Where Logic Meets Love

Thoughts on Sandy Hook, or How America's Talking in Circles

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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The Sandy Hook school shooting hit me really hard, which surprised me a bit. I mean, I'm the person who has never cried over 9/11 for reasons I describe in that post. In this case, I think it was the fact that there were little kids killed that just overwhelmed me.

I used to be one of those people who got upset when, minutes after a tragedy like this, people were calling for more gun control, or less gun control, or better policies around mental health, or whatever they believed to be the root cause of the incident. But now, having had such an emotional reaction, I actually understand these statements a lot better.

I think, for example, of a woman whose child is killed in a car accident because of a drunk driver. When that mother cries and mourns for her child, we* understand. When she issues a statement that too many lives are lost to drunk driving and she's going to do whatever she can to make sure another child isn't lost to a drunk driver, we applaud her. We say things like, "Look at how she's turning this tragic situation into something good" and "It's so great how she doesn't want her grief to consume her; she wants to take action." And when other people join in her cause, we say, "How great that these people weren't even directly affected and yet they've been inspired by this tragic situation to try to make sure it doesn't happen again."

We don't do this when people kill other people with guns.

I completely understand the people who want to mourn those who were killed and then move on with their lives. Not everyone can be an activist for everything. But I also understand the people whose grief includes anger, an anger that something like this could happen and an anger that mass shootings have happened before and our country's response, or lack thereof, has not stopped them from happening again. And I understand when that anger makes them say, "I want to do whatever it takes to make sure this never happens again."

I don't see that as disrespecting those who died. Certainly there are some people who take a tragedy like this and use it to further their own agendas, but I don't think that is the case for most people who are calling for action. And I don't think it's helpful to accuse other people of "politicizing" when they respond to a tragedy by wanting to stop it from happening again. It's only because the potential solutions might be wrapped up in issues that are already political that we consider it "politicizing."

People say, "Yes, but there should be a period of mourning before we start talking about solutions." I understand this instinct because this used to be my belief as well, but I've realized how specific this demand is to a particular type of tragedy. To draw on another example, when a child dies of a terminal illness, do we judge those family members who are so outraged that they immediately start talking about finding a cure? Do we tell them, "You should be mourning for X amount of time before you start talking about medical research"? Do we doubt that they are sad about the child's death simply because their grief has driven them to action?

What I've come to realize is that people kill people every single day across our world. Imagine if there was a mandatory weeklong mourning period anytime someone in the Middle East died from a bomb or a gun or some other violent means, during which no one anywhere was allowed to talk about why this might have happened or how it might be prevented from happening again. How would there ever be any hope of stopping the violence without being able to talk about it?

What I don't think is helpful is people jumping in with simple, ready-made solutions to a horribly complicated situation.

"Well, obviously if the teachers had had guns the shooter would have been stopped much sooner."

"Well, obviously if all assault rifles were banned, the shooter couldn't have killed that many people."

"Well, obviously if the news media would just stop giving so much attention to these kinds of stories there would be fewer copycats."

"Well, obviously if we could just get better funding for mental health support, people like this would get help before they killed other people."

And so on. Any and all of these factors (and more) may have played a role in this and other mass shootings. It doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about them, but I am not a fan of simplistic solutions and thinking that you have the Only Right One Answer That Will Solve Everything. That shuts down conversations just as much as insisting we don't talk about how to prevent this from happening again.

I am tired of the sound bites. I am sick of the mass shootings followed by the predictable statements of "I know exactly why this happened and how to fix it" and "Stop making this about your agenda, just be sad." I am angry at our cultural and governmental inability to have a nuanced conversation about solutions to real problems (violence, poverty, unemployment, abortion) because people have to take "sides" about everything. I am frustrated by all of the people who are killed every single day whom we never hear about because they're not deemed "important" enough to mention, and how no one says we need to stop talking about guns and just be sad every time a kid on the south side of Chicago gets shot.

I want to see more real conversations happening about violence in America. I want something to change, some things to change, to get us on the path toward fewer people being killed or attacked by other people. I want us to stop silencing each other, to stop telling each other how to grieve, to stop policing each other's conversations in a circle of anger that goes nowhere.

I don't know how to get there, but I'm open to suggestions.

*I say "we" throughout this post as a description of what I see most people in America saying and doing following a particular type of situation. I use the word "we" to include myself in that group as well.

Moderation Note: Comments that do not aid in this conversation, and instead fall into the patterns detrimental to progress that I've described here, will be deleted.


  1. I agree- it makes no sense to tell people "stop politicizing this"- if we can look at the causes and do something to address them, then we TOTALLY SHOULD, instead of just being sad and not doing anything about it. But like you said, it's also kind of suspicious when people claim to have The Answer- that can be insensitive too.

    1. The problem is that people don't agree on what the causes or solutions are, so they just keep yelling about The Answer and don't get anywhere.

  2. I just wish people would stop theorizing and listen to the experts, look at the statistics, and have a fact-based discourse leading the beneficial changes.

