I was as horrified as any to hear of the slaughter last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Being the father myself of a girl just a couple of years past the age of the victims, I could readily empathize with the feelings of those families – to have the very heart of your life shattered like that is something I would still be reeling from as I drew my last breath.
We should all be thankful that so few of us descend into the kind of twisted moral wreckage that inhabited Adam Lanza’s brain. Many have used the word “evil” to describe this attack, but I disagree. To me, this was pure madness.
I’m not one of those, either, who assume all who cross the moral boundary into the realm where mass murder can be contemplated must perforce be mad. I think, for example, that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were evil; they methodically killed twelve of their Columbine classmates in a long-premeditated act of revenge and score-settling. Similarly, Anders Breivik had a clear motive when he calmly walked the island camp of Norway’s Labor Party youth league and killed 69 young people. However twisted their logic, there was a bloodthirsty purpose to their rampages; the fact that they could so deliberately commit acts that make the rest of us recoil in horror marks them as evil in my book.
But Newtown is different. There is no imaginable cause-and-effect, no line from action to accomplishment that starts with gunning down a classroom full of fresh-faced innocents. Investigators have not yet even determined that there is a connection of any sort between Lanza and Sandy Hook school. It was at first reported that his mother, who he shot in her bed, was a teacher there, but that apparently is not true. He himself might have gone there ten or more years earlier, but there has been no recent connection that we know of at this point.
But something in him compelled him to that location with several guns and pockets full of ammunition. Nor can we assume that, mad or not, this was a sudden explosion of frenzied lunacy. Before embarking on his fatal mission, he took a hammer to his computer, smashing the hard drive and quite possibly destroying any evidence of his online history – and who would do that unless there was an incriminating digital trail? This madness was premeditated.
Stories are emerging of a troubled young man that, at least superficially, fits a pattern we have come to recognize. Very intelligent, perhaps genius, but painfully inadequate socially; acquaintances describe him as disturbed, and say they are not surprised he came to this. He dropped out of high school, took some college classes, did well in some but dropped others he was about to fail. At twenty, he lived at home with his divorced mother with no apparent means of employment. They appeared to get along well, but then he shot her in cold blood.
The problem is, this profile could described hundreds of thousands of socially awkward young men, all of whom refrain from making their mark on the world in this most heinous way. We may never know why Adam Lanza was different. Perhaps it was as casually conceived as Brenda Ann Spencer’s shooting spree in San Diego in 1979, in which she killed two adults and wounded nine children; her remorseless explanation, immortalized by the Boomtown Rats, was, “I don’t like Mondays.”
There are already the inevitable calls for tighter gun control. Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce new legislation to ban assault weapons, and claims to have enough bipartisan support to gain passage at least in the upper chamber. The problem is, it will do little good.
In the first place is the problem of definition. Assault weapons are virtually identical to the kind of guns used in deer hunting. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not fully automatic – each shot has to be individually triggered. Feinstein’s bill itself has some 800 exceptions. Clearly, even if it passed, it would fall far short of its objective.
More to the point, it would do little to stop this kind of massacre. In 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into a school in Dunblane, Scotland armed with only four handguns, and that was enough ordnance to kill sixteen children and one adult. Given that there are a few hundred million handguns at large in our country, banning assault rifles may do little more than give a false sense of security.
One thing that may do more than that is to do away with the fatuous idea of schools as a “no-gun zone.” The Secret Service did an extensive study of school shootings in the wake of the Columbine assault, and found that among other things the perpetrators deliberately target schools because they are a soft target, with little risk of resistance or danger to themselves. When the only one roaming the halls with gun in hand is intent on killing, killings will multiply. Lanza evidently interrupted his rampage and killed himself when he heard the police arrive.
Police have relatively few calls on their attention during the midday hours – most arrests occur in the evening or at night. It might be possible, without stretching municipal budgets, to have cops do their daytime duty in the schools. Just their being there would be a preventative, so brave but unarmed teachers and school staffers, like those at Sandy Hook, don’t have to give their lives in a vain attempt to stop a killer bent on carnage.
But the link we must sever is the one by which the deranged get their hands on guns. The Secret Service study found a high percentage of cases involved mental illness. We do a terrible job of intervention in this country – there is a stigma attached to mental illness that doesn’t apply to other diseases; authorities worry about being accused of over-reaching and acting on intuition rather than evidence; the threat of lawsuits is everywhere.
But we must strive to get better at this. We must as a society lessen the social impediment to addressing such problems; we should also put more of our scarce medical research dollars into further study of the problems of the mind. We must have better laws about allowing gun purchases by those with emotional or mental illnesses. And we must develop a better habit of vigilance. Over and over again you read about people who suspected someone would go off the deep end, but did nothing about it. That reticence is deadly.
There is great risk in passing hurried legislation to be seen to be “doing something” after a tragedy like this. Caution is called for, because it is too easy in an emotional response to limit essential freedoms, like firearm ownership, video game viewing, and the like. It is in the poisoned well at the bottom of the mind that these incidents most often are given birth. That is where we should focus our attentions.
Lastly, let us all send prayers up for the families of Newtown. Their loss is enormous. In this season of love, where we celebrate God’s greatest gift, let us be messengers of that spirit of compassion and generosity. Hug your own child tightly.