(Tuesday, December 18, 2012. Newtown, CT.) Perhaps there is no more tragic an event as that which transpired here in this small New England community last Friday. Twenty innocent children sitting in a kindergarten classroom were viciously murdered as were 6 members of the school staff. It is an event that is difficult to process; it requires a suspension of reality just to imagine it and who could possibly perpetrate such horror.
President Obama came here last Sunday night to address an auditorium filled with residents of Newtown; the families and friends of those murdered sat among them. In his remarks President Obama commented that “this is the fourth time since I have been in Office” that he had traveled to speak to a community recently turned upside down in the wake of a mass shooting incident. It likely will not be the last.
This is not a statement of pessimism or apathy. It is a simple statement of fact; fact that has been borne out in reality with regularity that begs profound questions of us and elected leaders that are not easily answered. The torn bodies of those slain had yet to be removed from the scene of the crime before talk of “a national debate” on guns, gun control, assault weapon bans, and similar tougher measures was well underway. This call for “national debate” we have often heard before with typical knee-jerk regularity.
Yes, there are questions we as a nation must ask ourselves and our legislators on every level will have to address some very specific questions, far more specific then the rubric of “gun control”. First we have to acknowledge some truths. We are and have always been a “gun culture”. More than any other Western nations Americans enjoy owning guns for a variety of reasons. That this right to bear arms is codified in the Second Amendment to our Constitution gun ownership is not perceived as a privilege but as a right and no one is willing to surrender any aspect of their lives that is a right.
In the last 4 days since the murderous rampage here at the Sandy Hook Elementary School all the usual talking heads have loudly espoused their well-known and, sometimes, well-worn positions. With tired predictability the pros and cons in this on-going argument have stated their respective cases. Their arguments, so familiar and unyielding create a monotonic din that barely registers with us anymore.
In reality this is not a simple issue. This is not a black and white examination of gun laws. It is a far more nuanced set of issues that need to be addressed dispassionately, objectively, and without the ferocity of emotions that are flowing in the wake of the evil visited on this community. To view it as an “all or nothing” issue is to miss the point; actually such rigidity misses several points.
FROM ONE SIDE OF OUR MOUTHS
Let’s face it, we are a violent people. We are a crude, course, aggressive, society swimming in a culture that awards, rewards and celebrates violence in all its myriad forms. It permeates every aspect of our culture in all forms of entertainment from movies to computer games. We talk a good game of in-your-face kick ass but shy away from the truth or try to masquerade it by packaging it in the convoluted divisive disingenuous language of politics. But the truth, the nasty truth cannot be obscured, hidden, or painted over. The truth is on display 24/7 from coast to coast in every segment and strata of our diverse and disparate society.
We are Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Cops, Lock-up, truTV, Jackass, reality program addicted voyeurs. We are WWE smack down, body slamming, chair throwing, foul-mouthed buffoons. We are MMA knock out, choke out, knock your teeth out, tap out, ground and pound, bare-knuckle, street, cage and ‘ghetto’ fighting crowds cheering for blood and guts with gusto equal to Romans at the Coliseum. We are blindsiding, low-blowing, sucker punching, head banging, gangsta rapping, heavy metal, junkies. We are fast and furious, shock and awe, lock and load, cut and dry, read ‘em and weep and Gung fucking Ho. With mouths agape, beer in hand with our kids in the other room playing Grand Theft Auto on the latest digital device honing their marksmanship skills and becoming increasingly desensitized, we wait for the next late hit, quarterback sack, crack back, cheap shot, head shot, take him down at the knees, slam dunk, barreling home, bone crunching , brain rattling up the middle image. Patiently we’ll sit through the mind numbing ovoid hypnosis of a NASCAR race hoping the next turn brings a tire blowing, high speed, fiery, multicar, collision. Yup, we like our violence and mayhem.
