By Beverly Gage
In 1985, when I was 13, a woman suffering from schizophrenia took a semiautomatic rifle to our local mall, in a Philadelphia suburb, and began shooting. This was the mall where I bought clothes from the Gap, where I sat for photos with Santa, and where kids my age were starting to hang out and flaunt their independence. The 25-year-old woman, Sylvia Seegrist, killed three people, including a 2-year-old, and shot several others before being subdued.
When asked why she had done it, Seegrist said, bizarrely, "My family makes me nervous." In other words, there was no reason at all.
As a middle-schooler, I registered the event in the haziest terms: I knew something terrible had happened, I was glad it hadn't happened to me, and I figured the adults would take care of the rest. Now, what seems shocking is just how little was done.
There were calls for keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, better treatment and commitment laws, more gun control, and greater community vigilance. But 14 years after the Springfield Mall shooting came Columbine, then Virginia Tech, and now Sandy Hook.
Like millions of other heartsick people, I am inclined to despair at this list, to think that though all of this should change, it never will. But as a historian, I am reminded that change often comes slowly, with great pain and effort.
A century ago, there were forms of brutal violence considered so thoroughly American that they could never be banished. Today they no longer exist. In the story of these changes, there may be a model - or a least a bit of hope - for the present.
Dynamite and despair
One example is class violence, once seen as a shameful but ineradicable feature of American life. Beginning in the 1870s, the United States became infamous around the world for the brutality of its labor clashes, in which gun battles, bombings, and hand-to-hand combat produced what seemed to be an unending stream of senseless death.
Sometimes the violence came from police: 100 strikers killed during the rail uprising of 1877 in Martinsburg, W.Va.; 11 children burned to death in the 1914 Ludlow (Colo.) Massacre. On other occasions, it came from workers: In 1910, men employed by the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers blew up the headquarters of the antiunion Los Angeles Times, killing 21 printers and laborers.
Compared with today's gun massacres, these events may seem more comprehensible, with political motives and straightforward political solutions. Yet Americans at the time experienced them as cause for national soul-searching, evoking a sense of helplessness and despair. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens asked after the Times bombing: "What are we Americans going to do about conditions which are bringing up healthy, good-tempered boys . . . to use dynamite against property and life?"
The arguments that followed were fierce: Should the country enact new labor laws? Engender Christian renewal? Regulate guns and explosives? But the answer was obvious: Americans needed a better process for managing labor relations, enforced by the federal government. Until the 1930s, advocates simply lacked the political will and support to make it happen.
The American way
An even more intractable debate accompanied the rise and fall of lynching, one of the most gruesome forms of violence ever to take root in the United States. Today, we tend to remember lynching as a clandestine crime - a young black man pulled from his bed in the dark of night and brutalized or hanged in the Southern woods. For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though, it was a community phenomenon of almost unthinkable cruelty, in which hundreds if not thousands of people gathered to watch a victim being disemboweled, castrated, tortured, or burned, and then killed.
To modern sensibilities, the injustice once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear from American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge its horror.
In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed lawmakers, argued that lynching was a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal antilynching legislation, leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.
The parallels between past and present are not perfect, of course. Today's violence is more random, without a political purpose. Yet these examples tell us something important about how social change happens and about what we need to do.
Ending both lynching and class violence required efforts over many decades. And those efforts attacked the problem at multiple levels, from the passage of new federal laws to campaigns aimed at mobilizing public opinion.
Most of all, they required a mass rejection of the argument that this is just what America is like, and that there is nothing to be done.
We've now lived with gun massacres for two generations. That's long enough.