A lot has already been said about the horrible shooting spree that happened last week in Newtown, CT, but one thing I’ve found interesting so far is that what is being said is remarkably different in tone from the usual script that gets used in these circumstances.
Before – be it Columbine, or Virginia Tech, or Oregon – the first word I would often read would be ‘evil’. Reporters and pundits and social media posts always seem to run directly to that word in their attempts to explain the actions of the perpetrators because the enormity of these events leaves people so dumbfounded there seems no other way to describe them. But this time has been different; while I’m sure that the word evil has been popping up in many headlines across the world, almost everything I read tended to jump directly to the two actual causes of actions like this: gun control and mental health.
Maybe it’s because, while this event of course was truly awful, it is only the latest in a long, long line of such events, and so we’re able to think more clearly about them right away. We’ve been learning about the types of people who commit these crimes – almost always young, white men who suffer from some sort of mental health condition – since Columbine, and it should be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of common sense that the entrenched gun culture in the US makes it way, way too easy for people to acquire powerful weapons manufactured solely for the purpose of killing human beings, so the inaction on this front – the inability to help these kids and the inability to keep guns away from them – and the anger that arises from that inaction, seems now to be trumping our grief.
Doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and many politicians, know quite clearly what has to be done. Kids like this need to be identified early on in high school and provided with treatment (major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder tend to manifest between 14 – 20 years old), and laws need to be changed so that military-grade assault weapons are not available to the general public. But then nothing gets done because of things like the NRA and the gun lobby etc. Those people – those who proclaim that the safest way to organize society is make sure everyone is armed to the teeth, like a Cold War style nuclear deterrent strategy – tend to think that there is this supernatural force called ‘evil’ in the world, and there will always be ‘evil’ that ‘inflicts the heart of man,’ and so you need to be able to protect yourself against it by keeping an arsenal in your basement. This is, of course, a completely superstitious, antiquated way of thinking. The longer we delude ourselves that events like this are simply some real-life equivalent of an orc attack or Lex Luthur’s latest scheme, the longer we will continue to suffer.
‘Evil’ does not exist. It is not a tangible thing. There is no force called ‘evil’ which emanates from the devil, or something, and makes people act in bad ways. Merely calling something ‘evil’ and leaving it at that does society a disservice because it prevents study, understanding and action on the root causes of this type of human behaviour. These shooters are not ‘evil’ people – they are young men with mental illnesses who have too-easy access to guns and who have grown up in a society that glorifies violence, hence, in their delusions, they see grand acts of violence as their path to glory.
Adolf Hitler wasn’t ‘evil’ – he was a megalomanic with a genocidal agenda who managed to gain power over a poor and humiliated populace through insidious propaganda and military intimidation; most dictators, from Stalin to Paul Pot to Kim Il-Sung, operate in similar veins. These are human beings creating certain plans and making certain decisions, and the only way we can prevent similar things from happening in the future is to understand their humanity, undermine their plans and disallow those decisions from being made. To simply mindlessly intone ‘oh, well, the Nazis were just evil’ is the intellectual equivalent of building a survival shelter in your backyard and waiting for the next apocalypse.
So as horrible as Newtown was, in a way it’s heartening that so many in the media and the US public have jumped directly to the heart of the matter, to the issues of mental heath and gun control, instead of settling for platitudes. Does this mean concrete action might finally be taken? We can only hope.