Faculty panel explores dimensions of recent violence

Professors and an Elon Law student on March 28 share with their audience perspectives on deadly shootings in Florida, France and Afghanistan.


Leading university scholars and a student at Elon University School of Law took part in a March 28 panel discussion in the LaRose Digital Theatre on the causes, implications and public perceptions of horrific crimes making news this spring both domestically and abroad.

Convened by the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, “Caught in the Crossfire of Misunderstanding: A panel discussion on the recent shootings in Kandahar, Toulouse and Florida” invited the campus community to reflect on three recent acts of violence and the underlying social issues that led to the tragedies.

On Feb. 26, 2012, unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who reported a “suspicious person” to 911 dispatchers. His death has triggered nationwide protests and a federal investigation.

Less than three weeks later on the other side of the globe, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is alleged to have snuck away from his base in Kandahar to hunt and kill Afghan villagers.

And on March 21, Mohammed Merah targeted and killed three French paratroopers, a rabbi, and three Jewish children before a 32-hour standoff with authorities ended in his death. He reportedly told French police he was inspired to kill by al-Qaida.

The panel discussion featured remarks by:

Samuele Pardini, visiting assistant professor of Italian
Jeffrey C. Pugh, Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies
Buffie Longmire-Avital, assistant professor of psychology
Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles
Duane McClearn, associate professor of psychology and chair of the criminal justice studies advisory committee
Justin Ramey, student, Elon University School of Law

McClearn cautioned listeners not to conclude that violent crime is increasing. Despite intense media interest in the three cases, data show that levels of violent crimes, especially in the United States, are on the decline.

“(Media coverage) gives people the idea that things are getting worse. They’re not. They’re getting better,” he said. “These are very horrible incidents, but if we keep the larger picture in view, it’s not something that will overwhelm society.”

Arcaro said that individual acts of violence generate lots of interest from the public, but when it comes to corporate or government systems that harm large groups, and at times contribute to civilian deaths, few people notice. “The hard fact is that a lot of people are being killed right this second by other institutions,” Arcaro said.

Ramey focused his remarks on how the majority can be affected by crimes or bigotry directed toward a racial, ethnic or religious minority. He added that not everything can be fixed.

“It’s hard to deal with the fact that there are certain things we won’t be able to eliminate,” Ramey said, adding minutes later that “it’s so much easier to fight cancer than it is racism.”

Pardini took issue with an assertion made earlier in the discussion about mankind possibly having reached its limits in the amount of information humans can process. Arcaro had argued that in an increasingly interconnected world, not being able to understand the multiplying complexity of issues leads some people to “fall off the rails.”

“I don’t think that our minds have reached their limit,” Pardini said. “This is the same feeling people in the early 20th century … had felt, that the modern world was changing and they could not keep up.”

Instead, Pardini said, changing economies and globalization have created a sense of displacement. When people feel unsettled, the begin blaming “the other” for their woes, whether that “other” is a Jew, a Muslim or even just an immigrant laborer with olive skin.

Longmire-Avital expanded on Pardini’s remarks. She said that humans are in many ways “very simple beings” who “think in stereotypes” but that little has been done to guard against thought processes that dehumanize those who think or believe differently than a cultural majority.

“We have not done our duty as global citizens to talk about how we’ve come to identify as ‘us versus them,’” she said.

Pugh spoke of the power of violence, of how people are “riveted” by its presence in media and culture, and of the tragic misconception humans convince themselves is true when defending violence as a means to achieve lasting peace.

Like Longmire-Avital, Pugh tackled the dehumanization that people experience because of violent acts. “Violence takes the soul of the perpetrator and the life of the victim,” he said, “and it dehumanizes both in the process.”

The only way to respond? Refuse to participate in the act itself. Pugh said he finds sadness, however, in a basic truth about humans and the way they likely won’t ever move beyond a world that not only includes, but promotes, violence as a means to an end. “We simply can not tell the truth about our culture, our agenda, or about ourselves,” he said.