Sense and Sensibility: The Newtown Massacre

It’s happened again.  For the second time in a year, I’m blogging about a mass shooting.  For the fourth time in his presidency, Obama travelled today to a city to grieve with families after another bout of senseless violence.

And I am weary of hearing these incidents referred to as “senseless”.  From the principal of Columbine High School to the prime minister of Australia to news anchors and my Facebook friends, one of the most common words I hear is “senseless.”  But to me, it makes perfect sense.

In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.  When you take a society that values money and material things over people and relationships, add social isolation and lack of true community (like Adam Lanza’s upscale neighborhood where he occupied two bedrooms in his mother’s spacious home and some neighbors didn’t even know them), leave out critical education about mental and emotional health (as well as resources to identify and treat those with these challenges), leave out education about healthy communciation and anger/conflict management, and add a healthy dose of easy access to guns, you have situations like Newtown waiting to happen all over this country — a country where there are as many guns as people (300 million) and, compared to most other industrialized countries, a very high percentage of people experiencing mental and emotional illness, excess stress levels, and a lack of healthy coping skills or social support.

This is not meant as an indictment of the Lanza family or of Newtown, but a plea for us to look at the bigger picture,  We are all connected.  We can’t tolerate institutions that oppress and dehumanize us; an industrialized food system that not only does not nourish us but addicts our minds and weakens our bodies; a prison-industrial complex larger than any in the world; forms of entertainment that dehumanize us; a lifestyle that disconnects us from the earth, other lifeforms and spirit; a general disregard for the needs of women and children; a general lack of purpose, meaning, and love … and expect there to be no consequences.

Newtown is one of many consequences.

I’m grateful that this time around, there seems to be less usage of the word “evil” to describe these murders, as I decried in my post about the Aurora shooting, despite the fact that most of the Newtown dead were six-year-olds.  I can’t even imagine the horror of such a thing for a parent.

And yet we still need a responsibility check.  It’s not useful to decry such violence as senseless or incomprehensible, because it is neither.  Doing so absolves us of any responsibility, and makes us believe we are powerless.  We are not powerless.  The “society” we rail against is not an entity outside of us — it is something we each create each day with the jobs we choose to work in, the decisions we make, where we spend our money, what we eat, how we speak and think, and how we treat each other and ourselves.

And calling Adam Lanza — or James Holmes or any of the other recent perpetrators — “crazed” is also inaccurate and feeds into this kind of helpless thinking.  The folks who perpetrate these murders — who are typically young males, usually White — are methodical and deliberate, and take months to plan their attacks.  According to Jack Levin, a well-known professor of sociology and criminology, they don’t “go off” or “snap.”  What they do have is a sense of their problems being caused by other people — they blame everyone but themselves.  They too see themselves as powerless and unresponsible.

Levin also challenges the notion that these events are increasing.  On NPR the other day, he said that there are about 20 such mass murders per decade, with about 150 total victims.  In the meantime, he points out that there are about 15,000 individual homicides — per year.   However, Connecticut Senator John Larson said today that of the 12 worst mass shootings in our history, half have occurred in the last 5 years.

Regardless of who’s right, it seems most people feel things are coming to a head.  And solutions are already being proposed.  Paul Bennett, author of Glock: Rise of America’s Gun, said today that two short term solutions are (a) greater security in public places, and (b) better support and resources for people with mental and emotional illness.  Others are using Newtown to bolster the argument for gun control — I’ve already seen a couple online petitions to this effect.

And while gun control would certainly be a sane approach to the insane ease with which people can access deadly firearms in the U.S., it’s not the solution.  Guns are still tools used by people, and while limiting access can minimize the damage (there was an incident at a school in China on the same day as Newtown, and while the perpetrator, a man in his 30s, stabbed 22 children, none of them died), it doesn’t solve the problem of hurt people hurting people, and the epidemic of walking wounded in the U.S. and the world at large.

Much like I argued in my “Aurora, Anger, and Evil” post, the drama of the latest episode of mass violence in all its technicolor drama often obscures larger, more sinister problems and a bigger context.  It’s a symptom, not the problem per se.

Perhaps it’s helpful to think and talk about what is working.  Be humble and reflect on how there but for the grace of God go we.  How many of us, when we are being fully honest and self-aware, can’t think of a time we wouldn’t have liked to take out a bunch of fellow humans with an uzi?  Or take our own hopeless, miserable lives in some dramatic way?  Or feel like everything is someone else’s fault and someone has got to pay?

My hand goes up on all three of those.  It’s profound to think about the little things that stood in the way of me actually doing damage to others or myself in those moments.  Perhaps we can learn from this and not stop at celebrating the heroes of incidents like Newtown, like Dawn Hochsprung and Victoria Soto, but also try empathizing with and mourning the broken souls of young men like Adam Lanza.

