One Sober Response to the Newtown Shootings

Posted: December 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

The children and adults killed last week in Newtown, Connecticut are starting to be buried.  The media is claiming this is a “tipping point” for conversations about gun control.  President Obama and other politicians are going out of their way to take the tragedy seriously–or to appear to take it seriously, which, these days, may actually amount to the same thing.  And social media has been a cyber-storm of hand-wringing, self-righteousness, blame-throwing, and misattribution (e.g. that Morgan Freeman’s rant was hoaxed). 

I thought, why not add to the melee? 

I tend to look at everything through a lens of recovery, which helps me suss out the bull at least 90% of the time, including my own.  And when I look at an event like this–and look at the responses to it, which quickly become the way the event is experienced–I think of our country like a drunk waking up in the hospital, or in jail, or on the street.  We all know “there’s a problem,” because it’s impossible to ignore right this second, but almost none of us wants to be honest enough or make the hard choices that might bring us back to sanity… 

The two things we absolutely do not want to give up are ego and control.  Part of what is at stake when something/someone is sick is an acceptance that the disease just IS.  For me, as an alcoholic, admitting there IS a problem means admitting that there will ALWAYS be a problem.  My disease isn’t something that gets cured in one hospital stay or after taking a few pills.  It is an ongoing, daily maintenance of physical, mental, and emotional wellness.  Fundamentally, recovery is predicated on a humble acceptance that mere will, mere ego cannot solve the problem.  In response to last week’s tragedy, I would say that we still haven’t accepted it.  We may say, “well, tragedies happen,” as a way of explaining it, but that’s not acceptance.  Acceptance is taking responsibility.  Acceptance is willingness to LET GO of previous behaviors and beliefs for the sake of a sanity that (at the moment) seems impossible.

Here are some observations:

We all know our lives are spiritually bankrupt.  The political right wins this one, though not in the way they think.  For instance, only the professionally deluded would believe that 20 children are massacred because they can’t pray in public schools.  What is true is that these shootings–which so often happen in affluent, suburban communities–reveal a nasty disconnect with anything but the most superficial of human values. We sob at A Christmas Carol and vote to cut social welfare.  We speak of gratitude and simplicity at Thanksgiving, but take our children to the mall as a reward for good performance.  We nod about forgiveness and forebearance, but the second we feel we are not “getting what we deserve,” we’re screaming down the phone at someone, or marching into a pricipal’s office, or posting something idiotic on Facebook.  Retaliate, retaliate, retaliate.  And we refuse to see problems unless they affect us directly. And, as I say, we all sort of know this.

We all know we’re not living in a Zombie Apocalypse. There are too many guns.  We all sort of know this one too, but somehow it just doesn’t get through the larval stage in most people’s brains.  Some woman I know vaguely actually said, “I agree that automatic weapons should be illegal, but I’m going to use all my guns to protect my kids from the crazies who have them.”  This attitude probably makes perfect sense during the Zombie Apocalypse, but it’s hardly a sane strategy for reducing gun violence.  Any time a tragedy like this occurs, suddenly we feel we’re in in the Zombie Apocalypse:  the zombies are at the gate, and we’ve got to shoot them, SHOOT THEM NOW!  Feelings aren’t facts.  That’s what recovery teaches me.  Guns aren’t the only problem, but why not just admit that they are a BIG PART of the problem? Weapons are too easy to get; there are too many of them.  It is a big issue, and it will require compromise.  We all know this too, but our fear and our feeling of powerlessness enervate us when they should motivate us. 

We know we don’t care about sick people.  Oh…we care about them when they’re on our radar, which they rarely are, but not enough to take care of all of them.  Not at our expense.  Our attitude is this:  if the guy down the road can’t afford health care, screw him.  I don’t want to take care of him and his kids.  What happens if he’s in line for an operation before me???  That’s not FAIR!  This attitude would make some sense if we didn’t know that disease–all kinds of disease–spreads, has community effects, has to be “paid for” somewhere down the line by all of us.  This is as true of mental illness as it is of anything else; and, we’ve witnessed often enough the particularly high price of not paying for mental health care. 

We know all these things, but we’re very attached to our egos.  Instead of acting deliberatively, we fob off responsibility, deny any solution that isn’t an immediate and total fix, and act self-righteous when anyone points out that we could be doing something different. 

Here are my favorite sleight-of-hand tricks for avoiding the problem:

Play the parent card.  This is the most favored and most nauseating chestnut in the battery of internet responses to this tragedy.  People just start any conversation with, “As a parent, I…” and I, for one, stop listening.  Whatever they say is going to be all about how their empathy is special and how any response to the tragedy–no matter how unhelpful or vacuous–is justified by their donation of DNA and/or food and shelter to a particular youngster.  Having children doesn’t make me MORE responsive to an event–though, by some people’s own admissions–it might make me more irrational.  Hyper-emotional investment doesn’t make one’s position more valid or more relevant.  If anything, it might  make a response more suspect.  It’s decidedly not an excuse to invalidate someone else’s response.  (For the record, I’ve got two kids.)

Play the “I’m more aware of international tragedies than you” card. Other than self-righteousness, what do we get out of pointing out the fact that so few Americans don’t pay attention to Afghanistan, Syria, Darfur, and a thousand other places where horrible things happen to children every day?  I certainly see a connection between our failure to care about vulnerable people around the world and our failure to care about similarly vulnerable people here.  But, I think this point of view only gets adopted when people don’t want to have a stated position on gun control, on health care, or on cultural values.  Nope.  Easier to try to point out others’ failures, the media’s failures, politicians’ failures than to articulate a position that might be up for criticism.

Play the media card.  This is the absolute BEST way to avoid having a meaningful position on this kind of violence. It’s so meta.  In the link I posted above, Roger Ebert (that paragon of social activism and theory…how not love him?) said he was “proud” that the newspaper he worked for wouldn’t run school killing stories on the front page anymore.  According to our favorite pudgy movie critic, it’s not movies and t.v. fiction glorifying violence, it’s CNN.  That is WONDERFUL!  Just think of it:  absolutely no interrogation of the idea that the newspaper has tacitly accepted the fact that there will be more school killiings.  Great feint, Rog.  But here’s the thing:  in the internet era, we’re all the media; consumers and producers.  I’m producing some now, for goodness sake. Blaming the media is the ultimate elliptical fallacy, but it works for a while.  It shuts people up.********

The saddest part of all this is that I believe that our collective comfort with the insanity we know will probably overcome any other kind of discussion.  We could make meaningful attempts to address our lack of compassion, our stinginess, our fear–all the things that contribute to a tragedy like Newtown.  I, for one, will try to do a better job of teaching my kids gratitude and empathy (first by modeling it).  I will make my vote count and my voice heard on issues of gun control and health care reform.  That’s what I can do on my little patch.  It is my sober response. 



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