Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown and America

BACK IN the summer there was a hope, if only a faint one, that Aurora would be the tipping point — that the horrific events of July in Colorado would be the inescapable catalyst that would spark the United States into a frank self-appraisal on gun violence and its velocity into the culture and the national life.

We’d thought that before, of course. We dared to dream the same dream of a full-on dialogue about gun access and gun violence after the Oak Creek tragedy, in August, when a bigoted nightcrawler shot six Sikh worshippers to death in the temple of their faith. We were just as certain that would happen after the shootings in Tucson, in January 2011, when Gabby Giffords was wounded and six of her constituents were killed by another gunman. There was a belief that the nation would have to give itself a good talking-to after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which 32 people died at the hands of another assailant.

With Friday’s events in Newtown, Conn., the nation’s just been invited to begin a new gradual onset of amnesia. Professionals are just now debating what social, emotional or biochemical imbalances made Adam Lanza snap on Friday morning, kill his mother at the home they shared, walk into the Sandy Hook Elementary School about 9:30 a.m. with a .223 caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle, and kill six adult teachers and school staff between the ages of 27 and 56; then kill 20 schoolchildren no older than seven years of age; and then himself.

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Jeff Gardere, a clinical psychologist speaking Friday on MSNBC, said Lanza “went into, I think, that fugue state, knew he was not coming out of this alive.”

Gardere said that, for Lanza, the slaughter “was his major statement about hate towards his parents, towards his mother, but especially [hate] towards the world.”

For Gardere, the architects of such domestic massacre have a binding thread among them: “They have made a decision … that this is gonna be their big statement; they’re gonna blow their whole wad on this, they’re gonna create mayhem, terror, horror, and then they’re gonna take themselves out. There’s no way they’re going back from this, so everybody’s gonna die — including themselves.”

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Gun-rights advocates are in hunker-down mode right now, content to take the National Rifle Assoaiction’s phone off the hook and murmur “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” as an incantation meant to resolve everything.

In the wake of the Aurora shootings, one pro-gun commenter at a discussion forum on a theoretical ban on personal firearms asked:  “Would it be reasonable, then, to ban all sharp objects? While we’re at it, why don’t we reduce the speed limit on all major highways to 10 miles per hour, thereby eliminating nearly all deaths by traffic accident?”

It’s the same mindless reductio ad absurdum frequently invoked by the myrmidons of the pro-gun movement, a rhetorical defense that fails to realize the built-in sophistry of its argument, doesn’t grasp that sharp objects and speed limits aren’t fundamentally designed to maim and kill. That’s not what they do. That’s all that guns do. That’s all they were ever intended to do.

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INVOKING THE Second Amendment isn’t enough in the ongoing gun debate, if it ever was. The prevailing realities of today, and its distinctions between now and the amendment’s originating era, make that obvious. When the Second Amendment was ratified in December 1791, the United States was a smaller, more dangerous and unpredictable place, as much raw frontier as manicured cities and towns.

There were literally existential threats to the building and development of the young nation at that time, and in the decade after that time. From the British (again) to the Spanish (over the scope of the Louisiana Purchase), from the native Americans (defending their indigenous status and the territorial rights that came with it) to the basic fact of life in a vast, untamed land mass teeming with wildlife, the challenges facing the people in the United States back then called for the widest interpretive latitudes of the Second Amendment. Keeping and bearing arms was as much a practical necessity as it was a constitutional right. Way back in the national day.

Well, we don’t live in that United States anymore. And we haven’t lived in a nation that wild and woolly for at least two hundred years. And those who endlessly, reflexively parrot the language of Amendment II increasingly do so with no thought of how the viral proliferation of firearms in today’s society has fully eclipsed the elegance, the simplicity — and the relative innocence — of that amendment, and the era of its origin.

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What’s needed isn’t a repeal of the Second Amendment. What’s needed is a willingness to address the fact that the Framers couldn’t have imagined the vast firepower available to the average American citizen today. What’s needed is for state legislatures to get serious about tightening lax concealed- and open-carry gun laws, one of them (in Kansas) so elastic that gun-permit holders can carry concealed weapons inside K-12 schools — like Sandy Hook Elementary.

What’s called for is the will of President Obama and the Congress to lead the nation in both a dialogue with the nation about gun violence, and a legislative dialogue that leads to longer waiting periods; more restrictions on gun-show purchases; closer federal scrutiny of the purchase of high-capacity magazines; more aggressive programs to stop school bullying; an end to cutting the services of psychologists and counselors from school budgets for budgetary reasons; the courage to engage the gun lobby from the White House and Capitol Hill; and a renewal of the federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in September 2004.

Before what happened in Aurora or Portland or Oak Creek or Tucson or Virginia Tech happened. Before what happened in Newtown happened. Before what happens in Chicago and Philadelphia and other American cities every day.

What’s called for is to send this message, right now: The National Rifle Association and the pro-gun lobbyists on Capitol Hill don’t get to decide this goes away. They don’t set the agenda for the public discourse. Not anymore. We can’t let that happen. And we can’t abet that happening.

If we as a nation can paper this over, if this gets lost in the soundbites and the wash of subsequent events, if this moves to the backburner of the collective attention span ... it’s over. America will be over, or very nearly so, because America will have consigned its future, the children that are its future, to the flames. We will have sacrificed the human beings that seed the future of this nation on the altar of political expediency. We will have blotted out our own sun. And we will atone.

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BEFORE THIS latest national tragedy has publicly run its course, before this is all over, some souls in the grievously wounded Connecticut town of about 27,000 people will be recorded saying, sadly and innocently, “this shouldn’t happen here.” “This isn’t supposed to happen here.” “This kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” Allowing for an understandable imprecision of thought in the midst of shock and pain, there’s an unintended cynicism at the root of such observations, spoken so frequently in the past as to have become a reflex, a kind of post-traumatic cliché.

Maybe that’s something our leaders can get to in that dialogue with the country: Getting across the idea that the violence visited on Newtown, and all the other victimized cities and towns, isn’t “supposed” to happen anywhere. That such violence can be as random as it seems to be ubiquitous — as much anywhere as everywhere. And that is the problem.

President Obama seemed to get this on Friday. “As a country, we have been through this too many times,” the president said from the White House, at a news conference in which the leader of the free world, a man of formidable self-control, a father of two daughters not much older than Friday’s victims, deftly wiped his eyes of tears he couldn’t quite conceal and spoke a truth without a word:

Newtown Newtown Newtown, we all live there.

Image credits: Lanza: via Victims' names: The Huffington Post. United States in 1789: By Golbez, republished under GNU Free Documentation License v 1.2 or later, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. NRA logo: © 2012 National Rifle Association. Sandy Hook reaction: AP/Shannon Hicks, Newtown Bee. 

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