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Guns, violence and the babka factor

THE TEMPTATION, when confronted with another absurd act of violence from the United States, is to dismiss it as something that could never happen here. As something extreme that belongs to the land of super-sized cars, hamburgers and decadence.

THE TEMPTATION, when confronted with another absurd act of violence from the United States, is to dismiss it as something that could never happen here. As something extreme that belongs to the land of super-sized cars, hamburgers and decadence. A drugged-up Henrich Masár, with his three victims from a 2003 rampage, is about as out-of-control as it gets in Slovakia; this is, after all, a small country.

Slovakia is also an aggressive country, however. The morning after 32 people were murdered in West Virginia, my wife and I were sitting in traffic near Bratislava. The usual peasants in their expensive cars were driving down the wrong side of the road to escape the line-up, but we were startled to see a Jeep with tinted windows leave the traffic jam and drive across the field to our right to reach the roundabout. Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Aggression is not confined to the way people drive in this country; one encounters it in politics, business dealings, and in everyday encounters in shops or on the street. While many Slovaks poke fun at Americans and their super-friendly rituals (the gushing 'How are you?' that accompanies even the most casual of meetings), the truth is that Slovak society is losing many of the civilized rituals that used to make social encounters here more graceful. The ritual of giving up your seat to older people, for example, or of greeting people as you enter a shop, pub or elevator.

But with so much aggression on display, why does it rarely spill over into violence of the kind that blights America?

Statistics confirm that Slovakia is not an unusually violent country; in terms of murder rate, it finished in 62nd place out of 109 countries according to UN data for 2004, with 2.26 murders per 100,000 people (the US came in 36th with a rate of 5.9). Nor can it match the US in terms of the scale of violence; the Fontána Restaurant massacre of nine Pápayovci gangsters in Dunajská Streda in 1999 pales in comparison with bloodbaths like Columbine or Virginia Tech.

Could it be that the reason you have a 2.5-times greater chance of being murdered in the US than in Slovakia is because it's much harder to get a gun here? The evidence is not as unequivocal as you would think. According to UN data for 2000, the most recent available, of the 2.64 murders per 100,000 people in Slovak that year, 2.17, or 82 percent, were committed with a gun, compared to 65 percent in the US (3.5/5.5). People don't kill each other very often in Slovakia, but when they do, it's almost always with a gun.

The reasons for the difference in violence are likely more complex than the availability of weapons. The countries at the top of the global murder charts - South Africa, Colombia, Venezuela and Russia - have several things in common: a deep gulf between the rich and the poor, a recent history of social upheaval, and poor law enforcement. Or, in other words, deep frustration combined with a lack of inhibition.

But here, too, we are at a loss for a clear explanation. Slovakia too has endured its share of social upheaval over the last two decades, and has seen the income gap grow. And with all due respect to the police, it's difficult to see those roadside figures in their little green jackets as much of a barrier to aggression on its way to becoming violence. In the end, it's just as likely to be the 'babka factor' - deep-rooted standards of conduct - that is keeping people in line in this country. Those bent, wide-elbowed figures with their shopping bags are a repository of proper behavior from a more civilized time. They may not be able to stop their grandchildren from buying guns, but they will be damned if they let them take them to school.

By Tom Nicholson

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