Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Words Are Not Enough

"We will take every step possible to ensure the safety of all of our people...I'm sure many of you who a parents here had the same reaction that I did when I heard this news....Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to be able to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I am sure you will do the same with your children."--President Barack Obama,  Friday, July 20, 2012, in reference to the Aurora movie theater shooting

"I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight."--President Barack Obama,  Sunday, December 16, 2012, Newtown, Connecticut

With all due respect, Mr. President, words are wind.
Your speeches are necessary; they are comforting; they offer some solace in the midst of grief so pressing as to be unsupportable.

But words are not enough. Words alone will do nothing to prevent the next tragedy, or the next, or the next.  Some sort of concrete political action seems required. The current strategy of jetting around the country offering homilies doesn't seem to be working.

Dunblane, Scotland may be the only place on earth that really knows what Newtown, CT is suffering right now. In 1996, a madman killed 16 kindergarteners and their teacher with four legally-acquired handguns. Within a week, there were over 750,000 signatures on a petition to ban handguns. Within a year, that was the law of the land. There have been no such incidents since.

In Tasmania, also in 1996, a madman shot and killed 35 people with a weapon very similar to the one used by Adam Lanza in Newtown. Twelve days later, strict gun-control laws were put into place. There have been no such incidents since.

From the Right we hear that it is in the nature of criminals to scoff at bans, and that simply banning weapons is pointless. The first bit is true. Killers, once they have decided to kill, aren't going to select a different means of doing it because, yike, the gun is illegal. However, banning guns is most emphatically not pointless. It has to do with the culture.

A ban is a statement--using more than just words--by society saying "this we do not accept, this we will not tolerate." Without such a ban in place, the tacit message is the opposite: "guns are okay", even "guns are necessary". Which inevitably leads to Aurora and Newtown.

The political climate in Washington seems to be shifting ever so slightly. Senator Joe Manchin (D), a member in good standing of the NRA, has suggested that "everything should be on the table". This is a welcome development. Of course, there will be others within the NRA who remain adamant that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives people the inalienable right to carry assault rifles around. Perhaps, just this once, these people can be safely ignored. After all, it's not as if Obama is seeking re-election.

Gun control is only one thing that can and should be closely examined. There are many others. While it is dangerous to comb through any given criminal's life and criminalize anything out of the norm, there are some warning signs in this case that shouldn't have been ignored. Lanza was home-schooled, possibly because of learning disabilities. He was very bright, but reclusive and troubled; a family breakup can't have helped. And he was obsessed with guns, playing Call of Duty for hours on end and able to name every piece of military equipment the U.S. ever produced.

I'll be honest, I'm not comfortable with any of this. Call of Duty and its ilk are anything but out of the norm. They are insanely popular, for reasons I don't claim to understand. (If you're wondering, yes, I play video games, by somebody's definition, anyway: Bejewelled, Peggle, Zuma...games where I don't have to wipe blood off my screen and hands afterwards. But never mind me.)

I won't go so far as to suggest violent games breed killers. I know many people who play them, some of them a tad excessively. I question the attraction, but I'm willing to stipulate that none of these people are murderers in training. Violence in gaming and movies does not make people kill. But killers are likely to gravitate to that violence, and that's the point I really want to hammer on. Do we really need a world full of inspiration for the weaker minds among us? Do we really?
I can sense my readers pulling away from me, maybe thinking it's time for a couple of hours of Call of Duty, and I understand. So moving on: homeschooling.


Learning disabilities are one thing, and I'll be talking about them soon. Personally, I doubt Lanza's mother was any kind of expert on her son's reported disorders. If she was, she'd have known that social contact was absolutely critical for his development. As it is for all of us.

Homeschooling is not something I generally support. And I'm somebody who would have very much wanted to be homeschooled. I loved school and the other kids by and large hated me and if I could have had the learning without the bullying, you bet your flickin' Bic I would have jumped at it.
But if I was homeschooled, I would have missed out on band and choir. Those things were pathways to acceptance for me. The camaraderie was crucial for my retarded social skills.
Even the bullying made me who I am today. I brought most of that on myself and it took far too long for me to learn how not to do that, but if I was homeschooled I doubt I would have ever learned it at all.

One of my Facebook friends who knew me in those early years has said it's a wonder I didn't bring a gun to school myself. I don't think it would have ever come to that--my dad was a cop, and instilled in me an ironclad sense of consequence that would have precluded the very thought--but I don't deny the possibility might have arisen without the chance to (learn how to) socialize.

Guns are a commonality for these horrific events....the only other is mental illness. By definition, if you murder someone you are clearly mentally ill. My definition runs much broader, of course: in my world, thinking about killing people is strongly suggestive of mental illness and pretending to do it--by means of, say, a joystick and a screen--is...well, never mind. But it seems to me that we as a society have essentially disowned those who suffer from mental illness...which, if you really want to know the truth, is quite a lot of us. Depressives are told to cheer up; those living with schizophrenia or other such disorders are shamed and shunned.
We need to change our attitudes. We need to provide meaningful funding for diagnosis, treatment and eventual cure of a wide range of mental disorders. We do it for physical ailments--why not for the internal ailments that are potentially deadlier?  (Diabetes, say, left alone, will kill you. Schizophrenia, left alone, might kill you and Christ only knows how many others). Children's mental health should be assessed just like their academic grades.

We need to act. The time for talk is over--it was over decades ago. Some of our actions will have unintended consequences, because most concerted actions do. Those unintended consequences can be addressed as they crop up. Soft, soothing words are not enough.

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