Gun Violence

Jan 2006

One of the parables of the Buddha told of a kingdom in ancient times which was plagued by banditry and violence, so much so that the good citizens were abandoning their villages and leaving them deserted. The king was proud and fierce, but a little foolish. He proposed sending in a large body of heavily armed troops to catch some of the bandits and hang them as a warning to the rest. Fortunately, he had a wise counsellor who suggested that he look into why some of his people were desperate enough to turn to banditry. The counsellor proposed that instead of his heavy-handed solution, the king ought to "grant land to those who want to farm, loan capital to those who want to start a business and give wages to those who wish to enter the royal service." This was done, the people became content and prosperous and the lawless violence ceased so that the villagers were able to "live happily amongst their children in open houses."

This story of long ago has relevance for the city of Toronto now. Fifty-two of the citizens lost their lives to gun violence in 2004. This simmering crisis has been developing for years, but the savage gunfight on Boxing Day in a crowded shopping street, and the tragic loss of an innocent girl's life, brought it home to the comfortable middle class. The peaceful Toronto I grew up in during the 'sixties is in danger of turning into something ugly.

Predictably, the usual law and order bromides are being proposed; various public figures have called for stiffer sentences, mandatory minimums, even the return of the death penalty. One Toronto councillor is openly calling for police use of racial profiling and random searches of black youth. During the first English language leader's debate, it was disheartening, if not entirely unexpected, to hear Mr. Harper say that violence might be traceable to poverty "in some philosophical sense" but that we needn't concern ourselves with that, but get tough on the criminals instead.

Do we really want to go down that road? We have only to look at the example of many big American cities to see how well that works. We shouldn't be asking how to make jail more of a deterrent, but how to make freedom more attractive.

More police might be of some benefit, especially if they go back to walking a beat instead of cruising around isolated in their squad cars. But more importantly, policy makers should be asking why some sections of our youth are turning to a culture of gangs, drugs and guns. Membership in a gang can offer a sense of belonging, why aren't they able to find that in the broader community? Would they be choosing this dead-end path if they had any realistic goals within the mainstream society and economy?

Gun violence is a symptom of a broader problem. Starting in the 'nineties our society has been drifting in an unhealthy way into an attitude of selfishness. The previous provincial government notoriously slashed social spending and starved the educational system to provide tax-cuts for the better off. This short-sighted policy is now bearing it's bitter fruit.

In Toronto tonight at least five thousand people will sleep in homeless shelters, and thousands more under bridges and in back alleys. This in one of the most prosperous cities in the world. If our society has become so cold-hearted and inhuman that it can tolerate so casually what ought to be a huge scandal, can we be surprised at the desperate turn some youth are taking?

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