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A sweeping generalization

12 January 2011

Sweeping my sidewalk last evening, I realized why the two Arizona shootings of note last week would not have happened in Mexico.

It’s not so much that the types of guns used in shootings here tend to be weapons one can’t buy in Mexico;  are statistically likely to have been brought in from the United States; and likely as not the supplier of weapons to Mexican gangsters sources for the was an Arizonan.  It’s that when there are shootings, they are rational business decisions:  gangsters, not having recourse to courts to settle their disputes, have to use violence.  And, after all, being gangsters, their in the violence business.  Which, of course, leads to the state’s response with massive firepower, and — an eye for an eye and all that — sometimes the wrong people get killed.

And, of course, we have political murders… all too many of them although — trivial as it sounds — I like to point out that Mexico has never had a sitting president assassinated (Guerrero, Madero and Carranza were all killed after constitutional coups, and Obregón had not assumed office when he was murdered).

We have more than our share of shootings here in Mexico, and there’s no excuse for them.   Nor for the shameful treatment (or lack of treatment) for mental illness.  Of course, professional killers are — by by most definitions — probably not in their right mind (although, legally,  more than likely sane) and the survivors of their victims and those who have been kidnapped or injured have experienced serious mental trauma, but the “crazed loner”, a staple of violence north of the border, is practically unknown here.  The Balderas Metro killing in September 2009 was about as close as we’ve come to a slaughter like that in Arizona last weekend.  In the Baldaras killing, a grafitti “tagger” pulled a gun and shot a police officer, and a civilian who died as he wrestled with the seriously disturbed shooter.  As in Arizona, the killer appeared to have a  incoherent political agenda (something about global warming in the Balderas incident, which makes a little more sense than mind control through grammar in the Arizona one) and a gun (but only with six, not 31 bullets, in the chamber).  It shook this country deeply, and was a national trauma.

The “rational violence” we regret, but understand on some level.  Balderas, and the shooting in Arizona make no sense to us, nor are they part of the culture, nor are we likely to experience that kind of thing… not so much because I sweep my sidewalk, but WHY I sweep my sidewalk.

I come from an individualist culture, and have lived a good part of my life independently.  And, like a lot of writers (and crazed loners, I suppose), I have more than my share of eccentricities and crotchets that perhaps are not always considered “normal” wherever two or three are gathered.

Mexicans, while they prize personal autonomy, are part of a communalist culture.  Quirky behaviors, even those indulged in publicly, are tolerated… within limits.  Even anti-social acts are, to some extent, overlooked.  If an individual’s anti-social behaviors are harmful, they are usually not ones that affect the community as a whole.

We are told that Jared Laughner lived with his parents.   It’s something of a joke that in the United States, when a young adult lives with his parents, people ask what’s wrong with him.  In Britain, they might ask what’s wrong with the parents.  In Mexico, we’d wonder why anyone would think there was anything wrong.  The Balderas killer also lived with his family, but — as I noted — he was (so far) an out-lier in this society.   As a footnote to the tragedy in the Metro was the news that the killer’s uncle dropped dead … presumably of shame.

Family ties are that strong.  While subordinating the individual to the family creates its own set of mental health and violence problems (domestic violence is a seemingly intractable problem in this country), the extended family  provides society at large some shield against the anti-social acts of individuals.  If the parents are unable to control an anti-social child, then a cousin, an uncle, a grand-parent is likely to step in.  I once saw an elderly man whipping (literally) a drunk outside a cantina in my old Mexico City neighborhood.  I was told to stay out of it (not that I would be involved), the old guy being the drunk’s grand-dad, who’d been called down to handle some disturbance which had violated the norms of rowdy cantina etiquette.

Of course, the flip-side is that there are anti-social family units.  If you read the police reports, criminals are usually not free-lancers, but part of a “peer group” more often than not related by blood or marriage.  And, once again, these are rational criminals, not the crazies.  And one notices that gangsters very seldom take their work home with them… and there is a second line of defense against irrational violence.

Jared Loughner’s family apparently has lived in the same house all his life (or most of his life), which itself is somewhat unusual in the United States.  And not at all unusually, the neighbors knew nothing about the Loughners, or very little.  I can’t find it right now, but in either An Easy Thing or Some Clouds — the two first Hector Belascoarán Shayne mysteries from Paco Ignacio Taibo II I re-read last week, a character mentions leaving her Canadian husband because she couldn’t stand living in an isolated house standing apart from its neighbors.  Of course, the character is a die-hard Chilango, but it’s not just cliff-dwelling urbanites who feel that way here.  One thing that Mexican writers on Texas during the buildup and course of the Texas War of 1836 was that the gringo settlers lived on isolated, discrete farmsteads, unlike the Mexicans who lived in communities and went out to their fields, or farmed cooperatively.

