Like all of you, the shootings at Newtown hit me hard last week. In all respects it could have been my town, my elementary school, and sure enough, we were distantly connected to one of the lost victims. I too want a world in which no such thing would happen ever again. But I’m quite skeptical of many of the solutions and imposed meanings I’ve read. We can do better. To wit:
1) Mass attacks are, by nature, unpredictable. Newtown did basically everything right. Adam Lanza had access to all the helping resources you’d want for a troubled individual. There may be some positive work to be done in connecting the behavior of suicide terrorists and suicidal murderers, but mental illness needs no further stigmatization, and is only weakly linked with violence in general. The police are apparently struggling “to piece together the shooter’s inner world.” I certainly would not begrudge survivors and relatives the effort to find meaning in the shooter’s motives. But I do not think we should take it for granted that he had motives, or motives that we can understand with traditional, rational understandings, or that his psyche will reveal something special about mass murderers. Here, I think David Brooks, writing about an earlier tragedy, is completely correct: “We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.” Murder, like war, might be one of the things that is always with us, and as the Judge, Cormac McCarthy’s stand-in for the cruel, indifferent evil of the land itself, says in Blood Meridian: “It makes no difference what men think of war. War Endures. As soon as men what they think of stone.”
2) Race is a tertiary story-line; it’s psychology that matters. I’ve read in a couple different places that race explains either a part of the shootings – some aggrieved, peculiarly white-male affliction tenuously connected to the supposed Republican meltdown of 2012 – or our reactions to it, that we care more because the children are white. I don’t think the first argument is serious enough to merit response, but the second is more interesting. David Sirota’s first claim is that if these mass-murders had been carried out by black or Muslim men, we would demonize the group rather than looking inwards for understanding. Perhaps, there’s no way to know. Where I think the argument is less convincing is that if the children weren’t white, we wouldn’t care. First, do we actually know the names and races of the people killed in Newtown or are just assuming they were white by virtue of living in New England?
I think a more convincing explanation is that human beings process information in biased ways; salient threats, the ones we can remember, are the ones whose importance we overestimate. Researchers find that people tend to generalize the likelihood of a particular danger based on how easily they can visualize and recall a specific instance of that danger, and that mass deaths are more easily recallable than individual tragedies (hence why cars kill more than 30,000 Americans a year and gun violence dominates the conversation). I think what grabbed our attention in Newtown was the sheer number of deaths in a short time, combined with a setting we all think of as safe. School shootings account for an infinitesimal amount of the total violence in America and yet remain a vivid part of our psyche. It remains, in other words, available.
3) Gun control might help, but might not, and might create adverse unintended consequences. Undoubtedly, the weapon used by Adam Lanza and James E. Holmes is scary. Yet assault weapons account for a tiny fraction of gun-deaths every year: 323 of 12,664 homicides in 2011). Getting rid of the scariest weapons won’t end murder, or even mass murder. Undoubtedly, certain steps can’t hurt; states with stricter gun laws generally have fewer gun deaths (but that may be attributable to other causes); and if we want to focus on reducing violence overall, we should probably focus on reducing gun access in particularly violent areas. But I think that we should consider that the more draconian the proposed gun law, the more adverse the consequences would be.
Hypothesize with me that suddenly, handguns and assault weapons became hugely more difficult to access legally. The problem is the absolute surfeit of weapons in the United States, numbering perhaps 270 million. Banning certain kinds of weapons is going to create a black market for those weapons. A ban taking place on a certain date will inevitably engender a huge rise in sales prior to implementation. Are we prepared to imprison those who sell guns second-hand in a black market, thereby overburdening a criminal justice system that already leans way too far towards mass incarceration? For a minute, I would urge advocates of gun bans to think of how similar their arguments are to those in favor of alcohol and marijuana prohibition, and to think of how those policies have played out. Sadly, the best-intentioned public policies here may produce the worse consequences; or, as Samuel Johnson put it: “How small, of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”
I have no idea what to do about tragedies like Newtown. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for counter-productive solutions, for inadequate meanings.