When I heard the news today about the school shootings in Connecticut, I instantly pictured a class full of little children looking at a man pointing a gun at them, imagining the looks
on their faces. Immediately I was filled with emotion – I am a father. I know what it is to awaken in the middle of the night to a child’s screams, run into a dark bedroom and give comfort to a terrified little boy, in panic from a nightmare. But today was not a nightmare; it was a real man with a gun, firing repeatedly into the little bodies of children.
These are early hours – we know nothing about the shooter, his history, his background, his story. We will though. And probably it will turn out that there were lots of things that had gone wrong for him, most likely that he has a form of mental illness. His life, already personally tragic, became the tragedy for so many others – adults at the school as well as children. In these early hours it appears that perhaps he may have killed his mother at his house before going to the school where she was a teacher. It has been reported that the guns he used were legally purchased, not by him, but by her. Did she buy them for him because he was unable to? Did she buy them to protect herself from fear of him? The questions stack up instantly.
I read Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie long ago. I don’t have the book anymore to check my memory, so some details may be wrong, but I think I remember enough of one account that makes me shiver. Dr. Peck was counseling a boy whose older brother had committed suicide. He had shot himself. Scott was having no success trying to counsel the boy,; he wouldn’t speak. He was clearly upset, self-inflicting wounds on his arms with his fingernails. It was just after Christmas. Dr. Peck recounted that in an attempt to get him to say something, he asked him what gifts he got from his parents,. The boy replied “…gun.” Dr. Peck was horrified that the surviving brother of a suicide by gun shot would be given a gun by his own parents. He questioned him further – “You got a gun?” “No,” the boy corrected, “not a gun; the gun.” His parents had given him the same gun his brother had killed himself with. Later, in a session with the mother, who was the picture of proper manners and politeness, Dr. Peck reports that she told him that knowing that their younger son like guns in general (a lie), and that gun in particular (a further lie) and being short on cash (yet another lie) they thought it best to give their younger son his brother’s suicide weapon.
Why do people do things? Are we even aware of why we do things? On the surface, yes, but we all know enough from magazine articles and from a million other random sources a few things about psychology. We know that trauma, including abuse can do damage to the mind. We know that brain chemistry can be out of balance with terrible consequences. We know that genetics plays a role in mental illness. We know that illegal drugs can have all kinds of effects on a person’s thinking – recently here in Mobile, AL. a man stoned on garden-variety cocaine threw five of his own children off a bridge to their deaths. We know that people who suffer from schizophrenia can hear voices in their heads who tell them to do things, and they feel compelled to obey (this is a very present, very sad reality for our community, right now). So, in every population, we know that there will be some people who are capable of doing things like the massacre of innocents that happened today. We know that most of us will be totally surprised when it happens – those of us who had a passing acquaintance with the murderer will speak of how normal we all thought he/she was, and how shocked we are to learn about this dark side that must have been there all along.
There will be some people who had clues; his family perhaps, a few close friends, maybe even a counselor who was treating him knew that all was not well. But right now, there are thousands of people, pastors, like me, or counselors, or parents of troubled youth, who know about mental illness or depression or even irrational behavior of people we are trying to help, the overwhelming majority of whom will not commit mass murder. Yes they will go back and find the clues, but none of these people were probably in a position to imagine that this would or even could happen. But it did.
Another layer of the tragedy today is that, as a psychologist who was interviewed on the news said, other people with mental illness will become copy-cats of today’s horror. We just don’t know who or when.
What else do we know? We know that one of the guns used to kill 20 children and 6 adults today was called a Glock. ABC news reports that it is a favorite among mass murderers. The Glock is semi-automatic, accurate, and uses a high volume magazine of bullets that can be reloaded quickly and easily. The same gun was used by the man who opened fire in the Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado this past July where 12 people died and dozens were injured. It was used by the man who shot and nearly killed Gabrielle Giffords; 12 others did not survive. The list of these mass killings by means of this one type of gun goes on and on. The ban on such weapons expired in 2004, but was too hot politically for anyone to take up. So now they are legal again.
We know that mentally unstable people should never have access to guns. But we know that with all the guns available, they do. We know that guns alone do not account for the bizarre murder rate we have in America. Canadians own a lot of guns, but do not use them to kill each other at anything close to the rate we kill our own. So, what’s up, America?
Truth is, we believe in violence. As a culture, we believe we have been saved by our superior violence. That’s the way we tell the story of our history: WWI, WWII, and we believe that we are saved today by our superior violence – or the threat it imposes. We believe that we are the good guys who, like the vigilante character Batman, are authorized by our own righteousness, to use violence as a means.
We actually love violence, used in the pursuit of our natural goodness. We love the violence of a dead Bin Laden. We love the impersonal violence of drone strikes against “known militants.” of Al Qaeda in Yemen and in Pakistan. We love violence against Hezbollah in Gaza.
We just received a video game producer’s Christmas magazine. Nearly every new video seems to be an orgy of violence. It’s entertainment. I don’t believe that it has been demonstrated that all these violent games makes people act violently in ways they would not have otherwise, but these games are deeply imbedded in our culture; part of the way we celebrate violence.
This is the world in which a mother, a teacher of young children, feels OK about going out and buying military-style semi-automatic weapons and ammunition. Did she see herself as a potential shooter? Whose body did she imagine unloading burst of multiple rounds of bullets into? Or were these weapons gifts she gave? Who did she think would use them? On whom? These are not target or hunting guns. What kind of world makes these weapons available to a woman-mother-school teacher in a small town in Connecticut as if she might have some justifiable reason to own them?
This is not about the guns, it’s about the world that wants to be awash in guns and not blush. Of course they will get into the hands of people who will use them to kill people. Of course these people will walk into schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, political rallies, summer youth camps, army bases, anywhere where people gather, and start shooting. And we will all wring our hands and grieve and ask what could possibly be done as if we were not part of this culture, as if it caught us off guard. Again.