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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Thoughts on the Newtown horror
Peter C. Hansen  (December 20, 2012, 3:02 am)

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:18)

When we approach Christmas, the Gospel story we read is about a child in a manger, not a child in a morgue. The Slaughter of the Innocents takes place later on. This year, however, the old story has been horribly reversed. Children expecting Santa were instead greeted by a sadistic Adam Lanza. The scene for us remains frozen at their horrifying last moments. We cannot picture them at rest because we cannot be at rest. We cannot bear the fact that affectionate little kids were shot to pieces, exposed to extreme terror and without hope of rescue. Like Rachel, we refuse to be comforted, we weep and we mourn, because they are no more.

As the shock of the Newtown massacre reverberates through our society, a political storm has predictably begun to brew. It promises to be a retread of past struggles, however, and most of it will be dispiritingly pointless and frustrating for everyone. To avoid refighting old cultural battles, perhaps the following five simple (and hardly original) suggestions might prove useful:

1. Quit excusing spree murderers as "crazy." There are people who are truly out of it, and then there are people who are odd but also evil-minded and angry. The law traditionally defines insanity as not knowing right from wrong, for example when a murderer thinks that he is living in Hades or fighting aliens. It is not found where a person follows the well-worn Columbine model, which is essentially "suicide with company." Following that grim process takes knowledge, forethought, planning and a narrative arc that ends when the authorities show up and the killer shoots himself. If anything, Adam Lanza's action was entirely derivative, but for the fact that he seems to have gone for, and succeeded in, a non plus ultra flourish – deliberately targeting small kids to generate maximum horror. That is different from the now commonplace loser-shooting-up-a-mall scenario. Lanza's actions indicate an immaturely egotistical ambition, which can easily co-exist with clinical social disabilities. Just because this ambition is utterly cold and cruel does not make it insane. It is important to remember that the Einsatzgruppen thugs who slaughtered a million people in the early stages of the Holocaust were found to go insane after they worked their way through murdering thousands of men, women and children in cold blood – not before they started.

2. Start making fun of spree killers. We have to face the fact that a tiny sliver of the male population defines success as going out in a murderous blaze. This is not an expression of despair, but rather of a weird onanism. The video-game quality of blasting human targets, and the predictable coup de grace when the killer shoots himself, is a parody of teenage male fantasies of power and self-pity. For these guys, their one perceived shot at dominance and fame is to kill a bunch of unsuspecting people. Treating such jackasses as terrifying menaces only increases the appeal of a spree for the next killer. (Indeed, the trend of similar spree killings indicates that we now have a cultural script for mass-slaughter.) We need to discourage would-be spree killers by depriving them of the menacing status they hope to attain as cold-blooded killers. The only way to do that at present is to have comedians and others treat such people as the dopiest losers around. (South Park would be masterful at this.) It takes a lot of cachet out of being a spree killer if you think that people are going to make fun of you when you are dead. We should not assume that spree killers are immune to social cues. Such cues are what has allegedly rendered them disaffected, after all. Moreover, no one follows the Columbine model, or targets children, unless they are keenly aware of the script and its expected social effects. If we can make the script unattractive, we may find that spree killings quietly cease.

3. Foster a strong culture of social responsibility among gun owners. Gun control is a hot-potato issue, but it need not be. Groups like the NRA could do a great service by moving gun culture away from the "cold, dead hands" attitude and toward one of scrupulous social responsibility – in effect an exacting warrior code. (In New Jersey, this should emphasize keeping guns at home rather than in a holster. The state is quite safe for most people, and shootouts seem inconceivable in most places.) In all events, if gun ownership's social purpose is to permit formation of a "well-regulated militia," then society needs to be sure that gun owners know what they are doing and that they treat their weapons with the same extreme care with which samurai treated their katanas. Training and background checks are not seriously controversial, and it stands to reason that the greater a weapon's mass-lethality (including high-speed shooting capacity and large clips), the greater should be the state's training and licensing requirements for lawful possession. This could and arguably should include periodic mental assessments. Likewise, both state law and private insurance companies should harshly discourage persons from possessing guns in homes where other residents are mentally ill. Had Mrs. Lanza not kept a bunch of guns at home, it is quite possible that the Newtown massacre never would have happened.

4. Expand mental health coverage by the state. Advocating for expanded mental health assistance (including forcible treatment) by the state is not a "liberal" or "progressive" act, but one aimed at securing the populace from harm. Such protection is one of the core functions of the state. This duty extends to shielding caregivers and family members of the mentally ill, as well as the mentally ill themselves. The state must help the patient have a chance at liberty by treating their inability to function as a rational adult. If this paradoxically results in the person's confinement, this can be justified if it protects the patient or others from harm. While there will of course be a natural tension between the duty to treat and the duty to respect personal autonomy, it is clear that we need to arrive at a new balance that brings persons like Mr. Lanza and Mr. Cho under the care and watch of the state.

5. Start to return public behavior to historical norms of civility. Freud and others have pointed out that each culture has its own forms of mental illness. The phenomenon of the spree killer is not universal, and Mr. Lanza's action suggests that he is very much a product of our vehemently crass society. His pathologically self-centered act – setting out to shoot children en masse – is an extreme form of that most notable feature of our age, narcissistic alienation. Mr. Lanza might have had difficulty in identifying social cues, but how many people today exhibit such awareness? (For just a few simple examples of lousy behavior, think of people bellowing into cell phones on crowded buses or in coffee shops, or people swearing like sailors in front of toddlers.) If society consciously upheld norms of proper, civilized behavior, Mr. Lanza might never have thought to shoot up a school. This is because good manners require one to think of other people's feelings. In other words, one must empathize. Such awareness makes a cold-blooded, first-person-player shootup of live human beings very difficult if not impossible to imagine, let alone undertake. If we want people like Mr. Lanza to treat people as being worthy of consideration, we have to do the same thing ourselves in our daily lives. We never know whom we will affect with our behavior, for good or ill.

In the end, of course, there is no toggle switch that turns off a hellbent murderer. It may be hoped nonetheless that by changing the cultural climate, the fissures from which spree killers spring will close, and our wounded society will gradually begin to heal. If that makes for a rather sad Christmas wish this year, it is also strangely fitting. Christmas was, after all, the introduction of divine grace into a hopeless world. Like all those who experienced that original night, let us humbly receive this great gift in these darkest of days, and do our best to reflect it in the days ahead.