While Americans were trying to make sense of the mass shooting in Tucson last month, public debate was renewed on the ban of automatic weapons, the need for improved mental health referral and the vitriolic political atmosphere. Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, however, pointed in a different direction. “He didn’t know most of his neighbors,” Mr. Rucker wrote in a description that could apply just as much to Jared Loughner, the loner who took six lives, as to the resident Mr. Rucker was interviewing. “Socially, everyone keeps to themselves,” the neighbor of Loughner’s admitted.
Individualism has always been prized in the United States for the blessings it confers: freedom for persons to define themselves as they wish and to explore the world on their own terms. But there is also a serious downside, never as vividly evident as it was in Tucson when one individual ran wild a few weeks ago, or in the 24 other mass shootings that have taken place in the past decade, or the 43 during the 1990s, or the 32 during the 1980s.
If the Constitution enshrines the rights of the individual, the history of this nation qualified them by building in a social dimension. Every New England village had a town hall in which people met to debate local issues, and there were clubs and organizations that people joined to educate or entertain themselves. These affiliations did not cancel the American pursuit of individuality, but they modified it by generating a sense of the social self—an understanding that each person is in part a product of society and is also responsible to society.
Even as the United States evolved from a nation of farmsteads and rural communities into a network of large cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans did not lose a sense of the social self. The grange halls may have vanished, but people somehow found a sense of community within the large urban setting. In the early postwar years, the neighborhood was a buffer against the anonymity of the metropolis. Stickball games in the street, conversations with neighbors sitting on their front porches or stoops, butcher shops in which customers were on a first-name basis with the man behind the counter, a policeman who greeted everyone as he walked his beat and gossips who took the measure of everyone—all were familiar features of the old neighborhood. It was a time when people in the neighborhood had a claim on, even if not a high regard for, one another.
The neighborhood and the sense of social self that it nourished survived the rise of technology, the development of new means of transportation and communication, the migration from rural farms, the growth of large cities and the shrinking size of the family. The decline of the social self, then, is not the direct result of technology or the changes it wrought.
Sometime after World War II the neighborhood began its long decline. The exposed front porch looking out on the street gave way to the sheltered backyard enclosed by a chain-link fence. The sociologist Robert Putnam documents the phenomenon, in his best-selling book Bowling Alone. The author shows how Americans have drifted away from neighborhood associations, participation in local clubs and organizations and even the type of social visiting that once was a major recreational outlet. Putnam discounts many of the standard explanations for this phenomenon: family changes, the growing number of working wives, suburban sprawl and the mounting pressures of work. In the end, the author can assert only that the loss of the social self is the result of a generational change whose cause remains a mystery.
Whatever the explanation, the gradual decline of the neighborhood has left residents without a safety net that served important purposes. The old neighborhood provided support for people in need—not always the penniless, but certainly the friendless. Jared Loughner seemed to be one of those. So were many of the others responsible for the number of mass shootings that has increased dramatically: 22 in six decades before 1960; 119 in the five decades since 1960.
Recouping the neighborhood is not an exercise in nostalgia, but a protective strategy looking to the future. It is a means of affording loners the help they may need or, at the very least, of guarding others against the damage the worst of them can inflict. Even the government behemoth Depart-ment of Homeland Security, with its sophisticated spyware and its budget of billions, has admitted that the most effective means to forestall terrorist plots is community watchfulness. Six would-be terrorists in Lackawanna, N.Y., were arrested in 2002 after they were reported by suspicious neighbors. Imagine what sharp-eyed neighbors might have reported about Jared Loughner. Perhaps they might have been able to help him before he picked up his Glock.