Shootings spike needs a face off

15 Feb

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Shootings spike needs a face-off

By Joseph Wakim

Posted Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Our current political debate about shootings has taken aim at the supply chain, but we should be disarming the demand.

The new federal offence of ‘aggravated trafficking’ would prosecute anyone smuggling more than 50 firearms within a six month period. But NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell insists that this firearm smuggling threshold should be halved, in the light of the recent spike of gun fatalities in Sydney’s West.

A voice at arm’s length to the crime culture has warned about a troubling trend to ‘fix’ disputes by hiding behind weapons. NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas identified this demand for long range weapons: ‘it seems to be more acceptable now for people to get a weapon and go out and shoot them instead of having a physical altercation’.

It is this worrying trend to confront enemies from way beyond arm’s length that needs to be arrested.
When one sends a message through bullets in the anonymity of darkness, it is loud but it is not clear.
There is no face to face contact, no reading of non verbal cues such as tone or pitch, no opportunity to clarify misunderstandings, no context to the conversation, and no exposure to the human consequences on the victims and their family. All these human dynamics and cues are blocked out in the blackness.

The trend raised by Commissioner Kaldas evokes the old adage that it is harder to stab a man than it is to shoot him. The ‘physical altercation’ requires you to be up close and personal, to see the reaction as the knife enters, to see the pain in their eyes, to see the window to their soul and to see your victim as a fellow human. It is no wonder that the trend is to attack from a distance.

But this trend is not peculiar to thugs and was not born in a vacuum. The trend to hide behind shields and indeed shield ourselves from the human consequences is a huge temptation for a generation of screen-agers who ‘think with their thumbs’ as they send messages through a plethora of social media platforms such as Facebook, SMS messaging and Instagram.

The more they become well versed and reliant on the social media as their primary source of communication, the more averse they are to face to face communication. The more they rely on digital communication, which is fundamentally zeros and ones, the more they are prone to ‘non-verbal’ Asperger symptoms.

When relationships turn nasty, the (anti) social networks can be transformed into barricades and battle trenches. The ‘SEND’ button is transformed into a rocket launcher in a computer game where the targets are either not human or dehumanized. The message is transformed into a missile. They fail to face their ‘friend’ as they give a modern meaning to ‘behind their back’.

The dehumanisation and consequential disconnect increases the propensity for angry individuals who hide behind the send button to later hide behind triggers.

Ironically, the message intended by the drive by shootings is ‘I have the power to terrorise you’, but the action is everything but courageous. The faceless and nameless cowards may intend to silence their targets with fear and fire. But inevitably the result is spiralling counter attacks within a criminal culture that lacks social skills to strip off the armour and physically face the foe. Contrary to the glorified and sexed up dramatisations we see in the popular culture such as the Underbelly genre, such figures should be depicted as cowards to prevent copycat behaviour.

The demand for stocking up on weapons rather than stocking up on social skills poses urgent moral challenges if we are to curb the spike of shootings. The antidote to an over-exposure to hiding behind screens and using pseudonyms may be relearning the art of non-verbal communication, reading body language and listening skills.

It is ironic that the Simon and Garfunkel classic Sound of Silence was written 50 years ago in the aftermath of the John F Kennedy shooting, and it features the prophetic lyrics that characterise a mob mentality – ‘People hearing without listening’.

The computer screens and windscreens can create a culture of cowards who need to be taught something so fundamental to humans – face to face communication. Even in my workplace, people can be so aggressive on email, so gentle over the phone, and so shy over a coffee, as if they are out of their comfort zone.

It is time to arrest this anti-social trend because we can now see the context and the continuum from the toxic Send button to the tragic trigger.

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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