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Turning the Camera Around: What Newtown Tells Us About Ourselves

On the morning of December 14th, 20-year old Adam Lanza opened fire within the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning his gun on himself. In the hours that followed, journalists from every major news station in the nation inundated the tiny town, and in the days that followed, the country as a whole started down a familiar path characterized best by the plethora of ‘if only-isms’.

It began in the immediate hours following the shooting: if only we had stricter gun control laws, this wouldn’t have happened. This is perhaps an unsurprising first response in a country that represents 4.5% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s civilian firearms.[1] Over the next few days, as a portrait of the shooter began to emerge and friends and family revealed that he was an avid gamer, a second theory surfaced in the headlines: if only our children weren’t exposed to such violent video games, this tragedy never would have occurred.[2] [3] And just in the past few days, public discourse has converged on the gunman’s mental health, the general conclusion being that if only we had better mental health services in place, this wouldn’t have happened.[4][5] (The National Rifle Association [NRA] even tried to jump on board, suggesting that “26 innocent lives might have been spared” if only we had an armed police guard in every school in America.[6] They seem to be the only ones taking themselves seriously.[7])

At the heart of this progression, from gun control to video games to mental health, was the fundamental and frustrating question of what could make a person commit such an act. There seemed to be an unarticulated consensus that if we could figure out why he did it, we could “fix it” and prevent future mass shootings. If the problem is civilian access to semiautomatic firearms, ban them. If the problem is the lack of support for those with mental illnesses, invest billions of dollars in overhauling the mental health system.

While it is perhaps natural to look for solutions when confronted with problems, this succession of solutions, each hailed as a panacea for this “senseless violence,” was tinged by a level of anxiety rarely seen in media coverage and public discourse. It seems that we hastily and clumsily sought an answer in order to reassure ourselves that there is indeed an answer. We need to believe that something went terribly wrong in Adam Lanza’s life – that he was abused, bullied, over-exposed to violence, under-treated for depression – so that we can prevent it from occurring in our lives, our children’s lives, and the lives of other citizens.

This suggests, I think surprisingly, a common conception of human nature as basically good: we are all born with the potential to be compassionate, or at least morally-sufficient, persons, but every so often something “happens” that turns a naturally good child into an Adam Lanza or a James Holmes or a Seung-Hui Cho. We fear the possibility of “the bad seed,” the notion that some people are “born this way,” genetically predisposed to violence. I don’t mean to tackle that tricky question here, but rather suggest that we as a country would have no idea what to do if this were the case; there would be nothing “wrong” that had happened that we could fix.

Even rejecting such a strong version of genetic determinism, it is unlikely that any systemic reform could completely exterminate the anti-social behavior that results in this kind of tragic event. Yes, we ought to have better gun control laws. Yes, we need to both talk more about mental illness and improve the mental healthcare system. Both these reforms would probably reduce the rate of mass shootings from the 27 that were committed in the past seven years.[8] Cutting that rate to zero, however, would be nearly impossible. And that seems to be something we are not comfortable admitting, which in turn should make us pause to ask ourselves why that is.

Photo by Dylan Stableford:









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1 Comment on this post

  1. Lots of philosophers seem to have been aware of that lurking human tendency to do something really bad. Kant calls it Radical Evil and personifies it as that sudden monster who strikes from within, and we must learn to guard ourselves against. Kant points to education as central in this aim, virtue ethics-led by Aristotle- have described the development of virtue as the way to curb our evil moments, making us at least more consistently good. Acknowledging that everyone might not be as far away from committing some horrible crime as we hope does seem pretty scary, and certainly curbing gun ownership and so in would help a lot in reducing those cases. I think the first mistake is ascribing such acts to inhumanity, as the history of our species makes it very clear that doing awful things is actually a very human habit.

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