| December 20, 2012

Sandy Hook shooting reminds us to acknowledge mystery, remain rooted in reality

Less than a week after troubled gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., political leaders, sophistic pundits and ordinary Americans reel -- not in shock, exactly, but in a desperate determination to do something to forestall future tragedies.

We've been here before -- and quite recently. Just six months ago, James Holmes opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 and sparking a quickly-politicized discussion of potential policy solutions to the persistent problem of violence.

This time, politicians tread more carefully, hedging hints at policy prescriptions with countless caveats, the most common of which seems to be, "This is a complex issue that is unlikely to admit of a simple solution." Rhetorical qualifiers do not change the reality, though. Once again, the sublime grief and profound sympathy of onlookers has quickly devolved into a debate about whether and when and how to limit access to weapons. The most we can claim for the breadth and depth of our discussion is that, this time around, it at least includes considerations of mental health care and of cultural expressions of violence, including movies and video games.

Perhaps, before we retreat to our respective policy and political trenches, we should prolong the vulnerable moment in which our grief is evident -- that moment in which even presidents struggle to speak. Perhaps, for once, we should simply allow ourselves to experience a sense of helplessness and grief to the fullest.

Then, perhaps, when we do begin to "do something," we will have a better awareness of the obvious. Perhaps, then, the policies we craft will respect reality.

In that spirit of plain observation, I offer a few thoughts:

  • In the wake of a tragedy like this one, reporters are invariably interested to probe the details of the shooter's family. So, for example, journalists write articles with headlines like these: "Portrait of Adam Lanza and his family begins to emerge," "Source: Adam Lanza had cut ties with his father" and "Mother of Sandy Hook school gunman Adam Lanza was a 'prepper' survivalist." This suggests we implicitly grasp that family -- for better or worse -- largely shapes the personalities of individuals. While we busily deny this truth in other policy discussions, implying by our words and actions that family structure and children's home lives are almost irrelevant to society at large, we instinctively acknowledge it as we seek explanations for the antisocial impulses and destructive actions of a mass shooter.
  • Mass shootings are not actually becoming more frequent, according to experts who study the subject. "[I]f it seems like these dreadful crimes are occurring more frequently, it is really the immediacy and pervasiveness of media coverage that creates the impression," writes criminologist James Alan Fox. "And thanks to state-of-the-art technology, it can feel as though the tragedy happened in your own backyard." Whether that's a positive or negative development is a matter of opinion -- but the reality of it is something to keep in mind.
  • Violence is and likely always will be a part of human nature, as I wrote for after the Aurora, Colo., shooting:

Violence has exerted itself again and again in the gruesome and glorious history of humanity and it will again. ... We seek reasons and explanations for it, but, all too often, we find none. It is — as we so often say — senseless. As the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold put it, “I will never know why.” A sense of alienation, depression, distress … Any or all might drive an otherwise passive soul to desperate, destructive action. Greed, hunger and ambition drive violence, too. For that matter, so, too, at times, do a sense of honor, justice or love. None is sufficient to explain the existence or persistence of violence in general. We’re reduced to this admission: Violence is in our nature as humans.

It’s not necessarily, then, a “problem” to be “solved,” but a constraint under which we must live. We rightly seek to deter violence, for its effects are brutal, painful and altogether undesirable. ... Sadly, none of the systems we put in place to deter violence will eliminate it entirely."

In this, as in any attempt to make sense of the many mysteries that elude us, may we at the very least remain firmly grounded in what we know to be real. Twenty-six people lost their lives in a violent tragedy Friday. For them, we grieve.

Loading Next