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Acceptable Levels

by Stephen Leon on December 20, 2012


For most of us, life will go on as usual after the news dies down about the mass killings in Newtown, Conn. Just as life went on after Aurora, after Tucson, after Virginia Tech, after Columbine . . .

As Miriam Axel-Lute points out in her column in this issue of Metroland, the likelihood of a mass shooting taking place in your school or town is extremely small, and your children are more at risk of injury or death riding in an automobile than sitting in the classroom.

But maybe it’s the fact that it was mostly small children who perished in the Newtown attack that has affected us more deeply than usual, made us stop to contemplate whether this massacre was merely the work of a sick individual or more a symptom of an increasingly sick society.

And I’m not the only one who has had these thoughts. Not just on Facebook and Twitter, but from people whose work concerns aspects of the human condition, such as church clergy (mine said, “This was not a tragedy, this was evil”), and from media-friendly therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky, whose website message I quote in part here:

“. . . I think we have moved into a different realm after this tragedy. We have crossed over into a zone that I never anticipated.

“We are designed biologically to have the kindest, most tender feelings towards our little ones. The ultimate purpose of civilization and society is to successfully bring children into adulthood and make them productive members of society.

“What happened at Sandy Hook is absolutely unthinkable.”

Pinsky eloquently states what nags at many of us regarding the Newtown shooting: Since when did it even become an option for a person to walk into an elementary school and start gunning down 5-year-old children?

I don’t have the answer; I doubt any of us does. Perhaps more gun control would have a positive effect on limiting gun violence, however, it is not clear to me that Adam Lanza’s mother would not have had guns anyway, or that he would not have figured out some other means to get them. I also believe quality mental-health care is a human right and a social necessity, though I’m not sure it will save every Adam Lanza or help us spot him before he heads off for school armed to the teeth.

Assigning blame gets crazy, and the evangelical right got batshit crazy spewing such nonsense as God didn’t protect Sandy Hook because we won’t let him in the building, or because Connecticut allows same-sex marriage. More interesting is the mainstreaming of the libertarian-right idea that we’d be better off simply if more people were armed, and therefore someone could stop an incipient carnage before it gathered steam. Since Sandy Hook, I’ve heard that everyone from school security guards to administrators to classroom teachers should carry guns—and one such report on the subject I heard delivered without a trace of irony on NPR.

Again, don’t expect a school shooting in your town anytime soon. But while there have been random mass killings since forever, school shootings did not begin to form regular timeline clusters until about the late 1980s. So in that sense, we may already be in a “different realm,” and may have been there for about 25 years.

When I was in school, we did fire drills but never practiced lockdowns. Was it a different world? Violence itself is nothing new: the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s saw poltical assassinations, Manson murders, serial killers. And yet . . .

I just don’t recall a level of hate—and the widespread expression of, and often condoning of hate—like I have noticed since the ’90s when I started to read about militias arming for the coming conflicts—against their own government. And while people always love to hate on the president they didn’t want, extreme expressions were frowned upon by most of society until fairly recently. Reagan and Bush received their share, but it was nothing compared to the venom directed regularly at Barack Obama. And Tea Party and talk radio extremists fearlessly inflame these passions and make no apology for it. Was it OK for Sarah Palin to tell her followers to “reload?” Is it OK to go to a Hate Obama Facebook page and post comments like “any good assassins out there looking for hire?” The current president has received more death threats than any other in history. Is this who we are?

OK, none of this explains what happened in Newtown. There is no explanation. Killing small children is unacceptable—we all know that, right? Killing period is unacceptable, right? What about hate? Do we make exceptions? How many are allowable, and how far into a different realm do they lead us?