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Newtown: How We Can Heed The Warnings

The wisest man I had the privilege of knowing in my life once said, “There is no nation, no matter how powerful, that cannot be destroyed by hate.” 

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it. --60 Minutes (5/12/96)The latest tragedy – and I sincerely hope it will still be the latest when you read this – has been unparalleled in its violence.  Because the true measure of violence is not in the body count but in the violation of the sacred life that we hold most dear, for example in our innocent children.  It has also been unusual in the confusion that still surrounds what exactly happened.  Like most of us, I at first found myself poring over the sketchy reports, trying to understand how it happened, to piece together the story.  But then I stopped.  These details are at best a distraction, at a time that we can ill afford one.  At worst they are more than a distraction; they are a seduction. They lure us into the narrative, tempting us to indulge in the vicarious violence, our private reality show.  The police will deal with details as best they can; we have a different job. We have to train our eyes on the underlying cause of not just this catastrophe but all of them (which the mainstream media will never probe), and firmly dedicate our minds and hearts to solving it.

Psychologist Mitchell Hall, echoing the wisdom I just referred to, writes, “my guess is that this young man hated his mother, himself, humanity, and life itself.”  Hate in the guise of political commentary is being fed to us 24/7 by a skein of radio and television talk show hosts, and certain “news” channels are not far behind: the man who tried to burn down the Toledo mosque in September explained to the judge, without a trace of remorse, that he was incited to do it by Fox news, which told him that “Muslims (are) killing us and are in control of the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.”  And this is just one example.

Hate is a force.  Even Hitler could not control it, and it ended up destroying himself and everything he tried to build.  Playing games with a force like hate is riding a whirlwind.  Fortunately, hate has an antidote, which is love.  By “love” I mean, again, an underlying force and not merely an emotion.  It expresses itself on the political level as compassion, for the weak, the mentally ill, the homeless; right now it comes to the fore in those who have the courage to demand that we rid ourselves of weapons, and have the wisdom to warn us about mindset that created those weapons in the first place and in some extreme cases, as we’ve just endured in Connecticut, drives individuals to use them to such deadly effect.  If we want these tragedies to stop we must open our eyes to the connection, not always obvious but not that obscure once you know what you’re looking for, between our cultural disposition to choose hate over love and the actions resulting from such an unwise choice.

You see it sometimes in strange juxtapositions where the press seems to hint at connections they dare not express.  On the front page of my local paper, alongside grieving parents and traumatized children, was the smiling picture of a local woman in full combat gear, going off to kill “enemies” in Afghanistan – knowing that the killing is often indiscriminate, and includes children.  There have been 333 drone strikes on Afghanistan in the past year, according to Wired news service, many killing just one “bad guy” and many others, including many children.  Can we kill other people’s children and expect our own to be safe? Really?

Recently it’s come to light that even drone operators, sitting in comfortable chairs twelve thousand miles away from their targets, are prone to PTSD, or what a psychologist colleague of mine, Rachel MacNair, calls PITS: Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress.  One such operator and sufferer reported after leaving the army that after killing a child, "I felt disconnected from humanity." Sit with that phrase for a moment, because as violence expert psychiatrist James Gilligan reminds us, this disconnection, this “lack of remorse or empathy [is a] distinctive quality of the psychopath.”  Like poor Adam Lanza.

In other words, we are in various ways creating the psychological conditions for violence and providing the enabling conditions, namely the belief in and ready availability of weapons.  One day before the Newtown massacre a deranged man in China attacked a roomful of schoolchildren with a knife.  Many were injured (and all no doubt traumatized), but none died.  The example shows clearly what we must do: have strict gun control to limit the damage to life that can be caused by the most deranged among us.  That will buy us some time, as well as sending a message that we have in fact realized something fundamental about violence.  And with the time thus bought let us do something even more important: let us look for ways to neutralize hate and violence wherever they are to be found, and yes, some of it is to be found in us. 

In a notorious interview on Sixty Minutes that took place in 1996, the then Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was confronted with the fact that half a million children – half a million – had died as a result of sanctions we had imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  She replied, as you no doubt recall, “We think it was worth the price.”  Maybe we’re starting to see now how steep that price really was.

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