Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers

I just dropped my two young children at elementary school. They were bright and smiling, one off to practice handbells for a Christmas concert, another to chat with friends before the first bell.

Neither noticed the police car newly parked beside the school. Neither had a penny for my thoughts, of what it must have been like for those parents in Newtown, dropping off beloved children and then not having them only a few minutes later.

Now at my computer, I think of the Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, the man who has guided us through much of this tragedy. I remember his assurance on Friday that the police were doing everything to find out not only what happened, but why.

But why.

No Easy Answers

With violence, there are no easy answers, as I wrote about in my summer piece Inside the Minds of Mass Killers after the Aurora Batman shootings.

One narrative – that Adam Lanza was mentally ill – is already waiting in the wings, prepped as an explanation. Another – where guns are the culprit – has exploded already with full force. Lanza used a semi-automatic assault rifle with extended clips and shot his victims multiple times. He had hundreds of more rounds to continue his killing. Without that firepower, he couldn’t have killed so many so quickly before taking his own life when the police arrived.

The United States urgently needs more and better mental health care. Regulating guns like we regulate motor vehicles seems reasonable, given how many thousands die from gun shots and from car accidents every year. Neither, though, gets us much closer to why.

Mentally ill patients are not more violent than anyone else. Guns don’t shoot themselves.

We still need better answers. The horrendous violation that Lanza committed, against all social norms, against everything that is decent and good, stares back at us with such dark eyes.

On “Adam Lanza’s Mother”

Thinking the Unthinkable, where the mother of a violent 13 year old recounts her own struggles with her son, swamped social media over the weekend. A truly viral post.

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

Liza Long, aka Anarchist Soccer Mom, found much support with her post. Her call for more attention to mental health issues resonated broadly. But in being so public about her son, and linking violence and mental health so closely, Long also opened herself to considerable criticism – You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother and Want the Truth Behind “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”? Read Her Blog are two of the most prominent.

Long’s effective writing, evocative story, and sense of timing help explain how her post got circulated through so many Facebook pages. But she does one other thing that makes a huge difference. She speaks of how violence terrifies, and how little she can understand it. Yet there is her son, in the throes of fury and lashing out.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me.

How to make sense of that? Pulling a knife over library books?!

Fitting Categories

Through her own experience, Long helps us catch a glimpse of the violence of being human, and to sense, at a distance, how quickly it can destroy life. For me, that is why the piece resonated. Newtown scares us deeply, the idea that someone can do such a thing. Yet Lanza did.

Soccer Mom Long also presages our societal response – fearful, distancing from the problem, controlling the pointy objects, and making it mental alone. And for me, that is deeply problematic. It fits violence into the wrong category, making it some natural object that we then try to control socially.

Don’t get me wrong. I think improvements in policing, gun control, and mental health care are all needed to help further reduce violence in our society. We need a multi-dimensional approach for a multi-dimensional problem.

But we also need better answers to the question Lt. Paul Vance posed for us, and so many have asked ourselves since Friday – Why?

Seeing Violence

Most of us hide our eyes from violence until some horrific event like the murders in Newtown force such things before our eyes. One of the braver things Obama did in his Friday press conference was to at least mention other massacres that haven’t caught the public’s attention so much – the murder spree in Chicago (over 400 this year) and the killing of six at a Sikh temple by a white supremacist.

One might cast a broader eye, and include the truly horrific number of murders in Mexico due to the drug war or the children killed by US drones abroad. Or to the past, and the killings of juveniles at the Dozier School in Florida. But black youth, religious minorities, foreigners, children of terrorists, and delinquents do not evoke the same sympathy. They do not force us to look longer. They should.

We also might look closer at the violence of our art and entertainment, and not just our gun culture. David Dobbs wrote about the Aurora shootings, Batman Movies Don’t Kill, But They’re Friendly to the Concept.

The movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution… Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shape those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.

My wife, when she studied justified versus unjustified violence, found that justified violence – such as to save someone or even at times revenge – led people to approve more violence than violence that was deem unjustifiable. James Bond’s violence is legitimate, even thrilling.

