Two particular photos from the Newtown shooting break my heart. One is of a boy with his hands held tight over his mouth. A girl holds him against the backdrop of back trees as she looks down. Both look horrified. The other is a line of kids being led through a parking lot by police. Obviously told to hold onto the shoulders of the kid in front of them, each child looks terrified. The girl in the blue shirt cries. Both photos convey the depth of what happened across the faces of small children.
At the same time, the terror in Newton, as we all too well know, is not isolated. There is the matching terror in schools, shopping centers, workplaces, military bases, even Sikh temples in Lancaster, Columbia, Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood (see a map here). Statistics repeatedly show us that our country tops the list for such killings when compared with other first world nations.
Why this happens is complicated. Absolutely, we need stronger and more strongly-enforced gun control that makes it harder for people to accumulate the kinds of firearms that can kill so many so quickly (and I say that while also supporting the rights of my hunter friends to hunt). The calls for gun control have hopefully ignited the kind of public attention and debate that will lead to some real changes. While we’re a country polarized on the gun control issue, emerging polls and studies show more of us want limits of certain kinds of weapons and their availability (see a thoughtful piece in the Christian Science Monitor on this). The facts, articulated well in Ezra Klein’s article, “Twelve Faces About Guns and Mass Shootings in the United States” point to why change isn’t too soon but too late:
Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. “Too soon,” howl supporters of loose gun laws. But as others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.
At the same time, there’s more broken than just how widely available guns are in this country. My son Forest told me of the work of Professor Clayton Cramer who, in his 1993 article “Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media,” pointed out that most news accounts lead with the body count and name of the killer, and in general, encourage the celebrity of copycat crimes. David Kopel, in a wise piece on the Aurora killings, writes that “Evil thrives when good people, for short-sighted reasons of expediency, allow themselves to cooperate with it.”
I also wonder about how our mental health services could be better, particularly early-intervention services for those growing up or those on the edge. Although profiling potential killers is akin to finding a needle in a haystack (since many people suffer from depressed inflamed by a tragic loss or cataclysmic event), doing whatever we can to strengthen our communities could go a long way. The more we know and interact with one another in the container of community, the more apt we are to reach out to people who are falling off the map.
What’s broken is vast, multi-layered and takes great effort to even begin to begin fixing our country. Yet when we see the faces of terrified children, and also the faces of grieving parents, there’s no other time than now.