NEW HAVEN, Conn. – In 1985, when I was 13 years old, a woman suffering from schizophrenia brought a semiautomatic rifle to our local mall in suburban Philadelphia and began shooting. The woman, 25-year-old Sylvia Seegrist, killed three people, including a 2-year-old child, and shot several others before being subdued. When asked why she had done it, Seegrist said, bizarrely, that my family makes me nervous. In other words, there was no reason at all.
I registered the event only 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 restrictive gun control, greater vigilance to identify people prone to violence. But none of it, apparently, mattered quite enough.
Like millions of other heartsick people, I am inclined to think that though all of this must change, it never will. But as a historian I am reminded that change often comes slowly, and with great pain and effort. A century ago, there were forms of graphic, brutal violence considered so thoroughly American that they could never be banished. Today they no longer exist. In the story of how these changes happened, there may be a model – or a least hope – for the present.
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 for the brutality of its labor clashes, in which gun battles, dynamitings and hand-to-hand combat produced what seemed to be an unending stream of death. Sometimes the violence came at the hands of police. On other occasions, it came as retaliation from below.
Compared to today’s gun massacres, it is easy to see these earlier events as a more comprehensible form of violence, with obvious political motives and straightforward political solutions. Yet Americans at the time experienced them as a cause for national soul-searching, as well as a kind of helplessness and even despair. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens put it best. What are we Americans going to do about conditions which are bringing up healthy, good-tempered boys ... to really believe ... that the only resource they have ... is 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 answers were obvious even then. Americans needed a better process, enforced by the federal government, for managing labor-employer relations. Until the 1930s, advocates simply lacked the political will and public support to make it happen.
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. 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 witness a victim being disemboweled, castrated, tortured or burned, then killed in full view.
To modern sensibilities, the injustice once again seems obvious, as do the solutions. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done.
Today’s violence is more random, without rational motive or political purpose. Yet these examples tell us something important about how social change happens with violence, and about what we now need to do. Ending both lynching and class violence required efforts spread over many decades. And those efforts attacked the problem at multiple levels.
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.