For the families of the murdered children and school personnel of Newtown, Connecticut, their losses will never end. This is a simple and stark truth.
We grieve for them in extension, for the pure horror, outrage, and scope of their losses. We empathize as we look at our own children, not allowing the mind to fully explore “What if?”, not totally able to quell the question. And our children? They wonder, too. They have fears, spoken and silent. They have questions. We respond honestly and simply, grappling with the unanswerable.
The local Unitarian Universalist church offered a prayer vigil the day after the shootings. I was particularly moved by the families with small children that attended. One 5-year old girl with bouncy, blonde curls went forward with her family to light a candle. I realized how disconnected this young man must have been from the evident appeal and wonder of small children; how deeply disconnected he must have been from himself, from viable relationships or community. Only extreme suffering and severed belonging can create extreme suffering.
The stories we tell ourselves about our experiences impact the present and the future. It will be important to understand the story that unfolded and what it means in terms of the particulars (who, how, why), acknowledging each individual is always singularly accountable for their actions.
In public analyses, however, I resist the supposition that this shooting can only be understood through the lenses of mental illness and inadequate gun laws. While there will be critical points to evaluate in these realms, we need to look honestly at the particular and broader cultural conditions that heavily contribute to or proliferate such tragedies, so we can take preventative and corrective actions.
In the broad view, we are steeped in a culture that dehumanizes and desensitizes the realities of violence, sexual exploitation, and substance abuse, especially through marketing and entertainment media. Fundamental decency, and respect for self and others, seem to have become quaint or passé ideals in the onslaught of corporate greed and power focused on obtaining customers or capturing mind share. Too many of us, overwhelmed or desensitized by explicit images and/or language in advertising, radio programs, computer games, music, TV shows, films, etc. simply shrug and say “It’s just the way it is now.” Violence, vulgarity, etc. are ‘the new normal’ and it comes at us, or is available to us and our children, with 24/7 connectivity.
On the home front, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Within this age range are the prime parenting years for many women. This illuminates the obvious: there are a lot of children witnessing violence and/or are potential victims themselves.
Adam Lanza killed his mother first at her home. Then took her guns to the school and killed others. I want to understand why. Perhaps it has nothing to do with domestic violence. However, it’s essential to ask what contributed to this young man’s development such that he was capable of mass murder. While the behavior is incomprehensible, the path leading to such events often has meaningful markers.
So, yes, let’s revisit gun laws for the victims of Newtown, as well as for over a thousand to two thousand other children and teens that die every year due to gun violence and whose stories often go untold. Let’s get clear about how we support the most vulnerable in our society and identify the gaps. But let’s also look thoughtfully at the choices we make, or the things we tolerate, that create a society that not only condones, but promotes violence.
Finally, maybe we need to ask ourselves what we can do as individuals, parents, and community leaders when we see children and teens floundering, lost, and/or deeply isolated. If we can’t do it for the broader community, perhaps we can do it for our own children. It may matter more than we know.