Saturday, December 15, 2012

Those Children Were Not Babies

In a press conference shortly after the horrible news of the Connecticut grade-school shooting broke, White House press secretary Jay Carney said: "There is, I am sure-- will be, rather-- a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day.”  Carney could not have been more wrong.  Yesterday-- and every day-- absolutely *is* the day for a discussion about Washington policy debates that bear on the tragic events that took place in Newtown, chief among them policy debates about how to tame our nation's violent gun culture and how to make mental healthcare more effective, accessible and affordable for those who need it.  To talk about these things in the wake of a tragedy is not to "politicize" that tragedy.  Tragedies that result in the lost lives of citizens, especially the youngest and most vulnerable of our citizens, are already political.

There are and will always be members of our communities who break the law, both moral and juridical.  Some will do so exercising the full force of a mostly unfettered rational agency, while many more will do so coerced in some way or another by forces more or less outside of their control (mental illness, poverty, addiction, or any of the countless other forces of desperation).  When something as incomprehensible as what happened yesterday occurs, we assume that the agent must have been mad, crazy, broken.  Whether or not the alleged, and now deceased, shooter Adam Lanza was mentally ill has yet to be determined.  If we come to learn that he was, we will need to re-examine what, if anything, could have been done to care for his illness better.  But we will know, sadly, that even the best mental health care cannot guarantee that the complex, dark, invisible and largely inaccessible drives that characterize some psychological illnesses may not have found expression in something horrible anyway.  The human mind, the human impulses, the human wants and needs-- coupled with human freedom-- are, mostly for the better but too often for the worse, incalculable.  The same mysterious combination of human capacities and powers that awe and inspire us also horrify and devastate us.

All that is just to say, first, I don't know if Adam Lanza was "crazy" and, second, I do know that there's a limit to what could have been done to prevent yesterday's tragedy if he was.  I don't think people necessarily have to be certifiably "crazy" to do horrible things.  I hope that, if he was ill, he was cared for as best as possible, though the deficiencies in mental healthcare in this country lead me to suspect that even the best care might not have been enough.  Yesterday, today, and every day is the day to talk about how to care better and more effectively for the myriad unseen illnesses that afflict our friends, family members and fellow citizens and which cause them to suffer the unspeakable pain of an unsettled mind, a restless heart, loneliness or isolation.  But, in the end, Adam Lanza's mental illness didn't kill those children in Connecticut.  Adam Lanza's mental illness didn't even kill Adam Lanza.

Adam Lanza's guns did. 

We have, in the United States, not only a gun-control and gun-regulation problem, but a gun-culture problem.  (Just check out the Washington Post's very informative "Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States" that was circulated yesterday.) And our problem is getting worse.  Of the 11 deadliest shootings in United States' history, 5 have happened in the last 5 years.  Adam Lanza, the alleged shooter in the Connecticut school tragedy, was armed with two semi-automatic firearms, neither of which belonged to him but both of which were legally registered, making it possible for him to kill 20 children and 5 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before any help could arrive.  Of course, any handgun can kill, but as William Saletan explained in his article for Slate, the faster the gun, the higher the body count.  Whatever else might have been wrong with Lanza, it is doubtlessly the case that he would not have been able to kill 26 people without a gun, and he would not have been able to kill so many so quickly without semi-automatic weapons.  Perhaps, if we collectively spent less time justifying and defending our right to bear those kinds of arms qua patet orbis and more time addressing the sorts of problems that make gun-ownership seem like a right worthy of the most vigorous defense, then it may not have occurred to Lanza, in his darkest moment, to take up arms. Like all the rest of us, Lanza is in large part a product of the culture that produced him as a subject.  Ours is a culture that validates, with hardly any qualifications, gun violence as a civic option.  Full stop.

Stricter gun laws will not put an end to gun violence.  The only thing that will put an end to gun violence, ad oculos, is the complete eradication of guns.  Barring that unlikely possibility, all we have at our disposal to diminish gun violence is the law.  We quite simply must regulate more and better when it comes to firearms.  There is NO reason for citizens to own semi-automatic or assault weapons.  They're not needed to hunt, nor are they needed for personal protection. (Arguably, they *are* needed for revolution, which I take to be at least one of the subtexts of the 2nd Amendment, but-- and, seriously, I've always wondered this-- what need does one have for an appeal to Constitutional right in the execution of a coup d'etat?) The one and only purpose of semi-automatic and assault weapons is to kill a *lot* of people quickly and efficiently.  I cannot imagine any reasonable interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that ensures the right to those kinds of weapons.

