The children of Sandy Hook Elementary have returned to class, but school won’t be the same for them. Not ever. While we can pray that these innocent kids can recover some of what was stolen from them when a deranged individual forced his way into their school, we cannot undo what has been done. All we are able to do is say “never again”. But, in order to prevent another such atrocity, we must have an honest conversation about what the actual cause of this, and other similar tragedies, may be.
It will be an uncomfortable conversation. Because in order to dig to the root of the mass shootings that have plagued our society, we have to separate feelings from facts. This is a more difficult proposition than one may think. The causes of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and too many like it, stand like a three legged stool: The weapon, the shooter, and the culture. Depending upon your point of view, one of these will emerge as the primary cause. And too many of us will reflexively blame the weapon.
Because the weapon is, of itself, inanimate. It is easy to blame an object for the existence of an uncomfortable condition. It cannot argue in its own defense. It has no rights. It is, in the wrong hands, an implement of death. Therefore, some believe, it must be expunged from our society. But this argument fails of its own simplicity. The weapon is but a tool. It carries no will; it cannot fire itself.
To look at the other causes, the shooter and the culture, is far too uncomfortable. Years ago, society protected itself from the dangerously mentally ill by providing asylums for their care. It was an imperfect system, and the pendulum of social conscience swung the other way; it became acceptable to be mentally ill within society at large. Once, medical personnel could confine a threatening individual to a psychiatric facility for several days without their consent, in order to evaluate their stability. No longer. Culturally, our American society is a shadow of what once was, as each year brings a coarsening of the social fabric by means of trash television, misogynistic music, and (it must be said) violent movies and computer games. It does not take an advanced degree to realize that if you combine an unstable individual with a powerful weapon in a culture that glorifies violent acts, tragedy can be the result.
But to look at these issues, we must question ourselves. Are we comfortable with the idea of confining individuals against their will before the commission of a dangerous act? Do we have the courage to admit that the computer game we bought our teenager is inappropriate? Do we have the responsibility to say “no” to the next Hollywood blockbuster, with a mindless and violent plot? Or are we content to take the easy way out, and blame the inanimate object, the tool, the implement of the destruction…rather than to face the hard choices that must be made, and do the hard work to correct the problems?
When my son was shot in Afghanistan, he was attempting to aid a wounded comrade. He was shot with an “assault rifle”. The bullet that nearly killed him was fired by an Islamist fanatic member of the Taliban. Yet there is no logic in a statement that we need to take all of the assault rifles out of Afghanistan. We place the responsibility for this action on the enemy who fired the weapon, and upon the culture that produced him. Why, then, does this logic fail when we apply it to our own society?
The weapon is merely the tool. When we place a tool in the hands of Michelangelo, we credit his genius as a sculptor, not the sharpness of his chisel. When a tool falls into the hands of a madman, why do we immediately blame the weapon instead of the defective who wields it? Because it is the easy, simplistic way out. We blame that which many of us fear or do not understand. We ignore the fact that a massacre can be perpetrated with a knife, an axe, a car, or a match. To do otherwise is simply…too hard. We don’t want to admit that we have to lock away someone who has displayed violent psychiatric tendencies. We don’t want to admit that the cable TV we pay for pumps garbage into our teenagers’ rooms. We don’t want to admit that the computer we bought “for school” is being used to play simulated combat games online. We don’t want to admit that the movie hit of the summer may be the trigger that launches yet another national headline.
In 1770, John Adams said “facts are stubborn things”. It is still true today. Facts are also uncomfortable things. It will take courage to face them, and to convince many that the problems brought forth by the Sandy Hook tragedy are not simple, and will not be solved by a simpleton’s logic. It is not possible to sit on a broken stool. Until we fix all three legs, it may tip over at any time.