The recent outbreak of tragic shootings raises two questions for me: 1) Why our nation's long and intense relationship to violence? 2) What sort of violence draws our attention? Right now, I'll focus on the second.
The intense news coverage of the shootings in the Portland Area mall and the Connecticut school reminded me of the summer of 1996, when I set out to publicize my brand new (and first) book: What Trouble I Have Seen: A History of Violence against Wives. Though you wouldn't know it from the title, the book focused on Oregon, and it was published by Harvard University Press. So I figured that Oregon newspapers and radio stations would be lining up to interview me. Ha! What a fool I was. It turned out that violence against wives was not news unless some sort of sensational case has just occurred. As the thesis of my book was that violence against wives was a deeply ingrained part of everyday life and culture, my book was not newsworthy. And I got the distinct impression that having a big-name press attached to the book simply underscored its irrelevance.
But finally the day arrived when my umpteenth call to Portland's leading news radio station bore fruit. An estranged husband had just kidnapped at gunpoint their child. This was news. Call back at noon, and my book would get its five minutes of fame. I called back, of course, but I was given about 15 seconds. An airliner had just crashed, killing scores of people, and a bloody airline crash trumped a kidnapping any day.
I relate this story not to suggest that mass killings or airline crashes are not tragic or worthy of our concern, but rather to point out that they are newsworthy precisely because they are rare. If we are interested in understanding--and of course preventing--more typical forms of violence and death, we must of course consider less publicized acts: accidental shootings and fatal automobile crashes, for example.