    1. Amen to this. If I hear another "If we ____ then people will _____" with NO evidence to back it up... sigh. There is lots of information out there! Use it!

      The worst was the tweet I saw that "If Adam Lanza's mother had owned a gun, she could have stopped the shooting when it started." Apparently not realizing that she DID own a gun, and THAT is what she was killed with.

  3. I'm not sure it's possible to have a non-politicized discussion once an issue has been so thoroughly politicized. A hundred years ago it would have been impossible to have a non-politicized discussion following a drunk driving accident, because as soon as someone said the word "alcohol" it would have been political. That's not the case anymore because we've been down that road and finally laid it to rest. But nowadays, as soon as someone says the word "gun" it's political. It just is. And I can see some sense in saying, "Let's not have a political discussion immediately following a big, publicized tragedy," because there is a lot of truth to the old legal adage, "Hard cases make bad law."

    1. I do think this is a legitimate worry - that people make bad decisions out of the urge to "do something". My first thought upon hearing some of the reactions to it was "oh great more harassment for being mentally ill in school." And I understand exactly why people do that - they're afraid and angry. But people who are afraid and angry and upset have a greater tendency to take it out on people that aren't involved except by being on the wrong side of an issue.

    2. I don't think it's necessary -- or possible -- to have a "non-politicized" discussion about mass shootings, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have any discussion at all. I agree with JeseC that when emotions are running high, people can jump to bad conclusions, such as linking all mental illness or behavioral problems to mass murder. But there's a difference between making decisions immediately following a tragedy and starting a discussion about long-term changes after a tragedy. These things are happening too close together for a waiting period to make any sense. First there was the Oregon mall shooting, then Sandy Hook, then a man in Indiana threatened to do the same at a school there, then a California mall shooting. All within a span of four days. If anything, this calls for quicker, if imperfect, action, more than waiting for a time period that's not "immediately following" a shooting.

    3. But it's not as if this conversation hasn't already been occurring. A couple of coincidentally close situations do not a permanent escalation make. These are actions in different locations, by unconnected people, under different local laws, etc. And people have already been talking about gun control, mental health management (actually I do think that one could use a bit more discussion), etc. Recent events do not add anything substantive to the discussion, they just raise everyone's emotional investment in their preconceived perspectives. And that's not a good state for making policy decisions.

    4. I feel like we're not understanding each other well here. What is the main point you were wanting to get across with your comments? What do you think should be the approach(es) to reducing mass shooting occurrences?

    5. I think whatever we do, it needs to be done calmly and deliberately, taking into account all sorts of different factors and recognizing the fact that these are different places and different laws are going to make sense in different places. I think we also need to recognize that the world is never going to be a completely safe place, there are no solutions only tradeoffs, and it may be quite possible that there *is* nothing more to do than what we are doing, not without creating worse problems elsewhere. (I'm not saying that is the case, I'm just saying that that *always* has to be one of the possibilities, lest we fall prey to the temptation to Just Do Something. Sometimes we already are doing what can be done.)

      Right after a recent tragedy, just as in the heat of war, the urge to Just Do Something is particularly strong, and that is when laws get passed that in retrospect are too narrow or broad, too simplistic or convoluted, too disrespectful of personal liberty, or otherwise very problematic in the long-term. (U.S. Patriot act anybody?)

      I'm not saying policy discussions have to stop right after recent tragedy; I am saying responding to tragedies very seldom leads to productive, wise legislation and therefore I am highly skeptical of anyone's mentioning of a tragedy in connection with their political views.

    6. I agree with most of what you said here, particularly that decisions should take into account multiple factors and that acting too quickly can be an issue. I do, however, think that tragedies can be an important catalyst for making necessary changes happen sometimes; if nobody died from guns, then the debate over gun ownership would be purely theoretical. As Kirsti noted below, it was the 1996 massacre that prompted Australia to revisit and eventually change their gun laws, and there haven't been any mass shootings in the 16 years since. I don't think we'll ever be 100% safe, but I do think that more can be done to prevent these kinds of mass shootings than is currently being done, and if a tragedy is what gets people to the table to seriously consider potential changes, then so be it.

  4. See, this is why I am glad you don't write a "story blog." You're so good at nuanced analysis and setting the tone for a compassionate discussion. And as you point out, nuance and compassion are exactly what are missing a lot of the time from these type of discussions in our society. We need to act, but we also need to not jump to conclusions about an "obvious" solution and disparage everyone who has a different opinion. I saw that happening almost instantly after the shooting happened, and it made me really sad. If we can't be nonviolent in how we talk to each other, if we can't work together in seeking solutions, is that not part of the very same problem?

    I am feeling a little uncomfortable now that I was very personal and not very political when I posted on this subject. But as I keep saying, sometimes uncomfortable is exactly what we're called to be, because that's what moved us to action. So thank you for that.

    1. I'm glad you posted what you did because you could put words to my feelings. We need both sorrow and solutions -- we are dehumanized without one, and hopeless without the other.

