“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”
– President Barack Obama, Sunday night, addressing participants at a prayer vigil for the 26 teachers and students, murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Friday
There is no snow on the mid-December ground in Newtown, Connecticut, to hide the furry ears of teddy bears, the bundles of flowers, the mounting piles of notes and photos, mourning the dead children and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary, beneath a quiet pile of white. Instead, the cold ground, in the small New England town, under tears and rain, lays its sadness bare. The national empathy is loud and palpable, through sad news reports, police press conferences, brave family statements, and the president’s words of comfort to a community devastated over its loss of innocence, and innocents.
“Are we really prepared,” President Obama asked, at Sunday’s vigil, “to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
“I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens,” he promised, “in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
He said he would gather those who can help with the issue of mass killings at the hands of deranged minds, including parents, teachers and mental health professionals. But in this inexplicable tragedy, we are all stakeholders. We are all engaged. We are all responsible. We cannot only rely on whatever politically expedient solution the leaders of our country come up with, and call it done.
But what else do we do?
Some want to focus on certain movies and video games, saying they desensitize us to the consequences of violent action. That may be partly true, but Americans have an even more sour taste for censorship than they do for gun control, and will balk when denied the freedom to feel that visceral thrill of the kill, whether it’s annihilating a CGI bogeyman, shooting up soup cans and paper silhouettes at the range, or watching a Jerry Bruckheimer explosion on the big screen.
Sociologists and psychologists can argue whether that serotonin rush comes from truly legitimate, human instincts that are part of our species’ evolution, but we can almost certainly make a choice when it comes to managing our American need to be the winner, and our dysfunctional, Yankee compulsion that victory is the validation of the righteous, that might makes it right.
It’s like being a citizen of this country includes your own, holy endowment of Manifest Destiny. This is what the entertainment industry exploits – the man in the white hat, the sinner with a heart, the guardian of freedom and justice, with license to kill to protect a sacred cause.
For sick minds, the unstable and the socially challenged, the thin membrane that separates the real world from fantasy is pierced by this arrow of righteous salvation through violent action. Even stable individuals, when part of a mob, their reality swallowed up by mass hysteria, will find the justification to cause a riot as punishment to a community. When that happens, in a mob, we react, searching for the cause of the dysfunction – poverty, joblessness, bigotry – and then rush to find solutions that are responsive to the adrenalin fueled anger that caused the disturbance in the first place.
This is where we are, searching for the cause of the dangerous societal dysfunction that threatens our communities. We can either isolate ourselves, or the individuals who threaten our peace.
In Old Europe, during the Italian Renaissance, the Jews of Venice were kept in a walled community, called the ghetto, for their own protection, because of the Christian throngs who would be whipped into an anti-Semitic frenzy after watching a passion play on Easter. The gated walls protected the Jews from the pogrom, but then, as now, a ghetto is no way to bring together a diverse community. Likewise, putting a cordon of security around schools and other public buildings, and arming principals and teachers, is no way to impart the lesson of community. That only teaches fear and resentment.
A new poll released, Monday, conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, shows a growing belief that “the atrocity in Connecticut [indicates] ‘broader problems in American society’ rather than just the isolated act of a troubled individual.” The 52/43 opinion is about twice the affirmative response of those asked a similar question after this summer’s Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting, and the 2011, Tuscon, Arizona, attacks, the poll reports.
Violence is as old as humanity, but so is maintaining a viable society. We already know how to do this. The dilemma comes in how we protect our lives without sacrificing our liberties. But here’s a hint: just because a sick mind finds solace in the discipline of firearms, doesn’t mean we put a gun in his hand and teach him to shoot. A healthy obsession in an unhealthy mind will always be unhealthy, just as a negative number times a positive remains a negative number. Maybe the Newtown gunman (I refuse to say his name) would have been fine if it was just the violence of the video games with which he was allegedly obsessed. Who can say?
The point is, we must negate the validation of violence as an everyday tool in the social response toolkit of anyone, by any means necessary. If the idea is to save lives, even when we can justify deadly force, we have to find a way to do that first. Killing should always be the last resort. We must find a way to foster empathy and compassion, not only in ourselves, but in all individuals for whom we are responsible. That is what “we must change.”
For more information:
- A great analysis of violence in our society from Cheri Speak (http://cherispeak.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/selling-violence-in-america/)
- Michael Lewyn lays “A Few Facts on Guns and Crime” on us. (http://mlewyn.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/a-few-facts-on-guns-and-crime/)