As violent people violence of a sensational nature shouldn’t surprise us. But we proclaim loudly that it does and that reaction reeks of idiotic shallowness, another defining aspect of our culture today. We seem to be a very conflicted people, a nation plagued by a strain of chronic hypocrisy, dissonance, and confusion that it is no small wonder we don’t have more intractable issues to confront. The topic of discussion today is what happened here last Friday. We talk about it, may argue over it, and try to understand it or even arrive at a conclusion that comports with our personal perspectives. The gun owners among us can say, “Obviously, he was crazy. He needed help. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Their anti-gun neighbors or coworkers will argue with equal ardor that “We need to ban all guns. We must start with assault weapons and get rid of them. Then we need tougher laws, more laws, more regulation.” But is it all about guns; is that the essential problem here?
FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF OUR MOUTHS
We are also a God-fearing, church attending, generous, charitable, neighborly, stick together people. We often demonstrate a collective conscience, a shared morality, the ability to accept those others different than ourselves and to extend our largesse far and wide. We are hardworking, family-centric, community oriented people often finding common ground in matters of justice and equality.
We tend to view ourselves as good decent people willing to lend a helping hand when called upon. We do no doubt have our moments. In the aftermath of natural disaster and large-scale mayhem we are able to demonstrate the best of human nature, a real sense of unity, empathy, and compassion.
It seems that we are able to speak out of both sides of our mouths sometimes appearing to be ailing from some mutant strain of collective schizophrenia. This dissonance renders us stuck at times; frozen in a moral place that leaves us paralyzed and unable to act towards the greater good.
WHERE ARE WE GOING? ARE WE EVEN ASKING THE APPROPRIATE QUESTIONS?
In 1999 during the impeachment proceedings against then President Bill Clinton in the U.S. Senate, Dale Bumpers, a long time Senate veteran from Arkansas stood in the well of the Senate chamber and eloquently offered a powerful defense of President Clinton. In his speech Senator Bumpers made the following comment, “When they say it’s not about money, it is about money and, when they say it’s not about sex, it is about sex.” He spoke the truth.
Now we find ourselves inundated by media coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre (Some of which has clearly been unethical) and the focus is on guns. To expand Senator Bumpers’ astute observation, “When they say it isn’t about guns; it is about guns” and the inverse corollary, “It isn’t about random, individual madness, but it is. It’s not about guns.”
Naturally it took the brutal slaying of 20 kindergarteners to bring to the fore an issue, not quite epidemic but extremely fatal when it flares up; when it periodically erupts in our Country, to focus our attention. The violence delivered upon the elementary school here strikes particularly close to the heart not only for parents but for most citizens. The tender age of 20 of those victims as well as the setting in which they were massacred may represent a “tipping point” in the on-going gun debate but, it may actually not have sufficient longevity.
Too often we’ve seen events, mass casualty, mass fatality events and, in their immediate wake calls to action are heard from all quarters. But another disturbing collective ailment soon prevails, that being collective short term memory. We soon grow tired of the news coverage, of seeing the victims’ photos, of listening to survivors accounts on the 24 hour cable newsertainment networks. Political resolves rapidly fades into just so much political rhetoric. Our societal recognition of the issue of the day wanes as people drift back to their long held positions and opinions. Too much happens too often to hold our attention for too long.
As has been the case after every similar event to that which transpired here last Friday the same questions are asked, the search for motive and understanding are given attention and the need to assign blame locates the usual suspects. But to what end? What is it we are trying to understand, what is it we need to have explained, who are we to blame because naturally, their just has to be someone, some force, factor or influence to blame? The answers to these questions are elusive and far more complex than they appear at first blush. It is much like trying to identify the cause of a hurricane from one inland puddle of sea water. It can’t be done. So, what is essentially a micro issue in each instance can only be tackled by a macro effort.
AWASH IN NUMBERS
Over the last four days the media has saturated us with numbers, statistics and other data, some obtuse, regarding gun ownership, deaths from firearms, and the mandatory pseudo-scientific data that is always hauled out after a “lone gunman, mass fatality event”. Depending whose data you believe you can find statistics that “prove” your particular point of view whatever that may be. Aside from the numbers and stats we have a multitude of diverse and often grossly disparate opinions as to causes and solutions.