We forget one thing about how culture works, something pointed out by Victor Turner and Claude Levi-Strauss many years ago – that symbols and meanings often work through dualities and oppositions. I still remember my street kid friend in Bogotá describing his life, that just like the morning sun comes over the city and the good people come out, so too the dark sun comes up at night and the dark people come out. And how they hated at times the people of the day, with their good lives and comfortable justifications and easy condemnations.

Our violent heroes don’t turn the other cheek. They go out and punish, often with multiple gun shots, those who are against them. Is it so hard to understand that our anti-heroes do the same?

Of Right Mind

Lanza killed little kids. Innocents most white and wide-eyed. I have called attention before to “running amok,” a cultural model and interpretation of violence, as one way to try to grasp how someone could engage in such horrid behavior. But one word that has stuck with me this time is “deranged.”

Someone in their right mind does not go out and kill kids. That is our sense of things, despite the regular news of parents who abuse and kill the children in their care. But they don’t then go and kill their neighbor’s kids.

Why “deranged”? I suppose because I find it hard to accept that someone like Adam Lanza was in their right mind. That even if there are cultural meanings he can draw upon, he still went and did it himself. And that I find comfort in thinking something inside his brain didn’t work the same way that things work inside my brain.

But I don’t mean mentally ill. Not at all. I mean violent. Violent in the most transgressive of ways. Violent in the most deliberate of ways.

If we’re going to think of violence as a sickness, then it is its own type of sickness, different in kind and in expression from the mental and physical ailments that also possess us. Violence is red in tooth and claw, seemingly primordial, until we recognize how socially regulated it is. We teach soldiers in violence, and then punish when they step outside the rules of engagement.

Violence relies on the tools at hand, on fists and knives and guns and planes, tools that we create and control. Violence has targets, often dehumanized, the japs or commies or crips on the other side, a fiction we can maintain until it is so roughly violated by something like Newtown. And violence works terror, that the overwhelming brutality of it will keep the other at bay and that we ourselves won’t be touched. But violence boils beyond the easy boundaries we try to place on it, and we are left once again in a land of no easy answers.


Teaching, tools, targets, and terror – that’s as close as I will get to a framework today. But I don’t want to end just yet. There remains the question of what to do.

President Obama has called for meaningful action. In government, meaningful action is often symbolic, done in speeches and codified into law. Gun control would at the very least signal that things have shifted, that we will not accept this type of violence, that we are willing to place limits on our freedom for the collective good of our children.

It is increasingly clear that the quick response time of police helped save lives in Newtown. We have gotten extremely good at rapid response. We are still very bad at how to deal with violence before or after that urgent moment.

We need to get better at dealing with young men and women prone to violence through our schools and in our neighborhoods. We need to engage in prison reform, and to rework our senseless jailing of so many non-violent offenders (often to great profit for the people who run prisons) and to direct many more resources to lowering alcohol and drug use rather than a continued engagement in a violent drug war. Much of the saved money from that “war” could then go to funding more community approaches to addressing violence. So, yes, reform before and after these violent acts.

Finally, I think of Jared Cano, the teenager who plotted to bomb a high school only a few miles from my home. Cano wanted to make it bigger than Columbine or Virginia Tech. Or now Newtown. He was turned in by a friend. That sort of everyday regulation is as important as anything else. It’s not all gun control, mental health resources, and rapid response. Sometimes it’s a different sort of bravery.

I’ll leave off with Cano’s words before he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

I don’t want to be the bad guy. I want to be the good guy. The state ain’t gonna make an example. They’re gonna put me in prison. Let me make an example. I had a bad life. Let me change it around and do something good, not bad. Don’t make me the poster child for something evil. Let me be the poster child for something good. Let me do right. Give me a chance to do something right. To make my family proud. I don’t want all these people to think I’m crazy, trying to kill everybody. I want people to look at me as someone who was wrong and changed… and did something right.

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