Newtown Tragedy: A Call to Compassion
by Julien Haller
And yet another tragedy borne of human malice has befallen our society. In Newtown, Connecticut, about a month ago, a twenty year-old man walked into an elementary school and proceeded to open fire. Of course, in the wake of this tragedy, we have been left with the difficult task of asking how we can prevent such a massacre from occurring again.
But we have been in this situation before. After Columbine and the Virginia Tech Massacre, the media inundated us with various opinions from politicians, pundits, and celebrities. So what was the result? Did we make the world a better place? Unfortunately, no, we did not.
Most of these individuals were only using the situation to leverage their own popularity. Given a starting point of liberal or conservative disposition, they threw at the American public the same tired answers we’ve all heard before; however, instead of demanding that the discussion contain substance, we allowed ourselves to be pulled in by the charade for the sake of the brief emotional high it gives us in a world where we have learned to pass through life numb to existence and steeped in modern luxury.
And our attention deficit society is doing it again. Rather than addressing the Newtown tragedy with the quiet reflection and intense thought it deserves, we are grasping at the first fads that come around and match our culturally processed sensibilities. If you’re a liberal, you are probably advocating stricter gun controls; if you are a conservative, you are probably advocating increasing school security with armed guards and possibly even arming the teachers.
So what’s wrong with these solutions? Why do I seem to be contemptuous in my presentation of them? Because they try to limit access to the means of achieving an effect rather than addressing the actual causes of what drives any individual to these actions. Allow me a moment to address each of these in turn.
Implementing stricter gun controls would be like China outlawing hammers when a man started killing children with one a few years back. This might seem a lopsided comparison, but in principle it is the same: outlawing the tools by which people execute massacres. What’s next? Chopping off every one’s hands after a string of murders committed by strangling?
Now, the argument could be made that guns serve no other purpose than to harm others, and I would agree. I myself have dreamed of a society with no guns. Unfortunately though, we are in a ‘Pandora’s Box’ type scenario. We cannot remove them entirely from society, and, insofar as guns exist and will continue to exist, limiting access to them is just a popular motif without any substantive thought behind it, just kneejerk reactions.
So what about heightening security? Would arming teachers help prevent these situations? Yes, it would. Had any of the teachers been armed that day, they would have been in a situation where they could have ended the whole thing without having to wait for first responders.
So why does this solution seem radically wrong? Because it represents a tradeoff whereby we forego liberty for security. Why don’t we control the populace through the use of drugs and conditioning? Or organize society along the lines of maximum efficiency as laid out by modern economics, living in glass houses so our every move is recorded? Every society must decide on its own balance of security and liberty, one existing only on the trade-in of the other, but for me, this smells just a little too much like the first step on the road to a militaristic society. Every day we wake up to a thousand things that can go wrong, to a million ways our lives could end in the blink of an eye, but that is the price of liberty.
So I have nothing good to say about the more popular answers being thrown about, but do I have a solution of my own to offer? Well, yes and no. In today’s world, when people think of “solutions” to society’s ills, they think of top-down implementations of some modification to the legal apparatus. I have no such solution. I do not know how we can stop tragedies such as Newtown from ever happening again, but I do know what we need to do if we are to become the kind of society that need not worry about such “hows.”
I believe the starting point for any discussion on this issue needs to be a careful analysis of the causes that drive an individual to commit such an atrocity. The motivation behind any act lies in a complex interplay between a mental matrix providing the potential for such an act and a social environment which actualized the potential. I will start with the former.
In each of the cases provided at the beginning of this post, the individuals in question were found to be suffering from some neurological imbalance: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, Seung-Hui Cho with selective mutism, and Adam Lanza with Asperger’s Syndrome. However, let me be clear that none of these imbalances have a one-to-one causal link with the potential for mass murder; but, each of them provide a ground from which each of these individuals could grow to feel alienated in a society that did not understand them.
Now, helping those who suffer from a mental or developmental disorder is a longstanding project of science, and our knowledge of what causes them and how to treat them has grown by leaps and bounds over the past century. But science still has a long way to go, and, with psychiatric medications, we often walk a thin line between truly helping and just making people numb. Answers may one day come to help alleviate mental imbalances, but, for now, I think we need to look to what it is in society that triggers these potentials.
So what is it that triggers the potential for murder in a person? Basic human malice, cruelty, and selfishness. We all search for a place to belong, and our search starts almost immediately after learning to talk. But, once we find our place, we are jealous of losing it, and we maintain the identities we have found by drawing boundaries between “us and them.” In modern America, this search has come to parallel the capitalistic society we idolize: every one for themselves, and fuck anybody who does not serve our purpose.
People like the perpetrators of mass murder are those rare few who never find an “us,” and are consistently relegated to a “them” status by society. Every one of the individuals mentioned above had been bullied by peers, pressured by authority figures to be more like them, and alienated by a society which holds no mercy for those that do not conform. And thus they were triggered.
So what is the answer? Compassion and love, unchecked by greed and jealousy. Our careless and selfish strategies to “win friends and influence people” must stop, and not just for the potential mass murders it can actualize, but because all of us are in this together; all of us only have this one life to live; and no one should have to spend it alone and miserable. How many of us have spent sleepless nights crying for the love we wish he had? Or have lost a friend to suicide because the world refused to make room for them? It can all end if we stop being so cruel and Machiavellian in our search for identity, and find ourselves in a shared empathy and love for everyone.
I know what I am saying is not popular, but it needs to be said: these gunmen deserved more compassion than they got. They pulled the trigger, yes. They are responsible for the deaths of dozens of innocent people, yes. But, before those tragic days, they were just like us: lost boys and girls just looking for someone to love them, to tell them it was going to be all right. We got that. We have husbands and wives and children and jobs and friends. They, in a moment of desperation, got nothing. They got made fun of, or told they weren’t good enough. Their response to this pressure was wrong, but if you remove the pressure, then the response would never have occurred.
I do not mean for this post to take away from the compassion we give the victims and their families. Here’s the thing about compassion: it’s only limited by our aversion to the pain it brings us. If we allow ourselves to feel that pain, we can have a boundless compassion for everybody: the gunman, the victims, the victims’ families, and everyone else in the world who is hurting. And that’s the key to a better society: it will hurt at first, and most of us will not live to reap the fruit of the seeds we sow today, but compassion is not about ourselves, it’s about others.
Thank you for reading everyone. I have included a link to a charity for the victims of that horrible day in Newtown. Please donate.