The legacy of Sandy Hook

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What is wrong with us as a society? As if the deaths at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was not horrible enough, our reaction to it has been shameful.

The bodies weren't cold yet when the predictable icons started flying around Facebook and the same old arguments were being trotted out in sensationalized media commentary - people USING the deaths of innocent children to promote their own causes.

The anti-gun people: if we had more gun control this wouldn't have happened. The pro-gun people: if only teachers carried assault rifles in school like they do in Israel, this wouldn't have happened. The anti-Christians: This is proof there is no God. The Christian right: Don't expect God to stop such things, because he's been thrown out of schools. Conservatives are using it to attack liberals, and liberals to attack conservatives. Groups that oppose violence in TV are using it, groups that oppose video games are using it. Groups that oppose schooling and parenting methods are using it. Groups that oppose the military actions in the middle east are using it. It is as if they have just been waiting for an opportunity they can grab onto for leverage in their various causes.

Can't we simply mourn for lost innocents - at least for a few hours? Can't we simply feel for the families torn forever, without politicizing them? Can't we just hurt for a minute?

Truth is, it is not about the gun debate. You could ban firearms entirely and it would not prevent violence and tragedy from happening. And you could stock grade schools with assault rifles, and that would likely only create new problems.

It's not about politics. Or religion. Or media.

It is about mental illness.

We don't want to hear that, because it is a complicated problem that can't be fixed in that simple, overnight, tied-with-a-bow way we so crave - as it would be to add more guns or take more guns away, or put Bibles in every backpack or elect a new batch of scoundrels and brush off our hands and say, "There, we've fixed it. What next?"

We wish it were so simple as not giving killers fame on the evening news, as Morgan Freeman suggests, or ceasing to make video games or war movies that glorify killing. We rush to make sense of a tragedy so senseless that we can't wrap our rational minds around it, and these are the kind of things we come up with in the sorrow of the moment, meaning well. We must find something to blame and then make a law about it. It is our way.

But as the hours pass,we realize that all the gun measures we could write, pulling all the national media off the air and the presses, even putting mandatory prayers and police security everywhere, still would not address the problem - mental illness.

We do not really know what was going on in the brain of the Sandy Hook killer, and probably never will know, as is the case with most of the others who have taken innocent lives randomly in a mall, at a theater, on a college campus, at a temple, in a workplace, or on a city street corner in recent years. What could

drive a human being to take lives of people they didn't even know - people who have done nothing to them, destroying themselves in the process?

We can't understand it, because it isn't sane. It isn't simple revenge, or power, or the seeking of glory, as least not as we try to understand those things in our own minds.

Sixty-one times since the 1980s we have had shooting mass murders. Each time we are stunned, and for a few days, we demand that something be done, and it never is. Then we go back to our lives for a few months, until the next time. The next times seem to be getting closer together - we are as shocked each time, but perhaps, sadly, less and less surprised. And still we come no closer to even admitting the root problem - mental illness.

I know several parents in Storm Lake who have children with mental disorders. They do their best - take them to doctors, to counselors and psychologists. They dutifully serve up whatever cocktail of medications are prescribed at the moment. Please know, most are not criminal, just challenged. In severe cases, parents find that there are few options for the care they need in rural areas such as this. They do their best to reach their child, the schools do their best, and we hope that they will eventually grow out of their disorder or learn to manage it. Most, thank God, do.

It's not a matter of good and bad people - if only it were that simple. We don't understand as much of mental illness as we wish we did, but we've all seen troubled young people angelic at one moment; out of control the next.

The mind is a complicated place where we are just beginning to know how little we know. Misfiring synapses and chemical imbalances and uncheckable rage - symptoms all the more frightening because we don't know what to do about them. Counseling helps some, and so can medication, but in other cases they seem to make things worse, or if they are effective, may suddenly cease to be. I've seen parents simply give up, overwhelmed.

I have had parents right here tell me they are physically afraid of their children and what they might do. It is not an uncommon thing at all for local police to be called out by frantic parents afraid that their troubled children may hurt themselves or someone else. These families need help, and we had better start listening.

It almost seems as if takes a crime, something a child can be charged with, to get them to some inpatient service they may need, in far too many cases.

Oh, and crime there will be. It has been estimated that nearly 60 percent of criminal population in prison today suffer from diagnosable mental illnesses - a staggering statistic. This does not absolve the criminal of evil actions at all, mind you, but it does make one wonder how many of those crimes and wasted lives might have been prevented with better diagnosis, treatment and care.

Perhaps no one can say for sure if the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary displayed symptoms of severe trouble that could have been picked up on long before the tragedy; whether treatment, counseling or any medication we yet have access to could have possibly prevented it.

Should someone have known to commit him? At times locally I have seen the same people do violent and asocial crimes over and over again - there have been recent cases of people let out of jail with 20 such offenses in a handful of years' time. One wonders what it would take for them to be taken off the streets, either for treatment if that is possible, or simply put away before innocent people's lives are so almost inevitably ruined by them.

Yes, one wonders why there would be an assault-calibre weapon and enough ammo to shoot up a school kept within reach of someone like Adam Lanza. No one should condone that. But the gun isn't the root issue here, and should not be allowed to cloud what is.

We need to recognize the next Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, Seung-Hui Cho. We need to get their parents help, if help is possible; and if it is not, we need to get people off the streets and not wait for the outburst of violence.

Before our eyes, another epic tragedy. It would be still another if we fail, again, to do anything real about it.