America is a nation approaching 400 million in population with anywhere between 85 and 300 million “legally purchased, registered” firearms the bulk of which are “long guns”, shot guns and rifles used by hunters, target shooters and other sportsmen. The Department of Justice and its law enforcement branch the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) track analyze and publish their “official” statistics for all major crime categories annually. From their ocean of data it appears that in an average year 22,000 Americans are murdered by a person wielding a firearm. In the never ending quest of the media to hype and exploit each of these horrific events in headlines and the annoying scroll lines that stream across the bottom of the TV screen on virtually every broadcast, we’ve been informed that 32 people a day are shot to death in America. Or is it 34? Statistics, particularly government statistics are infinitely malleable and notoriously cooked, crunched, and inaccurate representations of whatever reality they are intended to measure. But, there can be no doubt that America has a higher percentage per capita of homicides via firearms than any other Western nation.
One veteran NYPD Homicide Detective (speaking not for attribution) expressed his dismay at the frequency of mass fatality shootings recently but also commented that, “I’m frankly surprised it doesn’t happen more often given our open society, population and the number of the violent mentally ill among us who own their own guns or have access to them.” He continued that it was ironic that there have been lone gunman mass killings in a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and several other locations this year while New York City, once the “murder capital” of America, “will have fewer murders this year than suicides. Our homicide rate is at a 53 year low. It is amazing.” When asked what can be attributed to the low homicide rate in NYC he replied that “a number of policies, practices, and aggressive policing have made a big difference but there are other factors at work here. We have been able to get guns off the street because they are the guns used in most of the City’s homicides.”
Law Enforcement officials across the country say that enforcing existing gun laws is essential while conceding that someone bent on murdering someone or a group of someone’s is typically virtually impossible to identify prior to the commission of a murderous act or rampage. They unanimously agree that “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines” should be banned completely simply because “they have no place in society. No hunter needs a semi-automatic, high caliber rifle with a 100 shot clip.”
THE LEAST WE CAN DO SHOULD NOT BE ALL WE CAN DO
In almost every unprecedented murderous act committed in America over the last 3 decades we have been slow to act or we act in ways that follow the path of least resistance usually skirting the true core matter at hand. Members of what would evolve into an organization known as Al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, fifteen students and staff were shot near Jonesboro Arkansas in 1998 and two young boys shot 33 students and staff, killing 12, in Columbine High School in 1999. After each of these events as the sad history of the intervening years has shown us, there were no real new policies and procedures developed and implemented that addressed the particulars of each of these tragedies. That seems to be the American way; a short attention span, spineless politicians and a legion of Washington DC lobbyists and special interest groups have thwarted those in a position to enact real practical, sensible change. Will this be the case now? Once the last of those pitifully tiny coffins are interred in Newtown Connecticut will we all just move on?
At the moment it appears that this latest horror, a gunman killing 6 and 7 year old children as they sat at their small desks in a kindergarten classroom, may – just may – generate sufficient motivation, resolve and commitment to mitigating the likelihood of anything like what happened at Sandy Hook elementary from ever happening again.
The least that can be done is to reenact the ban on assault weapons signed into law by President Bill Clinton only left to expire under President George W. Bush. Security at public facilities of all kinds needs to be improved in a sensible, logical, affordable manner.
We can talk all we want about guns and mental illness, about estranged, deranged young alienated loners, the undiagnosed mentally ill among us, bullying, the NRA, the Second Amendment, rights, privileges, privacy and the random nature of life itself and those would all be conversations torquing the nuts and bolts along the fringe of the real problems that confront us.
Sure, there is plenty of “blame”, for what it’s worth, to go around. We can blame movies, video games, TV, music, bad parenting, broken families, aimless youth, drugs, sensory overload,inadequate mental health care availability, planetary alignment and all the other hot button “talking points” spinning around the heart of the matter like so much wind-blown snow in a blizzard and most of it would be just so much wasted energy and time.
It is not about taking “God” out of our schools just as it is not about the “loopholes" in the existing gun laws. What is at the heart of the matter is who we are and what we are as a people, as a Country, as a culture and society. There are no easy answers to the questions we’ve yet to formulate but some serious debate needs to occur at every level of government and society. After some initial debate some answers will emerge but only if there is earnestness and a sense of urgency in the debate process.
Are we as a nation prepared to demonstrate to our fellow citizens and the world who watches America with a fixed stare that we are better than this, that we are capable, willing and eve able to be better than what we are today?
Time will tell.
Other Events that did not result in action:
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