 2020, nearly double what they were 10 years ago.
Hate crimes are peaking along with political violence. Over 50% of it is driven by white supremacy and even more comes from far-right, anti-government extremists in general. Non-deadly violence is up in America, too. Problem passengers on airplanes are several times higher than ever. We’re seeing the same trend with aggressive patients in healthcare and kids returning to school after lockdowns. Drug overdoses are surging, and people are drinking more than ever. People are even driving more dangerously.
Violence isn’t the only concerning issue on the rise, either. Loneliness is at an all-time high. The majority of our connections are via social media, which seems to mostly amplify negativity. Fewer people are giving to charity, and economic inequality is growing by the year. Conspiracy theories are surging in popularity. Potentially the most worrisome issue is that people are rapidly losing trust in fundamental American institutions like the our elections, the press, and the government in general.
The idea of anomie suggests that all these different issues are evidence of a greater disconnect between us all. In recent years our country faced a succession of challenges, and now we are struggling on multiple levels. We are increasingly divided into our tribes of opinion. Worst of all, instead of simply disagreeing with other groups, we label them as the enemy.
Maybe this is a civil war, just a different kind. It’s a modern civil war. There are no literal battlefields or fronts of war. Instead, the division is everywhere. The violence is everywhere in America. The mass shootings are everywhere. How can we have this much strife, aggression, and murder and not call it war?
In the melting pot of the world, a nation of people from all backgrounds, these increasing divisions are destroying our union. How much longer can we continue to call ourselves the “United” States of America?