Spasms of mad violence like the “Batman” theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado prompt – as they should – painful reflections on gun control, mental health, and the balance of order, safety, and constitutionally protected liberties.
Rarely recognized, unfortunately, are well-established connections between violence, inequality, and the erosion of public health. While media attention naturally focuses on the pathology of individual killers like James Holmes, the reality is that high poverty and inequality rates strongly correlate with high rates of lethal violence. And high rates of lethal violence surely constitute a public health emergency.
The variable mediating inequality and violence is, I believe, “social capital,” or rather its decimation. Social capital is, in essence, those bonds of trust, reciprocity, and mutual regard that animate and sustain a sense of community among people. Sharp inequality (and just in case you haven’t noticed, inequality in the U.S. is at a hundred-year high, and growing) dissolves social capital, leaving large numbers of individuals feeling isolated, marginalized, and threatened by forces outside their control. Occasionally a James Holmes, well-equipped for mayhem, goes over the edge in horribly dramatic and tragic fashion.
Preventing such violence is a public health priority, and should be broadly recognized as such.