Unspeakable Horror

In the aftermath of the horrific shootings in Sandy Hook Elementary School, we see (as we do after each of these increasingly common incidents) many pieces in news media and from mental health experts (including the American Psychological Association) on how to talk to children about such tragedies. Unfortunately, we adults also need help in figuring out how to talk to each other – and ourselves – about such events.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Newtown, Connecticut, on this sad morning. We cannot imagine the soul-wrenching grief, shock, and loss for the parents of the children killed yesterday. We must honor the memory of these innocents, and the courage of the brave teachers and school staff members, especially those who were killed in the rampage.

My thoughts and prayers are also with the family of the young man who committed this act, especially his brother and father. We must also extend our empathy and concern for the loss of his mother, and the loss of the gunman himself. This is going to be more difficult for most of us because of the normal human tendency toward anger and vengefulness when someone acts in such a violent manner.

We cannot know what was going on in the mind of this young man. To speak of “evil,” “cold-hearted,” or “selfish” behavior – as people have been doing on Internet comment boards – is presumptuous and self-serving, if understandable. We need to have a way to process our confusion, fear, and shock. But we must resist the temptation to revile the offender or his family, or to create simple and cheaply satisfying explanations to make ourselves feel better. This is a human tendency. We all do this after hearing any bad news. We distance ourselves from the vulnerability we feel by trying to rationalize why it could not happen to us… We don’t go to “those” places, and we don’t associate with “that type of people.” This is why many of us don’t react as strongly to stories of children being gunned down in Englewood in Chicago, but feel violated when a suburban school in a quiet New England town is the scene of an equal number of killings as those taking place on any summer weekend in Chicago.

(To his credit, President Obama made a reference to this disconnect in his remarks after the news of the shootings broke. But the passing nature of his reference, “…and on the streets of Chicago,” seems to reflect our reluctance to draw comparisons, a sign of the pervasiveness of a double standard about the rights of our citizens in poor neighborhoods to live and work safely. At its root, this is a double standard based on social exclusion.)

But there is little lasting value in projecting our own explanations onto the mind of a killer who has taken his own life, putting himself beyond the reach of any real inquiry. We have one exception to use, however. One individual who committed and survived such a mass killing recently, Jared Loughner – who killed a number of people and gravely wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords – was found unfit to participate in his own trial until medicated. Once his mental illness was treated, he pled guilty. His example makes it clear that we cannot apply our everyday standards of logic to the mind of a person in the grip of a psychotic disorder. Sadly, even mental health professionals indulge in this pastime in the wake of such shootings. A psychiatrist interviewed on CBS yesterday talked about how the shooter was probably looking for notoriety and to be “somebody,” and that it is easier to become well-known for a violent act than for constructive efforts within society. We have to accept the fact that this man’s mental processes will always be largely unknown to us. We may glean hints and contrive theories from talking to his family and the clues left behind, but it is a mistake to think we can understand such actions.

What we can do, however, is to resolve to look at these incidents with the goal of constructing policies that may reduce the chances they will occur again in the future. Most of the individuals who commit these attacks are young men acting alone, presumably for individualistic reasons. Most meet the criteria for being mentally ill. Most gave some hints beforehand of dissatisfaction or maladjustment. And all had access to powerful and deadly weapons through legal means. We can guess, based on the age of onset of mental illnesses in most individuals, that these perpetrators’ first severe break with reality happened around the time of their actual attacks.

We need better indicators of impending violent behavior that results from serious mental illness in young adults like these. We also need legal and medical resources and processes that can help minimize the chance of lethality in their behavior to others. Obviously, this means attempting to limit their access to the types of extremely effective weapons that they have used in their attacks: semi-automatic firearms with mechanisms that fire a large number of killer bullets in a short time. We need to consider how to do this while respecting our citizens’ right not to be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure based only on hypothetical risks they may pose. We also need to consider how to work on preventing these incidents without infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. The problem arises because most of these perpetrators – despite any warning signs that may or may not have been heeded – were law-abiding until their attacks. And even the most stringent and consistently used reporting requirements for disqualifying people who have received treatment for mental illnesses from legally having guns will miss a significant portion of the population of individuals who may become violent and still have access to weapons.

As far back as 1976, when I began working on an inpatient psychiatric unit, we were required to inform patients that they could lose the ability to obtain a firearm owner’s identification card as a consequence of their treatment. But we did not report their treatment to anyone, and there was no mechanism that would have assured that they would be flagged on a gun permit application and be prevented from having access to weapons in the future. Today’s background checks may be improved from those of the 1970’s because of shared databases, but we must still wonder how many individuals who have been treated for mental illness (especially on an outpatient basis) will be found on a background check for gun permits. And this does not include those who have not yet received formal treatment.

Further, there are many who seek treatment, even on an inpatient basis, who pose no danger to others. Most of these noteworthy perpetrators commit suicide in the process of carrying out their killings, but most suicidal individuals pose no danger to others. Violating the privacy of people who seek treatment on the chance that we may prevent possible future violence would discourage many of them from getting help.

It seems that we have no choice but to face the wrath of the gun owners and their lobbyists, and set a higher bar for access to the most deadly of these firearms. Assault-style weapons, once banned, have now become the norm. Those who have a need and some socially sensible reason for desiring to own these weapons – assuming we as a society can justify such a need – should be held to standards of psychological fitness and skill training that are at least as thorough as those for commercial truck drivers. My personal opinion is that worries about “freedom” and “rights” when applied to firearms often reflect irrational attitudes and beliefs that are immune to logic or pragmatism. Straw man arguments, false analogies, and strained reasoning abound, with the most egregious example being the argument that if everyone simply had access to all the most powerful weapons they can get, the situation would be better instead of worse. The leader of a gun owners’ organization proclaimed yesterday that “the blood of those children is on the hands” of those who advocated for gun-free zones around schools. As if the kids would shoot back. Even if they are only advocating arming the adults, it seems unlikely that the average school staffer would have occasion to defend themselves and the children they teach more often than they would accidentally shoot themselves or each other.

It’s obvious to me that some very deep and partially unconscious attitudes and beliefs underlie such a statement. The famous “cold, dead hands” line that Charlton Heston immortalized reflects in part the primal fear and aggression that lie beneath many seemingly reasonable arguments about gun possession as a constitutional right. America is in love with guns as symbols of self-determination and individual power. Even an advertisement for one of the weapons used in yesterday’s shootings urges purchasers to “renew your man card” by buying it. I have come to think of this set of attitudes as a sort of “gun-ism,” best understood as analogous to racism. Like racial attitudes, these gut reactions about gun possession are widely shared, rooted in childhood and role-modeled attitudes, and driven to greater heights by fear, insecurity, and resentment. The blatantly paranoid belief that “Obama is coming for your guns” can only be explained by the existence of such deeply rooted fears and resentments. (The fact that it is our first African-American president who engenders such fears also suggests that the link between gun-ism and racism is more than an analogy).

 
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