As nearly everyone in the Western world knows by now, a 20-year-old man took two guns into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered 27 people, 20 of them children between the ages of five and ten years old.
The conversations which will feature in the news in the coming weeks are as predictable as they are futile. "Evil visited this community today," said Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy. The killer will be declared a psychopath with a grudge against his mother. His various pathologies will be diagnosed, anatomized, second-guessed and fetishized. Many will demand tougher gun laws and just as many will decry such demands as misguided overreaction. Jon Stewart will mock the gun nuts and Fox News will taunt handwringing liberals. God will feature prominently. And 20 children, shot dead in their classroom, will still be gone.
The popular NRA refrain maintains that the aftermath of a violent gun crime is no time to talk about gun control. And for once, I agree with them. Not that I don’t believe the U.S., and even Canada, need much more stringent firearm policies -- I can see no justification for handguns in urban centres at all, for example -- but because our society has once again proved its compulsion to produce men who go into our most sheltered spaces and kill indiscriminately those who most need our protection. And that compulsion can’t be cured by a handgun ban.
Already there is a comparison with the Chengping attack in which a man wielding a knife injured 23 children in a primary school. Advocates for tougher gun laws will point out that each of these children lived -- and they’re right. But if the only lesson we take from these incidents is to form some sort of harm reduction strategy before the next rampage attack we all know is imminent, we are failing our children and ourselves.
I don’t want to talk about gun control. The truth is that society failed these children, their parents, their teachers -- indeed, all of us -- catastrophically. I don’t want to participate in the guffawing circus we will see on the Colbert Report and elsewhere in the coming days, mocking NRA advocates for clinging to their assault rifles in the face of such horror. I don’t want to take pleasure in the righteousness of my logic as I demolish the absurd claims of conservative pundits on social media. I don’t want the satisfaction of being right, of not being wrong, of being able to say I-told-you-so.
Someone took two guns into a school and murdered 20 children. Someone took two guns into a school and murdered 20 children. We can’t compute the number of times this has already happened. We all know we need only wait before it will happen again and we all know no amount of gun control will stop it, not completely. Diagnosing this killer as insane, telling ourselves that better laws would have stopped it, only abrogates responsibility and denys our culpability. We might as well agree with Governor Malloy and call it evil. This isn’t Cain offing Abel out of jealousy; this is an assembly line of killers going into our safest spaces and taking our most vulnerable away from us.
I hope we get over our addiction with firearms. I hope we drastically improve our treatment of the mentally ill, the borderline, the marginalized. But if we fall into the same old discursive patterns after each successive mass killing (isn’t it depressing that one can say such a thing at all?) we will never fix this blight.
Evil, despite Governor Malloy’s assertion, is not responsible. Lax gun laws didn’t kill 20 children. Neither did, I believe, untreated mental illness; nor God, poor security or bad luck. A combination of some of these things doubtless contributed, but the usual socioeconomic index of causes are almost too easy: alienation, compulsive precarity, state-sanctioned violence, impossible masculinity and so on. What we do know from events like Newtown is that our society is gravely, violently flawed -- and that ultimately, we are responsible. Until we confront that fact, we will be doomed to repeat the same staged debates for cheap thrills about gun control, security, even health policy, again and again.