It’s not so much that we live cheek-by-jowl in Mexican communities — even in the new, U.S. style suburban developments and gated communities — are social units, and not just collections of autonomous smaller family units (made up of autonomous individuals).  Though my interactions with my neighbors may be limited to a civil “buenos días” or an uncivil complaint about parking spaces, even a newcomer is immediately a part of the community, and expected to adhere to community standards of behavior.  One’s personal quirks are tolerated, as long as one follows the communal rules.  The commune (even if the commune is a block of houses on one street in one colonia in one seaport) has its own unwritten code, one that may not always make sense to me (loud music from the workshop down the street is ok, unswept sidewalks are not) but one that insures that the neighbors will be keenly aware of aberrant individuals.

Even eccentric foreign writers try, as any rational person would, to adhere to the minimal standards of decency, and that means sweeping the sidewalk.  A litter-free sidewalk doesn’t mean the crazed loner will be brought to the attention of the authorities, or receive any sort of treatment, or turned into a productive social unit, but a sense of community (and lack of access to Glock 9 mm automatic pistols) might at the least render the crazed loner harmless.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 January 2011 9:50 am

    An insughtful analysis… There are so many kinds of violence (not that any of them are acceptable) but in Mexico what you call, “rational violence” is what happens when there is no other recourse to resolving conflict. Sadly, this has been the case in the country since its inception. North of the Rio Grande, it seems to me that the violence is mean and based on irrational hatred. For this reason it will never be erradicated. It makes no sense, so it cannot be resolved logically. Unfortunately, once this kind of insanity has a toe hold… it is here to stay. We have no choice but to try and stay out of harm’s way… another good reason to give Arizona a wide berth!

  2. JC Brown permalink
    12 January 2011 12:29 pm

    Boy, am I embarrased! Yesterday I commented about Richmex’s placing a shooting in the wrong town only to discover that my own initial information was incorrect. Apologies.
    Today, he commented on no sitting president of Mexico be ing assasinated while in office but did point out that 3 were removed from office (at gun-point, I bet) then shot and one was killed before assuming the office. Both ways do keep the blood off that golden chair but I don’t think the difference is appreciated by any of the victims nor their supporters. Then he goes on to show that newcomers to neighborhoods in Mexico are accepted easily if they conform to local behavior patterns. Why is this not expected of Mexicans, or any other immigrants, who come to our country, legally or otherwise?

    • 12 January 2011 2:26 pm

      Socially and legally are probably two different things, JC. Legally, it’s pretty easy to live here … illegally it’s easy to live here too, when you come down to it.

      Socially? I don’t know that it’s so much “expected” as appreciated… and some of us are more open to assimilation than other.

      Plenty of us never really conform to neighborhood standards, or reside in gringo ghettos, or (and I suspect I may be one of these folks) gossiped about by the neighbors for whatever weird heathen practices are thought to be going on behind closed doors.

      As to assassinations. It probably wasn’t much consolation to the gentlemen in question, but I thought it an interesting bit of trivia. I would have gotten way-way-way off track if I went into a conversation I had with a Kennedy Assassination buff recently who mentioned that other than Lincoln — whose assassin definitely had political motives (and was part of a conspiracy) the several assassinations of U.S. presidents (Garfield, McKinley, and the attempts on Reagan and Ford) were all by “crazed loners”.

  3. El Chismoso permalink
    12 January 2011 2:26 pm

    “the shooting in Arizona make no sense to us, nor are they part of the culture, nor are we likely to experience that kind of thing… ”

    *************

    Ay dios mio, how quickly we forgot the 70+ mass murders of Central American immigrants or the 15 headless bodies last week in Acapulco. There are crazy killers in Mexico just as there are crazy killers in every part of the world. I’m not sure if anybody has a “culture” of mass murders but sociopaths and sick folks are part of every society.

    • 13 January 2011 6:52 am

      The 70 plus immigrants and 15 headless in Acapulco was business, pure and simple. I don´t like it, you may not like it, but it is what it is. Going into shopping malls and opening fire, shooting from interstate overpasses, killing your fellow students at school, shooting a preacher while he is giving a sermon….that is America, not Mexico. Thank God. The USA has become the land of the hater. The land of crazy shooters who are inflenced by TV and radio talking heads. Everyone hates someone.. pick your color, religion, food group.. in the USA.

