Like most everyone this weekend, my heart remains heavy with grief and confusion over the violence in Newtown, Connecticut. The answer to the question, “why,” is neither obvious nor simple, but to ask it seems the most human of responses to a tragedy of these proportions. In time, we will no doubt learn more about the killer’s circumstances, individual angst, and personal mental state. It is, I think, completely natural and logical to seek those details out in order to lend context to such deplorable actions. A larger question however, looms over our country, too often and too long dismissed and ignored in the public conversation.
Why does our country, full of loyal citizens and offering so much opportunity, produce a growing and disproportionate number of people inclined toward such violence?
Early in the week, Jacob Tyler Roberts shot three people in Portland, killing two of them before turning the gun on himself. Yesterday, barely a day after Adam Lanza gunned down 27 people, Marcos Sarinana Gurrola fired 50 shots into the air from a mall parking lot. This time there were thankfully no body bags at the scene. No one at the mall was injured, and Gurrola himself survived and was taken into custody. Yet the scale of the personal tragedy in each of these cases is much the same. In nearly every case, the friends and family of the shooter echo the same refrain – we never thought he was capable of hurting anyone.
The desperation that leads to these acts of unthinkable violence never accumulates overnight, and doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So many people in our society, unbeknownst to those around them, feel increasingly isolated, abandoned, and unable to make their cries heard over the noise of our busy and self-centered society. I do not argue that the responsibility for an individual’s actions rest with them alone – I believe this as fervently as anyone. However, the role that our society plays in cultivating the self-destruction of these individual psyches is glaringly evident to me.
I am equally convinced that to the extent that we each can, we are obligated to help prevent these tragedies, for the individual first and for their eventual victims. Admittedly, I don’t have a ten-point plan or a legislative agenda. All I know to do is to describe what I see, and share what I have personally witnessed to help.
A Breeding Ground for Second Tragedies
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. This logical truism, while no less true as a result, fails to tell the whole truth. No doubt, guns and other weapons are but the tools of violence – the real threat threat lives in a resentful mind that has learned to justify the most heinous of acts. You may be asking, justify killing children, really? Make no mistake – the preparation for attacks such as these is as much about fine-tuning the rationale as it is about stockpiling ammunition. A sad artifact of the modern American dream is misguided notion that we each must become a fortress unto ourselves. We cultivate a mythology of the self-made man, the rugged individualist, the self-sufficient capitalist. We can rightly be proud patriots of a nation that rewards individual effort and ingenuity. What we cannot afford to ignore however, is the degree to which we depend on each other in order to enjoy peace, prosperity and opportunity. I see two major areas where we fail in this regard.
The first can be observed in the poisonous political rhetoric that characterizes cooperation, dependence, and assistance as tenets of the weak and the lazy. The new culture of exclusion is far more nuanced than the blatant racism from just a few years ago. One of the most prevalent modern day stigmas centers simply around the need for assistance of any kind. Too often we disdain unmet needs, even the most basic – for counseling, friendship, intimacy, food, shelter, clothing. The fear of being labeled as needy or weak can be an enormous obstacle to someone in need of help. For many in need, this is a culture of abandonment.
Second is what many people refer to as our “gun culture” – merely a symptom of the underlying fragmentation in our society. Rather than collaborate with our fellow citizens to maintain the peace with and for each other, many of us choose to fortify only our own positions, whether with guns or some other device that reassures of our dominance and security. ”If only everyone had a gun and knew how to use it,” some say. Of course, if guns are but a tool and not the problem, they can hardly be solution. In the end, our supposed self-reliance has become self-defeating. As we work so hard to protect only our individual interests, we simultaneously nurture a dangerous sense of isolation. Perhaps most frightening is that so many among us believe that resorting to violence themselves is a superior option to keeping the peace through cooperation and trust. Violent and threatening language has become a familiar response when gun advocates disapprove of election results. We have laws to protect those who would shoot first and ask questions later. The ideology underlying a sometimes pragmatic defense strategy, in practice feeds the isolated and selfish rationale of a cold-blooded killer.
It hardly seems prescient to conclude that any society that stigmatizes those in need while prioritizing violence over cooperation, will provide an ideal breeding ground for the kind of tragedies that happened this past week. The real cause of the larger tragedy is the smaller tragedy that precedes it – a person who who has backed themselves into a mental corner, and has given up on getting help.
Preventing the First Tragedy
Realistically, we may not be able to prevent every single one. Shame on us for not trying harder though. Shame on us for being so distracted by the media’s glamorization of violence and hype of meaningless controversies. With so much beyond our control, it is easy to feel powerless. And yet, there is so much that each of us can do – and it doesn’t start with legislation – it starts with how we treat each other.
Guns are not the problem, and taking them away won’t heal a deranged mind. Likewise, more guns are clearly not the solution. I submit to you the experienced and highly trained gun owner who recently shot himself in the ass in a movie theater. If you can pass a stringent background check, and you want a gun, I’m ok with you having a gun. Would I be happy to see more restrictions on certain types of weapons? Yes – but I’m not willing to be anyone’s enemy over it or to declare anyone who disagrees with me a threat to our society. Please afford me the same trust and respect.
Our society must treat mental illness as a real illness, psychology as a legitimate science, and psychiatry as a vital aspect of healthcare. We need to be honest and up front about our demons, and should be able to seek help without fearing judgment.
Speaking of judgment, any supposed “help” isn’t helpful when it comes at the price of your self-respect. Throwing money at programs that are deeply stigmatized won’t bridge the divide. We will likely all need this kind of help at some point in our lives, and shame on us for marginalizing those who need it around us. Given the opportunity to serve another, we should see that service as a privilege rather than a burden. In truth, there is no greater privilege.
All of us – certainly myself included – must learn to look first at ourselves for the blame and the cure. The dysfunction in Washington D.C. is merely a reflection of how we treat each other around the dining table, in the office, and on Facebook. Collaboration, common courtesy and mutual respect are an antidote for fear, depression and anxiety. Make it your goal to extend small kindnesses to every person who comes within ten feet. I’ve been pleasantly surprised as the beneficiary of such kindness, and its providential timing.
This last one is a hard one. We can refuse to give up on people – refuse to abandon them. It is true that we do so with no guarantee of success, but we shirk this duty at or own peril. In the end, our choice says more about us than the one who needs our help. I can tell you from personal experience that it hurts sometimes, yet my only regrets are for the times I gave up.
I write all of this in part for myself, as a reminder that we are not powerless. Keep hoping. Keep praying. Do better. We’ll remind each other.