Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thoughts on Newtown and our varied reactions to the tragedy.

Horror. Profound sadness. Confusion. Despair. Grief. Anger. Compassion. Determination. We slide along a spectrum of responses when something like the massacre at Sandy Hook happens. I was at a store shopping for a present for my wife when the woman next to me saw the news on her phone. She dropped it and started crying. The clerk helping her, myself, and the other customers near her asked if she was OK, what was wrong? She told us a gunman had opened fire at a school in Connecticut and lots of kids were dead. It was the first any of us had heard of the event and we all looked at each other thinking, I suspect, nearly the same thing: "Again! How could this happen again?!" The woman who had dropped her phone explained, choking back sobs, that she was a teacher ... she tried to say more but couldn't get the words out. She just shook her head as tears poured down her face.

When I heard "Connecticut," my heart fell just a little deeper. What if it was at a school where children of my friends attended? My thoughts jumped to some of my oldest and dearest friends and their kids, and their friends and families who could potentially be dealing with the worst situation a parent could imagine; I clenched my teeth to try to will the welling tears to stop.

It wasn't until I got home that I learned where the school was and felt the smallest sense of relief. But even when it seemed likely nobody I knew personally would be impacted, that sense of relief came with the certain knowledge that even though it wasn't one of my friends, it was another parent, someone I don't personally know and care about only by accident of time and place. That suffering parent is a human being with the same love of their children as any of us, whose suffering is no less real just because we don't know it first hand.

Inevitably, in the course of checking facebook, I saw the reactions of friends and neighbors. It's one thing to read the comments of strangers on news articles, to have their twitter updates flash by, it's quite another when it's people you know ... most of those updates were simply reaction to the horror and the expected expressions of grief. "Thoughts and prayers."

There were two reactions that I was more than a little surprised by, one of which I couldn't restrain myself from responding to, the other I did hold back because I hadn't seen that particular framing and, while I recoiled from it, I wanted to step back and think about before addressing. There was a third reaction, from my more progressive-minded and openly atheist friends, and one I myself have expressed that I want to say a little more about as well. I'm going to paraphrase the three of them here and not attribute them to any one person:

First: "It's not a gun control issue. It's a mental health issue. The only thing we should be doing is sending our thoughts and prayers to the families. Anything else is inappropriate."  
Second: "How it happened isn't the question. Why it happened is the real issue." 
Third: "Thoughts and prayers don't do shit. Do something constructive, anything else is worse than useless, it's insulting." 
With regard to the first, it is almost certainly both a gun control and a mental health issue. To deny that it is a gun control issue at all is willful ignorance/cognitive dissonance. I got a little heated in my reply to the "don't blame the guns" comment. It is, I trust, transparent to everyone who hasn't been brainwashed in NRA culture that the proliferation of automatic weapons is a legitimate public safety issue. My surprise here was that I knew people who would advance this argument. I know I have one old friend that lost his mind and is a gun-loving religious extremest now, but I didn't know there were people who seem otherwise to be a socially well-adjusted, good parents, and just fun to be around yet who still were so profoundly wrong about something that could so easily impact them. The mind boggles. My point in mentioning this is simply that I think we need to be honest with one another and not shy away from the disagreement, I think we need to be calling out our misinformed friends, in a productive way, by focusing on the issue, the disagreement over the ideas, not the disagreement with the person, but we need to get it all out in the open and hope that if only on emotional level, we can shame the people holding disgraceful positions into seeing that the rest of us aren't going to tolerate ignorance and hatred. Tribal affiliations may be the only thing that change some peoples minds, and having the argument in view of the tribe will exert more pressure than logic and evidence alone.

With regard to the second, how it happened is most certainly a relevant question. Asking about the why may feel profound, but that question does more to provide cover to the gun nuts and their apologists than it does to promote positive action. Why are people either mentally ill or, something entirely different, simply evil? Well, I bet we could identify lots of reasons, some of which we might be able to do something about, some of which we can't. What fucking difference does it make though? We ask the 'why' question so we can move on to the 'how do we fix it' question and start working on solutions. Doesn't it make sense to start by discussing how we can prevent massacres before we start on ... what? ... a universal eugenics program in combination with a perfect understanding of every human mind and the ability to predict the future?  If we could answer the question of why, we'll have solved a whole lot more than the mass shooting problem, so fine, let's ask why and see how we can make everyone happy and eliminate every desire to kill and be killed before it ever coalesces from the darkest corners of the mind. But let's take on something that we can have a hope of achieving in a few months, not centuries, if ever.

Finally, I'm as prone as the next atheist to pointing out that thoughts and prayers do as much for the victims' families as moonbeams and gorilla dust. If I were one of those parents and someone offered me thoughts and prayers with a side of "Oh well, we can't ban assault weapons, so it was inevitable," or, "but at least we know it will happen again because we told all those anti-civilian massacre nutters to just shut up and pray amirite?!" I would go ballistic. However, when I take a deep breath, I remember that it's possible if someone does truly stop to think, and wish for a world where maniacs can't kill lots of people really fast, they may, just may, come to decide that there's something we can do to make that happen. So, yes, by all means think of those families, what they're enduring, and how you would feel if you were in there shoes. Think of the trade off between a child's life and the thrill of squeezing off a few rounds at a shooting range, or into a defenseless animal, and ask yourself: is it worth it? Thoughts are never worthless. Prayers, well, if we are generous and treat them as a form of meditation, they may not be as worthless as they appear, though they are certainly worthless on their own terms. But it's only when they are acted up on that their worth in the world is demonstrated.

Dawn Hochsprung
Dawn Hochsprung died trying to save her students. This is the face of selfless courage.
This is the face of heroism. This is the face of an elementary school principal
who should never have had to face such horror. 

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