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It's Just Insane, or Should Be

By Frank Gruber

In the few years I have been writing this column about Santa Monica I have had the "opportunity" to write about various instances of violence.

A college student raised in Santa Monica, with a lifelong history of mental illness, ran his car down a street in Isla Vista, killing four.

A Samohi student was stabbed to death at a party in Westwood by a 17-year old from Bel Air who killed herself the next day.

An elderly Santa Monican ran his car through the Farmer's Market, killing ten.

And three young Santa Monica men have been killed by gunfire -- from other young men.

In the first three cases, notwithstanding initial anger it is not difficult for most people over time to develop some empathy with the perpetrators of the violence. Most of us have experience with mental illness, or with the failing faculties of the elderly and will not ultimately categorize the perpetrators as murderers.

What about the other cases -- the young men who killed other young men? Offhand, my instinct is that anyone who could kill like the gunmen who killed Hector Bonilla and Jonathan Hernandez at a birthday party killed, or who could kill like the gunman who lay in wait for Jalonnie Carter killed, must be as sick in the mind as anyone could imagine.

Yet that's not the way we look at it. Most people, including me, would say those killers are murderers.

At the gang violence workshop April 9 I grabbed a few words with John MacDonald, the RAND researcher who was a panelist at the first workshop on Feb. 26. I asked Dr. MacDonald why we view some perpetrators of violence as insane, and others, who may be more coldhearted, as criminals? To me, it's the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths.

He said that context was key. If a violent act contradicts our perception of the social environment, then we are more likely to consider it the product of mental illness or other disability, and the doer of the act is not responsible for his or her action. If violence is consistent with our perception of the environment, then we consider the perpetrator culpable.

As an example, Dr. MacDonald brought up anarchic places like today's Baghdad, where criminal violence (not just political violence) is endemic. But even though revenge slayings and kidnapping for ransom is now a common practice, no one would excuse a killer there or kidnapper as being psychotic or anything other than criminal.

This is strange. In effect, if someone acts consistent with our negative expectations, he's a criminal. If he acts inconsistent with our positive expectations, he might not be.

This problem of negative expectations -- also known as "not caring" -- is why the scourge, also known as "gang violence," of young men wantonly killing young men that plagues the poor in certain places in this country is a social problem for everyone.

Mind you, I am not making excuses. Whether from right-wing castigators or from left-wing apologizers negative expectations are still negative expectations. Nor am I discounting individual moral responsibility; everyone with normal faculties has a duty to live something like the golden rule (or the categorical imperative).

And I don't mean to ignore the expectations the young men and their community have of themselves and the roles they choose to play; it begged a big question when the pallbearers at the funeral of Mr. Bonilla and Mr. Hernandez wore every cliché of gangsta-dom.

But just as everyone has a private duty to live right, everyone also has a public duty to look at everyone else, no matter what his or her social condition is, or his or her ethnicity, and at every group, with the highest expectations.

Our goal should be that someday every violent act, by anyone, will seem crazy to everyone.

* * *

The meeting room at the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum was full Sunday, April 10, for the talk by Paula Scott, author of Santa Monica: A History on the Edge, but it's a small room and too few Santa Monicans were there to hear what Dr. Scott had to say.

Dr. Scott, who lives in Santa Monica, said that writing the book, which is certainly the most comprehensive history of Santa Monica I have seen, was a way for her to "make sense of a place you are living in." She chose the book's subtitle, "a history on the edge," not only because of geography, but because she thought Santa Monica, given all of its politics and anxieties about its future, was an "edgy kind of place."

Dr. Scott wanted to find out what was special about Santa Monica, and she unearthed three main themes: (i) Santa Monica as a tourist destination; (ii) Santa Monica as a locus of manufacturing and industry; and (iii) Santa Monica as a place where diversity of all kinds -- including ethnic, cultural, and economic -- thrived.

As evidence, Dr. Scott recounted how even before there was a city of Santa Monica, people were pitching tents on the beach, and how luxury resorts like the Arcadia Hotel, the piers and amusement parks, the beach clubs and the Gold Coast, gave Santa Monica a world-renowned identity and made it a destination.

And she described how the railroad and the Long Wharf, and brickyards, cosmetics, and aircraft, and now offices and studios, defined Santa Monica as a proud working town.

Then she showed how Santa Monica from its earliest days and ever since has been home to people of all ethnicities, and all economic groups from blue collar to millionaire.

I asked Dr. Scott if she could reconcile these three themes with the two nostalgias currently popular in Santa Monica: Santa Monica as either sleepy beach town (meaning hardly developed) or suburb (meaning white and middle class).

She said she couldn't. There has never been one Santa Monica, she said, and the question she has for people who want to "freeze" Santa Monica to preserve an idealized past, is at which point of Santa Monica's history do they want to turn the clock back to?

The problem with the beach town and suburban nostalgias, aside from how they contradict each other and the inherent disregard of the truth that underlies them (and readers of this column know what the disregard of the truth is), is that they obscure simultaneously what has made Santa Monica important and what its real nature and problems are.

What beach town built Douglas bombers, has had high-rises since the 20s, has its own bus line and a large community college, and was the birthplace of both modern skateboarding and the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction?

What suburb consists mostly of apartment-dwelling renters, and has nearly as many jobs as residents (yet considerable poverty), black and Latino kids fighting at school, and gangs?

Only one I know of.

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