“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower
On December 14, 2012 at approximately 9:35 a.m., 20 year old Adam Peter Lanza, wearing black fatigues and carrying a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle made by Bushmaster, pistols made by Glock and Sig Sauer, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, shot down a locked security door at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the sleepy New England town of Newtown, Connecticut, and massacred twenty children between the ages of 6 and 7 and six adults before shooting himself in the head. Lanza had multiple, high-capacity clips each capable of holding 30 bullets, and the chief medical examiner said the ammunition was the type designed to break up inside a victim’s body and inflict the maximum amount of damage, tearing apart bone and tissue. It was a tragedy of unimaginable consequence.
Some time before 9:30 a.m. that day, Lanza had shot his mother four times in the head, murdering her in her bed in her pajamas.
The slaughter in Newtown immediately ignited a sharply divided debate over gun control. At one extreme, opponents to gun ownership seek to ban all firearms, and at the other extreme, proponents of gun ownership suggesting that armed military personnel should guard the entrance to every school.
Certainly, the issue of the accessibility of weapons and ammunition is one that bears examination and careful consideration, but that is not what this blog is about. It is tempting, irresistible even, in the wake of an enormous tragedy to seek an answer, to feel as though we have control to prevent such unspeakable evil in the future by finding a scapegoat cause upon which we can pontificate and legislate and go to bed at night feeling as though we’ve done something.
The mass murder of innocent children and adults in Newtown did not happen because of the single issue of the right to bear arms. Amending the Constitution to remove the Second Amendment (as some are suggesting) will not solve the problem of violent crime. If laws could prevent crime, we would have no prisons. Laws do not prevent violent people with violent propensities from committing acts of violence. Although one of the goals of the penal system is to deter violence, it is a spectacularly unsuccessful one. In fact, statistics demonstrate that violent criminals are likely to be released from prison with an increased likelihood of more violent crimes in the future.
Another debate which has come to the fore is about mental health and the access of mental healthcare to the mentally ill. This, too, is a topic very worthy of national discussion and action. However, access to mental health care alone does not solve the problem either. Lanza had no history of violent propensities. There has been no report that flagged him as dangerous or possibly dangerous. He was described as being painfully shy, bright, and withdrawn. Not one report has pointed to a missed sign that he would be a mass murderer.
The reason for Lanza’s killing spree cannot be contained into neat, little boxes about which we can make tidy, high impact sound bytes, pass a few laws and go to sleep at night with peaceful security. The truth is that we live in an increasingly violent society and world climate where every year crimes become more senseless and shocking. Lanza’s actions were likely caused by the perfect storm of the intersection of, yes, his latent mental health problems, and yes, his access to weapons and ammunition, but also a societal sickness that is getting worse.
Research in the aftermath of national tragedies, such as the tsunami in Japan, have demonstrated that the most likely predictor of a person’s ability to survive a natural disaster is that person’s connections within his community, not proximity to first responders, not disaster preparedness, connections within his community. The reason appears to be that when someone is known in his community, those people will dig for him, search for him, look for his children. The community response is to help that person, and that response makes it much more likely that person will survive.
There can be no question that in the US, there is an increasing decay of community. For all the good it has brough, the internet must be at least one cause of that decay. People get on their chat forums and email lists and on Facebook and feel as though they are emotionally closer to a person that they’ve never met across the globe somewhere than they are to their neighbors. And all the time that is spent typing out emoticons on a computer is time that is no longer spent chatting with your neighbor over the garden fence. Hundreds of people on a Facebook group might know about your special organ disease, or that you’re sad because of the loss of a relative, but the 30 people in your immediate neighborhood do not. When people do not know about the issues that make you human, they are less bonded and less connected to you.
Additionally, people who sit behind a keyboard feel liberated to be uncivil much more easily and to a higher extreme than when they have to look someone else in the eye. Electronic communication, therefore, all by itself, lends itself to the shedding of social mores and self restraint.
Community also impacts crime. Historically, social mores had a much larger impact on personal behavior. Individual conduct was swayed by social shame and social consequences, and this affected individual accountability. Research has shown that when individuals can break rules and pay monetary fines, they are much more likely to continue breaking those rules than if they suffer social reprimands (lectures, guilt about impact on others) instead of being able to “buy their way out of it.”
In our society, teen pregnancy has become the norm, celebrated by “reality” shows on MTV and talk shows like Jerry Springer. Violence is not only tolerated, but celebrated through movies and video games. As the standard for what can be viewed sinks lower and lower, the human mind habituates. Habituation is a well known psychological phenomenon. The more you see something, the less impact it has on you. The more violence you witness, the more it becomes the norm. The more gory images you see, the less they bother you.
There is no easy answer to human massacre and devastating violence. The causes for Lanza’s behavior are not inadequate gun control or mental healthcare access in isolation. Solving these problems is going to take better perspective, more realistic approaches and more societal involvement. Sound bytes and special interest lobbying are part of the problems that divide us, not part of the solution.