Tag Archives: Aurora shootings

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.

Jaxsine

 

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Aurora, Anger and Evil

I first heard about the shootings a week ago today as I was driving on the freeway en route to see the new Batman movie with a friend.  The radio DJ made a reference to the “horrible act” and gave some basic information which left me with some questions and curiosity, but no alarm.  At the theater, my friend filled me in, then we enjoyed the mindblowing phenomenon that is The Dark Knight Rises and went home.

I spent the next two days deeply angry.  I thought about blogging then — the artist in me wants to be fully present with and free to express my most intense emotions while they’re happening — but the scientist in me wants to be prudent and gather more data before publishing any findings.  The scientist won, although I did write an epically angry epic poem on Sunday.

You might assume I’m angry because of what the shooter did, killing 12 people and wounding 58.  That’s not why.  I became incensed because of what I saw and heard in the media, and how the event was instantly, and virally, constructed,  packaged, delivered, and received.  My déjà vu was intense and disturbing to me.

I have now lived long enough to see history repeat itself in my own lifetime.  One of the many beauties of being young is thinking the world is new because it’s new to us.  At a deep level, we often have a hard time believing older folks, because our incompletely developed neocortex thinks this time is different, I’m different than anyone before, this is all new, and history just started.  In some ways this is true and at best delightfully refreshing and inspiring.  At worst, it is insulting and myopic or even blind.

I was in my native Los Angeles in April of 1992 during the L.A. Riots/Uprising, which occurred after a jury acquitted the four White male police officers accused of beating Rodney King.  Twenty years later, I saw a media story describing the riots as happening after King, who died this summer, was brutalized.  Not true.  The riots occurred when justice did not, and for an act that was caught on tape no less.

And also twenty years later, not blocks from where a White policeman pulled a gun on a group of us UCLA students protesting police brutality down the street from south central L.A. as it burned, an eminent African American surgeon is humiliated, minimized and silenced when faced with persistent discrimination and outrageously prejudiced treatment.  The case of Dr. Christian Head is disturbing in itself, but that it is happening at my alma mater in the same city as the King beating and L.A. riots, is downright depressing.

Why?  Why haven’t we learned?

On July 1st, citizens of my beloved Mexico went to the ballot box and the man who emerged triumphant is a man not a single one of my many mexicano friends from various walks of life and social classes voted for, nor any of their friends and family.  Amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud and vote buying, Peña Nieto and his PRI party were declared winners, not 12 years after the PRI was jubilantly ousted after 70 years of de facto dictatorship.

Why haven’t we learned?

Now we have a mass shooting, 13 years after the Columbine massacre, which occurred when James Eagan Holmes was 9 years old.  How is it that we allowed one more young man in our country to grow up in such a way that he saw  murderous behavior as his only option — or as an option at all?

I don’t profess to know anything about Holmes’ heart or mind — the evidence points towards him being very smart, very deliberate in his planning of the attack, and an unhappy person — and in truth none of us may ever know.  But where is the introspection and the conversation about how WE contributed, and how WE let this happen?  Again?

I had high hopes eleven years ago when 9/11 happened.  When I turned on the TV that morning and saw the destruction, one of my first thoughts was “maybe this will finally make a difference.”  I hoped that more of us might be jolted awake, start to listen, start to reflect, and start to question our identity as an infallible hero nation. I hoped more of us would start to really examine what might make a person — or a people — do such a thing, and how we might see ourselves in those shoes, and then do our part to co-create a different kind of world.

Instead, we went shopping, we went to war, and we handed over our freedom and privacy to our government.  We didn’t learn.

And now, once again, I see little introspection.  Right after the Aurora shooting, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner separately denounced the event, and the actor, as “evil”.  Obama seemed to take a more measured approach, calling for “prayer and reflection” not only for those directly affected by the shooting, but also “for all the victims of the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities on a daily basis.”

Amen Brother Barack.  Preach!

But in doing more research, it seems Obama did, indeed, also use the e-word.  Why is this a problem?

This is a problem because first of all, not everyone agrees on what evil is, where it comes from, or even if it exists at all.  It’s simply strong, archetypal language meant to communicate that something or someone is really, really bad or wrong (in our eyes).  Second, and more importantly, calling something or someone “evil” allows us to dissociate and distance ourselves from the person or event.  They are evil … and we are not.

Such distancing is problematic and dangerous because it allows us to see the “evil” person as less than human, which justifies us doing violence back and treating him or her in other dehumanizing ways.  It prevents us from having empathy, seeing connection, or realizing “there but for the grace of God go I”, for truly none of us is all good or all evil — we are not the archetypal characters in movies like The Dark Knight Rises.

Distancing and dissociating also serves to absolve us of any responsibility.  Absolving ourselves of any responsibility for “evil” committed by other people is problematic and dangerous because it keeps us in victim mode.  If we believe there are evil people who do evil things, period, then we can’t do anything about evil when it shows up — other than pre-emptively identifying and neutralizing the “evil people”, perhaps, which opens up a whole Pandora’s box of fascist possibilities.

I’m not talking about blaming the victim, but seeing the bigger picture, and the way we are all connected.