I've heard and read many people remark, in reference to the schoolchildren that were killed yesterday, that they were innocent babies who didn't deserve the tragedy that befell them.  They certainly did not deserve to be shot.  No one does.  But they were not "babies."  They were 6- and 7-year-olds, no doubt old enough to know what a gun is and what it does.  As they watched their friends die and watched Lanza point his gun at them, I cannot imagine any defense of the right to bear arms that would have sufficed to assuage their fear and horror.  Nor can I imagine any defense of the right to bear arms that could explain to them or their friends or their families why they were about to become, in effect, the collateral damage of what press secretary Jay Carney so flippantly called "the usual Washington policy debates."  The same goes for the poor children who survived, and who actually will need to be given some account of why we continue to allow weapons like the ones Lanza used to circulate among us, regulated or not.  THAT is the point utterly, tragically and inexcusably missed by press secretary Carney.  The day to talk about these things is every day.  EACH AND EVERY DAY until there are no more days on which we are given reason to be afraid of talking about why we value the right to make it easy to kill each other, a LOT of each other, quickly and efficiently.  Even a child knows that.

Those children were not babies.  They were still-developing moral agents, to be sure, but moral agents with reason and volition nonetheless.  They could think and speak and deliberate with one another and understand and empathize.  Some of them could read and write.  They felt pain and they could be afraid.  They may not have been fully "political" agents yet, but they had a vested interest in how we constitute our polis.  What the rest of us should be asking ourselves, pace Carney, is not how we can avoid "politicizing" the tragedy of their deaths, but rather why we have nothing of any comfort to say to those like them who survived...

Not to mention why we have even fewer things of any comfort to say about why we fail to take the very obvious steps that could have prevented their deaths.


DOCTOR J said...

To @Russ Nelson (in the FB comments above): The steps that are "obvious" to prevent certain tragedies are not necessarily dependent upon the *necessity* that the tragedy "succeed." To use an over-used example, I can *prevent* the tragedy of a trolley killing 3 people on the tracks in the trolley's way WITHOUT KNOWING FOR CERTAIN that the trolley may not malfunction and not "successfully" accomplish its (otherwise obvious) inevitable route.

Benjamin Curtis said...

I think that the distinction between gun-control and gun-culture is an important one. I had an interesting conversation about this with some British people the other day and they couldn't understand how anyone felt safer knowing everyone might have a concealed weapon. Yes, I agree that there needs to be more and better gun-control laws, but I think that solving the problem of gun related violence can only happen through a shift in the mindset of the American people.

Art Carden said...

Amended version of a couple of FB comments, posted by request:

A thoughtful post. Two points of disagreement and a point of agreement: first, providing better mental health care isn't easy; I'm not sure we can do much better given that (as I understand it) the experts don't do very well identifying those prone to violence relative to the general population, and the general population doesn't do much better than guessing.

I completely forgot about this yesterday, but a bit of outside-the-box thinking is in order: fewer licensing restrictions on the medical professions would make more mental health services readily available. Morris Kleiner's 2006 book on occupational licensing shows that people--particularly poor people--get less service because of occupational licensing. My understanding is that gainful employment is also associated with better mental health outcomes, so fewer restrictions on the low-skill labor market would presumably lead to better mental health.

Second, I don't think the "fewer guns, less gruesome violence" link is that clear. Indeed, I think the evidence runs in the opposite direction. There are a lot of substitutes for guns for the would-be mass murderer (see the 1927 or 1928 bombing Lenore Skenazy discussed in her "Quartz" article yesterday). Whether people are killed with blades, bombs, or bullets is immaterial as far as I'm concerned so long as the net number of murders/rapes/etc. Guns make it easier to kill people, which means that having guns might make it easier to commit violent crimes. But we have to remember that guns make it easier to kill people, which means that guns serve a deterrent effect.

These are ultimately empirical questions, and there's a substantial body of literature on it. I have the most recent edition of John Lott's book on guns & crime on the Kindle; I'm about four chapters in, and the evidence suggests a net deterrent effect of firearms.

That said, I find the American proclivity for violence perplexing. Yes, it has been falling for a long time and we are much safer than we used to be, but I'm not sure why Americans-and Southerners in particular-are so much more violent than people elsewhere. To the extent that we want to make this a better world, that's where we should direct our time and attention.