We should grieve.  We should rage.  But we should NOT hide behind “hugging our children tighter” or stop our examination of the situation as “senseless” as if it were random and outside of our power.  The bigger context is that we need to see and own our power, and therefore our responsibility.

Lately I keep coming back to the Marianne Williamson quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”  I think owning our own power, and all that entails, is one of the invitations and challenges of humanity as we move farther into the shift.

I’m heartened that President Obama, and others, are talking about “meaningful action”.  I’m glad he said tonight in Newtown that we will have to change.   I’m grateful that he said,

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days … If we’re honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.”

He continued:

 “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

And this, to me, is the key.  We are not powerless.   This violence isn’t senseless.  It isn’t incomprehensible.  In fact, it is in the comprehending, and in the activation of  our sensibilities — emotional capacity, responsiveness, and consciousness —  that we can make sense of this heartwrenching tragedy and take meaningful action in such a way that we take powerful responsibility for ourselves, those around us, our communities, and the “society” and country we all co-create, every day.

Que en paz descansen los muertos de Newtown y que duermen con los angelitos los sobrevivientes.

In lak ech.




2 responses to “Sense and Sensibility: The Newtown Massacre

  1. Charlotte Nolan-Reyes

    Dear Jaxsine,

    Thank you so much for writing, almost word for word, what I wish I could have written so eloquently and completely. I agree whole-heartedly but I disagree that we shouldn’t use the word evil for these kinds of atrocities but only that we might actually want to use it more.

    Each of us has felt the urge to hurt others and hurt ourselves, as you so nobly admit. Indeed in more everyday ways we often do. That is the evil in all of us. Perhaps only when we are more comfortable admitting and examining our own evil, instead of relegating it only to the “other” might we begin to be equipped to start dealing with it in our own families and communities in responsible ways. We need to recognize that what today we are recognizing as evil was just last week walking around among us and we “didn’t notice…and never thought….of it as having that potential”.
    As if we, our families and our neighbors are all above such a thing.

    As you say, that’s not meant to shame or indict the Lanza family or the family’s neighbors in Newtown Maybe we don’t all have the capacity to be mass murderers of first-graders and I hope we can all take true inspiration from the rare Mother Teresas of this world. But denying our shared humanity (and yes it is our humanity) that is capable, under the right circumstances, of a violence that is pure evil, helps no one. Truly admitting to our own unkindness, aggression, violence, and yes capacity for evil might offend our narcissistic self-images as good and decent people…but could also be the shock we need to look at our shared collective responsibility for preventing these horrific acts. Waking up to the evil potential in ourselves and those we know and love, not to beat ourselves down with self-loathing and paranoia (which never help people reach out to their neighbors from a place of strength) but because as you so aptly put it, it is “profound to think about the the little things that stood in the way of our own harmful acts….” and yes, that “there but for the grace of God go we.” As the mother of child who just started public kindergarten and is more dependent on others to raise her well than I’m always comfortable recognizing, I too take a lot of inspiration from Obama’s urgent questioning:

    “Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days … If we’re honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.”

    The change we need is to begin to look at ourselves with unflinching honesty, at all of our strengths and weaknesses, and starting with our own families (and an awareness of our dependence on others) begin to make those changes. To recognize that it will not be easy to change the way we live but understand that to recognize our own human potential for evil is also to recognize our human potential for love and compassion. Both of these human potentials flourish under certain complex (but yes not incomprehensible) factors. I hope we can start a wider collective dialogue of what those factors might be.

    Charlotte Nolan-Reyes
    Santa Cruz, CA

    • Hello Charlotte! Thank you so much for reading, and for writing. What an inspiring, thoughtful comment! I agree very much that little lives in the world that does not also live inside the human heart/mind (indeed, much psychology is built on this notion!) — beauty, love, compassion, hatred, good, evil, the sacred/divine, the profane, heaven, hell, etc. I also agreed that one of our big problems is the denial of the darker elements of the Self, particularly in Western/U.S. thinking. We only want to look at the light, be always happy, be forever young, never experience grief or life’s many losses or admit our limitations. The Shadow is such an important part of life and a powerful teacher — and in our binary way of thinking we fail to allow BOTH to co-exist, while other, older civilizations have found ways to do this. So we are good and the other is evil, while in reality we are all both.

      I guess my problem with the “evil” comment has been that it’s typically undefined, is used indiscriminately as a way to incite emotion, blame or marginalize, and — now you have made me realize — is directed at someone else. My question then would be — what is evil? How do we define or identify or recognize it?

      Thanks again for reading and please “follow” the blog for more! 🙂

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