      • El Chismoso permalink
        13 January 2011 10:08 am

        I guess kill President Calderon is correct, all the killings in Mexico are of drug narcos? It feels so much better knowing that the 13 students killed in Cuidad Juarez were not killed by haters, but narco businessman. That should make the victims families feel so much better that it wasn’t an American style killing.

        http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2010-10-23-drug-war-mexico_N.htm

  4. vega permalink
    13 January 2011 11:35 am

    Well Chismoso, wether you believe it or not, there is a silver lining in the fact that most of our murders are logical and have more to do with illegal business deals or political plots. It means there’s less of a possibility to get yourself killed if you avoid places and people that may be involved in dirty business.

    A crazy loner is just scarier because it can happen anywhere, for no reason at all. So there’s no way to prevent it or to understand why it happened.

  5. 13 January 2011 3:43 pm

    I’m glad you called this post “sweeping overgeneralization.” It is that, I’m afraid. It’s not really fair to Mexicans, in fact, to offer such a simple analysis of the narcomurders in the country. It is too much like people in the US using simplistic reasoning to turn the Arizona shootings on Saturday into something that would support their politics. If killing people is just business, it is much more sociopathic than Jared Loughner’s atrocity in Tucson. Sociopathy is considered a mental illness marked by a lack of empathy and conscience. Perhaps the narco bosses aren’t directly involved in the slaughter. Perhaps they don’t see it first hand. Still, they are chillingly isolated from human feeling. And they are turning men, I think mostly young, into murderers. Killing humans is taking its toll on them as well as their victims and Mexico as a whole. Perhaps as you say, the victims are mostly in the narcobusiness and, one can assume, willing to shoot back. Still, these guys all started out as human beings. At this stage of their lives, I don’t think they refrain from killing non-narcos out of sentiment so much as out of a lack of need to.

    A common saying around these parts is the narcos recruit people by offering them money or death. This kind of offer doesn’t really give anyone a choice. So how did the people they recruit start out? And how has the killing shaped them further?

    Even soldiers convinced they are fighting for a just reason, whether it be the war they are in or the protection of their buddies or both, are very often deeply and not kindly marked when they have been involved in killing humans. We should not be glib about murderers in Mexico.

    Finally, the NYTimes article you link to on mental health care in Mexico (which is probably worse than in the US, but not all that much, at least in US poor urban areas tells us that just as Obama said of the US, so should Mexico be devoting more attention and effort to the treatment of mental illness. Both countries, too, should be working so that no one is faced with choices of money or death which they can’t turn down.

  6. 13 January 2011 4:19 pm

    An addendum: homicide is the leading cause of death in the US for black males between the ages of 15 and 34. Many of these murders are also done for “business”. This link to an article in today’s NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/13/health/13chen.html) describes a physician’s efforts to counter the problem, and to do so successfully. In both Mexico and the US, gangs often offer more than money to members. They offer a sense of family, self-esteem, and some weird sense of security. Leaving a gang is often difficult if not impossible. Civilian society needs to make it much easier. I

  7. kitomom permalink
    13 January 2011 8:36 pm

    This is not a matter of judging one as good and another as uniquely evil. I appreciate this attempt to grapple what are real differences in expressions of violence.

    My husband and I traveled in Mexico for most of November, and most of the time stayed with family and old friends. Away from the border areas or centers of tourism, I felt perfectly safe, and that includes hours crammed into the Mexico City metro. Even in the capital, the the level of human interaction was greater – much less of the stony-faced “I see nobody and nothing outside of my immediate periphery.” Not to get rosy-romantic, but I did note a higher level of mutual help and kindness: strangers leap to help an older woman who tripped in the metro; siblings care for each other without the expectation of resentment. It truly still is a more communal culture. As he said, there is a downside. At the same time, all over the capital and the metro are billboards and placards urging victims of domestic abuse to get help – so yes, it’s really a problem, but hey!, there is a public education campaign. Very few people live in isolation from each other.

    I live in one of the Murder Capitals of the US. Most of that is of the “business” variety and my modest neighborhood is safe. But one day one of those “isolated crazy loners” might decide to shoot up the local elementary school, where women in hijabs are among the parents dropping off their kids. I think it was last year, south of here, that a woman in hijab was murdered by a perfect stranger after she had taken her kids to school. If I understand the point of the original post, as well as my own gut understanding, that would be unlikely in Mexico.

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