Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Calling for Patience in Reacting to Newtown

It’s impossible to be a parent and not have a strong, emotional reaction to what happened last week in Newtown, Conn. The idea that a 20-year-old man—regardless of how sick he was—could walk into an elementary school and use assault weapons to execute 20 six- and seven-year-olds is a beast to get one’s mind around.

The really scary thing is this: kids getting shot is nothing new. Ask anyone who lives in the rough parts of Oakland, where a cadre of young children were innocent victims of drive-by shootings on the streets in late 2011—a six-year-old out for a shopping stroll with his family; a five-year-old whose only mistake was joining his father for a quick stop at the family’s taqueria when a hail of gunfire claimed him; and an 11-month-old (!), who was in his father’s arms at a rap video shoot in a liquor store parking lot when a bullet passed through his neck.

Or the families of the 180 American children 11-year-old or under that the Centers for Disease Control reported killed by gunshot during 2010. Or the 85 American preschoolers—85!—who died by gunshot during 2007, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. (To put that in perspective, during the same year only 57 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty.)

In fact, David Hemenway, a Harvard professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told The New York Times earlier this year, "Children ages 5 to 14 in the United States are 13 times as likely to be killed with guns as children in other industrialized countries.”


No wonder my brother, Greg, posted this search for sanity on Facebook over he weekend: “...I have spent the entire day on the edge of constant tears. And I want to do something about it, but I just don't know what. The only thing I can do right now is to urge every one I know to think about what they can do. Let's start a conversation. This is the place to start. All I know is that something needs to be done. Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that I can write my congressman about my outrage, but will that be enough? I'm just at a loss right now and I need all of your help.”

I haven’t commented on the post because it’s such a personal topic that generates such emotional responses, and I know my posts can sometimes come off as the proverbial sharp stick poking the angry animal. And as much as I understand Greg’s reaction—and EVERYONE’s reactions—to the unspeakable evil that erupted at Sandy Hook Elementary School, my reaction has been quite different. Because I don’t think there’s a damned thing we can do. Who are we supposed to feel outrage at? Do we really expect a privileged club of (mostly) pontificating old men in suits to protect our children from random maniacs? Fat chance.

While that may sound cynical, my feelings are more reflective of what I believe is a need to accept the risks of living in this crazy free-for-all of a society that we’ve chosen to create. You cannot give millions upon millions of people the right to defend themselves and then think you can stop the one-in-a-million sicko from carrying out a fiendish plot. And if it wasn’t guns, it would have been a crossbow, or explosives, or a chemical weapon.

(I have to disclose here that this fatalistic response contrasts with the devastation I felt after hearing of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre. Perhaps the newness of a movie theater getting shot up shocked me in a whole new way, whereas I’m apparently braced for school shootings, which have become sickeningly commonplace.)

What’s more, if there’s one way to make what transpired in Newtown even more repulsive, it’s to take advantage of this emotionally moment for the country for political gains, like we should just start flailing, pointlessly, at an enemy—psychosis—we can’t understand or control, and that will pop up violently at random, infrequent intervals for as long as our species survives.

I was pretty disgusted Sunday night when, after a much needed two-day national discussion, about 20 people gathered at a neighbors home to have a potluck and watch the Patriots-49ers game and try to have some frivolity, and a few minutes into the game, the evening was interrupted by a live broadcast of President Obama’s speech from the vigil at Newtown High School. And I felt even more disgusted that I was disgusted. It was a horrible event that justified the gravity, no doubt. And it was clear the President was really hurting. But somehow it felt political to have the whole thing forced down our throats as millions of us gathered in front of televisions to escape, not be reminded.

I couldn’t help but think it was a thinly veiled attempt to nudge our sympathies in order to gain support for an eventual agenda. And even if it’s a noble agenda, the timing of it is wrong-headed. Next thing you know, we’ll have locked-down schools, kids being frisked every morning, armed guards being placed at school entrances—oh, wait, we already have that at many schools. Sigh.

Don’t get me wrong. There will be a time to act. But now is not that time, because action will require politics, and now is definitely not the time to be politicizing what is clearly a hot-button issue. Now is the time to mourn and process and reflect. Anyone of sound mind will tell you that when you’re mourning the loss of a close loved one, the last thing you should be doing is making any big decisions. The emotions that accompany grief just aren’t conducive to effective decision-making. Knee-jerk over-reactions occur. I know. I’m the reigning King of Knee-Jerk Over-Reactions. Knee-jerk reacting is exactly what we did in the wake of 9/11, when we let our emotions get the best of us and our leadership foisted upon us dangerous legislation that ate away at fundamental rights we’re still trying hard to regain.

I know it’s easy to intellectualize the events of last Friday in this fashion when I’m not one of the parents in Newtown who are enduring a hell no one should experience. I’m sure if I was one of them, or someone who knew one of them, I would be calling for blood. And yes, re-instituting the ban on assault weapons would seem to be a start. But perhaps more than that is needed, and by quickly passing that through, we might, at the least, make it less likely agreement will be reached on additional action. At worst, we could begin a path that leads to another attack on personal liberties for the sake of security.

Instead, let’s all just pause, think about the victims, maybe try to get to know a little about who they were, and pay tribute to them in our own little ways. Then, in time, we should engage in meaningful discussion about mental illness and the need to reach out more effectively to those who have it. And we should have healthy debates about our gun laws so that we can all further develop our thinking about them and how they should be altered. Then, when everyone’s calmed down a bit, we can start making some decisions. Good, sound decisions. The foundation of effective parenting, and, presumably, of effective governing.

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