The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting feel like the end of the world to many Americans. Grief, shock and horror are normal and essential reactions. For some, the answer is more prayer. For others, greater gun control. The real answer may lie in putting the horrific tragedy in perspective and working to stop the people who choose to self-destruct and take as many others as possible along with them. Another answer also lies in compassion for those who are suffering so greatly from violence they did nothing to cause.
America is not the world's most violent country. It may be the country, however, where projecting personal fears and self-obsession, rather than blaming the responsible party or parties and acting to prevent future violence, is the most common and heartfelt response in the wake of nightmares like Sandy Hook.
The broader U.S. news media and dozens of pundits on PolicyMic are blaming gun prevalence, or alternatively, the lack of prayer and religion in public life, for the choice that killer Adam Lanza made on the morning of December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. Lanza chose to take the lives of his mother, six teachers and school staff, 21 grade children, and ultimately, himself.
The real reason Lanza made this horrific choice may take years to reveal. From the few facts that have been released so far, however, he appears to have some commonalities with other killers. He has been reported to have been somewhere on the autism spectrum, and may also have suffered from a learning disability, and he is also said to have been highly intelligent, similar to the Columbine shooters in 1999, and James Holmes, "the Batman shooter" who killed and injured dozens earlier this year in Aurora, Colorado.
Klebold and Harris, the Columbine killers, weren't bullies who took revenge. In Colorado in 1999, they killed 12 students and one teacher, injured 21 others, and then killed themselves. Five years later, after extensive interviews and research, the FBI conducted a summit on the attacks. The summit revealed that popular explanations for the attack, including bullying, were untrue. Eric Harris was a cold-blooded, hate-filled psychopath obsessed with violence. Dylan Klebold was essentially another victim, a depressed and sad young man who fell under Harris' deadly spell. "Kein Mitleid" means "no pity" in German.
Few Americans are aware of a similar murderous rampage in Tasmania in 1996, perpetrated by a killer with some similarities to the Sandy Hook shooter.
Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old man with significant cognitive disabilities, who was coincidentally from New Town, a suburb of Hobart, killed 35 innocent people and wounded 23 others in an extended shooting spree. Bryant chose to attack several locations at the former Port Arthur penal colony in Tasmania, which had become a popular tourist destination. Bryant's motives remain unclear, although he attacked a bed and breakfast his father had once tried to purchase. The Port Arthur massacre remains one of the world's worst such incidents.
American perspectives are such that Australians continue to express resentment and disbelief on YouTube videos chronicling the Port Arthur attacks.
The Sandy Hook shootings are also similar to the Hungerford massacre in 1987, in the UK. After killing his mother, Michael Ryan rampaged throughout the British countryside killing 16 people and wounding 15 others before turning one of his weapons on himself. Ryan was reported to have been both schizophrenic and psychotic.
Port Arthur and Hungerford led to restrictions on gun ownership in Australia and the UK which are similar to the restrictions on ownership in Connecticut, California, and many other U.S. states and cities.
In the UK, these restrictions did not prevent the 1996 Dunblane School massacre, in which a suspected pedophile, Thomas Hamilton, entered the Dunblane Primary School in Scotland and gunned down 16 5-year-olds and their teacher before turning one of his several weapons on himself. They also did not prevent the 2010 Cumbria shootings, in which Derrick Bird, a mentally-disturbed 52 year old man, murdered his twin brother and the family lawyer and took off on a shooting spree in a series of towns along the highway in northwest England, which left 12 dead and 11 injured. Bird ended his spree by killing himself.
In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 children, teens and adults in a racially motivated shooting and bombing spree at an island-based youth camp in Norway. Also in 2011, gunmen shot down six parents waiting for their children outside an elementary school in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. In April, 2011, Wellington Oliviera lined up 12 children at a Rio de Janeiro elementary school and shot them in the head at point-blank range screaming, "I'm going to kill you all!"
Yet here in America, stories are written in major publications like The Atlantic with titles like "Has There Ever Been a Fatal Shooting at a Public Elementary School?" Credulous readers scream for more school prayer, more gun control — anything but dealing with reality.
The Reality is that the people all over the world kill. They kill with guns, with knives, with bombs, with poison gas, and with their bare hands. On September 11, 2001, they killed thousands with box cutters and commercial jets. The majority of killers who strike out in these ways are young men. If they are not young men, they are older men who are threatened in some manner, such as the Dunblane killer, who was about to be arrested for molesting children, or the Cumbria killer, who had suffered financial and personal setbacks. In 1927, a 55 year old school board member, enraged over school taxes, bombed the Bath Elementary School in Michigan, killing 38 children ages 7 to 14, along with teachers and himself.
Today, a metal plaque commemorates the horror.
The parents who lost their children on that long-ago day to the homicidal rampage of a madman are gone. Some who lost loved ones in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996 are also gone. The parents of the twelve children gunned down in Rio de Janeiro last year, and gunned down by Anders Breivik in Oslo, are still here. They are in a different stage of grief from the parents who so recently lost their children at the hands of a madman in Connecticut two days ago.
This is very reminiscent of war protester Cindy Sheehan, who continues to have some degree of public acclaim, who proclaimed loudly on national television in 2005, "no one can understand the pain I feel losing my son in Iraq." Hearing her pronouncement, I called my best friend in to watch her on the news.
"How can she say this?" I asked my friend. My own son Anthony, at six months old, died in an accident at home on January 11, 2005. I know at least a dozen Gold Star mothers who did not feel similarly compelled to announce they were the only ones to the entire world.
Perhaps it is time to consider the peculiar American blindness to the nature of the world, and why "our pain" is so important we must broadcast it worldwide for days and weeks, and why we are so quick to forget the grief and pain of others in our headlong rush to talk about what we, in these moments, care about and consider important. Those of us with children who are safe right now can't know everything the parents in Newtown, Connecticut, are going through. We can, if we choose, imagine, grieve, and think about the horrendous pain that they and others feel, around the world, in every corner of the globe. Because it happens here, and it happens there. The least we can do is work to gain some perspective.
The one thing I do sense is true is that we must give up our self-obsession. America is not the world's most peaceful country, nor is it the most violent. Our children are as precious to us as they are to the parents in Rio, Ciudad Juarez, Oslo, Scotland, England, Australia, Germany, Russia and elsewhere. We are not alone, and we should have enough respect for others to recognize that these horrendous incidents are a feature of human behavior that we must all work together to eliminate.