Full disclosure – your blogger has lived for 18 years in Newtown, CT, and has had connections of varying depth with parents involved, in varying depth, in the Sandy Hook shooting.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs, particularly a school shooting, and of course the horribly similar shooting in Uvalde TX, we immediately think of the families in our town who now have to revisit their personal horror and occasionally see a news van in town, all re-evoking their trauma, and in too many cases, loss. Loss is unimaginable if you haven’t suffered it; the trauma, even if your family suffered no physical destruction, is real – one mother of a first grader (who was physically safe) had to sit down with friends a full year later to reconstruct the day’s events. The human toll is real, enduring, and rippling.
A little-remarked source of trauma for Newtown was the sudden invasion of news media and the disruptions of public attention, which people would not know until they see it. Perhaps a least common denominator of dismay for the community has something to do with the spectacle of hundreds of people professionally committed to exploiting the pain for airtime. And one outcome of that is a feeling that revealing where you live when, say, on vacation, will get you and your home community pigeonholed in conversation.
This preface is not meant in any way to diminish the outrage, frustration, grief, and despair that these murders bring out. “When are we going to do something?” is a fair question, as at least one politician and one sports celebrity have now fulminated in well-covered expressions.
Here’s where a problem starts to raise a very ugly head. There are many types of action the people demand, but one that comes to mind, and immediately to tongues in media and politics, is in the politicized question of gun control. It is a polarized political issue – so nothing will be “done about guns” one way or another, and the net result will be a new injection into the reservoirs of partisan rage.
Of course the diversionary lines will come from “both sides” but all will prove to be sham political points – mental health programs will never garner real efforts, safety regulations will be watered down, etc.
The question that would be great to hear – and not peremptorily answered by politicized voices – would be “how is it that these things happen so often, and why so much in America?” Partisan politics being the onion that it is, the first round of answers would pit versions of “America is a violent/pathological/(name your sin) society” against versions of “the Left/Democrats/(name your sinners) have undermined standards of morality.”
If anyone can ever unpeel the partisan onion – your mocking acknowledged – a few thoughts come to mind. First, we are founded on individual rights, each of us highly and fairly jealous of “mine,” and in our founding we separated ourselves from a nationality of the sort that carries ordained cultural mores. It falls to each of us, likely resting on our own family traditions and perhaps church, ethnic, or community histories, to name and enforce morality in ourselves and our children, and to stand for it in our communities. And that, we need to acknowledge, is hard, not because someone is impeding my efforts, but because it is hard by nature. Our founding ethos of rights comes with burdens, of self-creation, self-discipline, and self-motivated contribution to a social contract. And yet it also endorses my right to flout others’ constraints. It has two aspects, and reconciling them is real work. Many of us face it in various forms: whether to blow the whistle on a bad practice at work – or forego my presumption of morality or wisdom; whether to stay home with a fever or go to the store for groceries; whether to pass a slow-poke driver on their right-hand side. The problem arises in bigger situations, which any thoughtful person can see in their life.
If we can somehow agree that we are all fellow sharers of the opportunities and burdens of freedom, then we can talk about the roots of the problem. That said, we need, really, to start the conversation with questions, looking not for the political knee-jerk answers, but for thought befitting the difficulties that freedom lets us face on our own terms.
Why are so many people moved to commit mass murder? How much is a matter of clinical mental illness; of difficulty finding a footing in our complex society; of economic uncertainty in an entrepreneurial economy; of cultural changes that move so quickly?
How much of the pathology would be mitigated or diverted into other forms if means for mass killing were not available – and how much if scenarios of violence were not projected at isolated and disaffected people?
How much of any form of pathology would we accept even if mass killings “fall out of favor” as an outlet for the alienated, and again how much would reflect clinical illness and how much show the results of circumstances that we can affect in social action?
These kinds of questions may well strike many as a retreat from action. But current politicization of social action will prevent real action unless we can talk at this level, in a problem-solving vein. Some are trying to move the discourse toward the fundamentals of children’s activity and compassion, including some wonderfully thoughtful groups in Newtown. We need that impulse to grow exponentially.
America needs, for our very national existence, to validate the idea that a society premised on the primacy of individual rights can work, that a free society can liberate individuals to their best self-invention, manage the public goods such as basic order and well-being, and fix its problems peacefully. The sickness of mass shootings poses a challenge to our founding premise. The need for real answers profoundly outweighs, and must re-direct, a public discourse of blame and division.