Questions, No Answers
Shouldn’t the last act of murderous outrage in our nation have been enough of a wake-up call?
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Fact: Eighty-eight people in this country have died in mass shootings this year alone, joining the 30,000 others who were murdered or killed themselves with guns.
Guns make us stupid. This truth was on display following the Newtown, Conn. shootings. Attempts to comprehend such a meaningless tragedy as the deaths of 20 first-graders reduced us to tired cliches: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” “We must develop sensible gun control policies,” “Guns don’t kill people,” etc. The word “horrific,” virtually created for the 9/11 attacks, was generously deployed. We looked for and found examples of heroism, real or imagined, amid the carnage.
Most pointless of all were the calls to answer the question we were assured was primary: “Why?” Why did this latest alienated loner in our pantheon of mass murderers grab the stockpile of weapons his suburban mother had accumulated and turn them, first on her, and then on children and teachers at a nearby elementary school? How could people not have known? It must have been a “failure of the mental health system.” How about this? Deeper in the shooter’s heart than we can imagine burned a hatred for those who occupied a different world than he could aspire to, who ignored him in what he imagined was their self-satisfied happiness. He attacked what he knew they value most.
And, in the list of questions without answers, there is this: “How can we prevent this from ever happening again, especially in my community?” Answer: We can’t prevent it but the odds are on your side. We and those we love are hanging by a thread as we struggle to be happy, at least for awhile, in an uncertain world.
Some of these questions we already have the answers to, others are simply unanswerable. After a series of mass shootings in Australia in the ’90s, gun laws there were tightened and the shootings stopped. Gun control works. That America’s politics are in thrall to an organization and industry devoted to the endless proliferation of instruments designed only to kill is a national scandal and source of shame. Our attitudes about this parallel our historically demonstrated fondness for military solutions to human problems which may or may not explain anything. We can say with certainty that in his rage the Newtown murderer put on his black uniform and found his own military solution. Is this what evil looks like or are we afraid of looking in a mirror?
I am a parent twice bereaved. One of the more annoying aspects of the aftermaths to widely reported deaths, those of celebrities or victims of mass shootings, is a phenomenon I have called “cheap grief,” the reaction of the wider public, the “thoughts and prayers” group, who apparently long to feel something, who protest their sense of loss to television cameras, who place flowers in piles, who weep for people they do not know and go on with their lives without the searing sense of amputation felt by those whose best hopes have been burned to ashes.
In July, after the mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado, I wrote that we can better grasp the idea of murder in certain contexts. We can accept that hatred or greed drives some people to kill. Or when the killing takes place on an inner-city street, perpetrated by someone with a long criminal record. But what can be said of a mass murder by a child of well-off parents? And here we are again.
A terrible loss has been inflicted on 26 families in Newtown. Let them and those who love them cope with their grief as best they can, taking strength from their faith if they have any left, impoverished by this random catastrophe that has changed them forever. The rest of us will have our turns soon enough.
GORDON LIVINGSTON is a psychiatrist in Columbia, MD, a West Point graduate, an author and Vietnam veteran.