  5. I've actually been avoiding commenting on the whole thing. Partly because it affected me far more than I would have thought possible, and partly because as an Australian, I find it difficult to understand America's determination to keep access to guns unchanged.

    I've mentioned the changes to Australia's gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre of 1996 (semi-automatics and privately owned hand guns are illegal. Automatics were already illegal for private citizens) on Facebook in the past, and ended up trapped in conversations with gun nuts that ended in "Well, f*ck you, we've got nuclear weapons and you don't". So part of why I've been avoiding commenting is wanting to avoid similar arguments!

    I totally agree with you, there's no simple solution. I just hope that America can work together to actually FIND a solution, rather than treating the symptoms of the problem individually. (If I see one more person say that the solution is to have armed police and metal detectors in every school, I will SCREAM. Because NO. That is not a solution.)

    1. I don't blame you for not wanting to comment. I wasn't sure what kind of response I was going to get to this post, since everyone seems to be chomping at the bit to share their particular single-sentence view on the entire thing. So far it's been good, even if no one has any more ideas than I do about how to get the conversation away from being about a single issue/solution.

      It looks like many governmental leaders here are starting to push for discussions about gun control, which is one step. I'm sure people would argue that there are reasons that what works in Australia wouldn't work in the U.S. -- but I hope that the discussion will include a broad range of statistics about what has been tried here and elsewhere and how it has affected gun fatalities. As Mórrígan said, though, people don't often like to bring data into the discussion as much as they should.

  6. This is timely for me: Although I didn't react very strongly to the Sandy Hook shootings, yesterday I went to Bronze Alert training. I work at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic in Pittsburgh, where there was a shooting spree in March (in the main hospital--I actually work in an office building half a mile away) so we all have to have this training now. Which is ironic because the fact that it happened here doesn't mean the risk of it happening here in the future is any higher. These incidents are pretty randomly distributed around America. (However, I feel the trainer was exaggerating when she said it was "totally random"--John Shick was a WPIC patient with a grudge against WPIC, so that's why he attacked at WPIC rather than McDonald's.) It's good though to have some instruction on how best to evade and escape if it happens, wherever you are.

    I'm distressed that some people are saying, "This is more proof that schools are dangerous and everyone should home-school!" Funny how they didn't say we should stop going to supermarkets and movie theaters when shootings happened there. Of course I gave a little thought to how awful it would be if this happened at MY kid's school, but it's highly unlikely that it ever will, so it's hardly a reason to take him out of school. (If anything, school-bashing rhetoric is likely to INCREASE attacks at schools.)

    The issues surrounding gun control and mental health are extremely complex and hard to resolve. I've been frustrated by the number of people in Pittsburgh saying over the course of this year that the WPIC shooting was "just waiting to happen" because the building's security wasn't tight enough. We solve very little by submitting everyone to major security protocols, and the vast majority of people entering a mental hospital have no inclination to harm anyone, so why feed paranoia by treating them like criminals or as if they're entering a dangerous space?

    I assume that in Connecticut, as in Pittsburgh, there is finger-pointing about how mental health professionals should have protected society from this person. They try--and they get no credit for the ones with which they succeed, because we don't hear about them--but there's a fine line between caging up a person who MIGHT harm someone and respecting an individual's rights to choose his medical care. Sometimes a patient manages to slip through the cracks, sometimes purposefully leading each mental health professional to believe that another one is taking care of him.

    As in the sad case of a mental patient quickly gunned down by police, I have more questions than answers about how these things happen, and the only thing I know for certain is that there are a lot of people to pray for.

    As a researcher working with crime data, I can see that reducing access to guns would somewhat decrease the number of murders in America, but many killers use a gun they didn't obtain legally or use some other type of weapon. Access to a gun is only one risk factor. Mental illness is only one risk factor. Big impersonal systems that can lead people to feel estranged from other human beings are only one risk factor. All this stuff tangles together. What a mess!

    1. A lot of what you said here makes me think back to some of what I wrote in my 9/11 post, in that I think people want to feel 100% SAFE wherever they go, and that's just not realistic. There is an element of risk simply in living and going about our daily life. I didn't understand people saying after 9/11 that they suddenly felt like there were no longer safe, as if they'd been completely safe from all harm before. But my reaction to the Sandy Hook school shooting showed an underlying assumption I had, which was that there was something safe, or sacred, about an elementary school, that even a mass killer wouldn't go after tiny children. And clearly, that assumption was wrong.

      One thing I didn't explicitly mention, but which your comment brings up, is that there are so many logical fallacies thrown around in these kinds of discussions. Schools are not guaranteed havens of safety ≠ everyone should homeschool. Some people kill using a gun obtained illegally ≠ we should avoid ever having a conversation about gun control. Mental instability can contribute to someone deciding to shoot a bunch of people ≠ all people with mental illness need to be locked up or it's their psychologist's fault if anything happens. And so on. With so many logical leaps it makes it seem difficult sometimes to have any sort of productive discussion on preventing future tragedies.


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