Ultimately, absolving ourselves of any responsibility prevents us from actually solving the problem.  Peter Finocchiaro wrote in the Huffington Post that the “evil” position is “fatalistic, counterproductive”, and “intellectually lazy”.  As Gawker’s Max Read put it: “James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora … free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country.”  These events take place in a context.  We all contribute to, and participate in, that context.  We breathe it into being and keep it alive.  But because we do, each of us therefore has the power to change it, by shaping the behaviors, values, conversations and decisions that create that context by making new choices about our own.

One of my favorite new quotes is from Boston College professor Bill Tolbert (as quoted by international organizer/facilitator Adam Kahane): “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”  To me this is the core of so many matters — we need to figure out how we are part of the problem, and work on changing that, instead of distancing and dictating.

We contribute and we co-create, we are rarely innocent victims in The Big Picture.  It’s ludicrous to describe something like the Aurora shootings, or 9/11 for that matter, as “senseless”, “”unthinkable”, “unimaginable” and “inexplicable” (some of the words used by politicians in the media).  It’s precisely because they are thinkable and imaginable, that Holmes was able to do them, and why such incidents occur with some regularity — 14 times in the past 5 years, in fact (take a look at this analysis by the Pew Research Center  on what has captured our attention to media).   Just look at the scenes in any of The Dark Knight movies Holmes seems to have been reenacting as a case in point of the imaginability of such scenarios in real life.  Dismissing them as senseless and inexplicable keeps us from taking responsibility, getting at the root cause, identifying the contributing factors, and making new decisions and taking new actions to reduce the possibility of them ever happening again.

But apparently we aren’t learning.  Or perhaps some interest is served by us not learning?

This brings me to another reason I was angry (and am again, now that I write).  Out of the many horrors we humans perpetrate on each other, or willfully ignore, why is THIS type of incident the one that gets all the attention?

Let me give you some examples of other horrors deserving of attention and outrage, off the top of my head:

  • 46,800 people die each year in the U.S. from traffic accidents (by comparison, 18,300 from homicide)
  • Sleepy (often overworked and stressed out) drivers kill 1,500 people and injure 40,000 in the U.S. each year
  • Drunk drivers kill 10,300 people per year in the U.S.
  • One of my favorites: 90,000 people are killed each year in hospitals either through preventable medical error or hospital-acquired infections.  That’s the conservative estimate (I’ve seen numbers up to 178,000).  This is the equivalent of 9/11 happening 32 times each year!
  • 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006 in the drug wars there, largely fueled by U.S. Americans’ demand for drugs.
  • 5-15 million children die of starvation each year on Earth, a planet fully capable of feeding everyone, but whose human inhabitants create tremendous disparities in the distribution of its resources (we’d need 5-6 more Earths to support every human living like a U.S. American, for instance).

Evil you say?  I think some of these qualify.  So why isn’t anyone clamoring to get rid of cars, or to redistribute wealth so not one more child starves?  What about a real uprising about the immorality of our healthcare system, or widespread alarm about all the Mexicans we are murdering and torturing with our drug use (not to mention the damage we are doing to ourselves)?

And hey while we’re at it, what about a media firestorm, personal presidential visits, and demands for justice about Enron’s implosion, Bernie Madoff’s crimes, or the subprime loan fiasco?  These kinds of “white collar crimes” have affected millions of people in ways their descendants will feel for generations, and defunded incredible, creative, world changing projects.

Or how about about some outrage over the multiple U.S. citizens whose lives and families have been destroyed by them being targeted by our government, imprisoned in a secret location, abused, and finally released with no charges filed?  Or the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater?   That’s more people than James Holmes took out, and far more sinister.

We still need to be introspective and take responsibility for these situations too, but at the risk of sounding heartless, any of these examples strike me as far more evil and destructive to humanity than 12 folks shot dead in a movie theater by one unhappy, damaged man.  Sure, events like Aurora traumatize us, and a movie premier shooting might feel more personal and more visceral than the other examples, but I believe that in The Big Picture such things actually affect us less in the long run.

In doing my own introspection, I have been looking at my anger.  I am learning from my reflection and research (the scientist again) that anger is a secondary emotion that can serve to camouflage or control another emotion, particularly fear.  It can serve a coping, self-soothing, analgesic function which numbs pain and allows vulnerable people to survive destructive or dangerous situations.  Anger can alert us to attack, which I already knew, but what I didn’t know is that it can also alert us to a “something is terribly wrong” situation.

Perhaps I’m angry because I believe there are many things terribly wrong in the world, and since I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to turn things around in time, I numb myself and maintain some sense of control by getting angry.

I still hope and believe we can solve the problem — if enough of us get crackin’ quickly enough.  Interestingly, the “defeat the enemy” neural pathway and the “solve the problem” pathway are close together in the brain, but “defeat the enemy” actually neutralizes our problem solving ability.  Maybe this is the subtle, and profound shift that we all need to focus on.

So why haven’t we learned yet?  Maybe that is also a key to the shift. And is it that we haven’t learned … or are there interests being served in keeping us from learning?  Are there interests served in the way events like Aurora are framed?  And in the way our attention and outrage is focused?

Answering these questions might get us closer to a more important question: Will we learn? And if so, how do we make different choices and take different actions based on our learning?

Answers and hope continue to be my quest.  What about you?

In Lak Ech,

~Jaxsine~