20 December 2012

Some reflections in the wake of Newtown

The tragedy in Connecticut this past week, with the deaths of nearly thirty people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, left me dumbstruck. I suppose one is never really prepared for these things, and one never really can be. Every time I attempted to write something, it always came up short – every sympathy sounded vain; every condolence lacked conviction; every attempt to find meaning in the event in the end came off as monstrously officious and insensitive. In the end, I merely wrote, ‘I share your grief and outrage’, which seemed the best thing to do. Every time I look at my own daughter now, I can’t help but imagine the depths of the grief and the outrage that each parent and each friend of the victims of Sandy Hook must be feeling now, and pray fervently that Ellie remains fortunate, safe and healthy every day from now on.

And this brings me to the reaction to them. Not politicising the tragedy is perfectly sound advice in this case for humanistic reasons: no mourning family deserves a lecture on the merits of gun control or on the need for more teachers to pack heat, on the dangers of violent movies and video games or the need to protect free speech, from the mouths of the bobbleheads on any cable news network they would care to watch. I know I certainly wouldn’t appreciate such, even from my own ‘side’. But on the other hand, there is ultimately no avoiding the fact that these tragedies are inescapably political events, in that they are consequences of the way we have chosen to order (or not) our society. The murders at Sandy Hook were carried out by a young man with Asperger’s, a treatable disorder, who had easy access to high-powered weaponry from his mother (the first among his victims). These are social facts. Another such fact is that, concurrently with this rampage murder, another rampage assault (this one with a knife) took place in Chenpeng, Henan Province, a ways southwest of my wife’s hometown. However, this rampage has so far resulted in no deaths, because the Chinese kids’ knife wounds turned out to be treatable in ways which the American kids’ multiple puncture wounds from .223 cartridges fired in three-round bursts from a Bushmaster M4 carbine were not.

Guns are not the main problem, but – as Dr John Médaille pointed out – they do have a tendency to exacerbate all of our other social problems. Mental disorders are made less manageable by guns; gang violence and organised crime are made much more deadly by guns; the drug culture is made more dangerous by guns. The bromide that ‘such people’ would have found a way to kill anyway seems to ring particularly hollow in this case; if they have to work harder to kill, there is a greater chance for them to be stopped without such a massive loss of life. Likewise, if we had a better and less costly health-care system, one not so heavily dominated by big insurance companies and big pharmaceutical corporations, we might not have so many ‘such people’ in the first place, since so many mental disorders are treatable and need cause no harm to the broader society – but both big interest groups, as a result of their incentive structures, want to privatise their profits and socialise the costs of treatment as much as possible.

For now, silence and honour for the dead, and reflectiveness and prayer, are the appropriate responses. But dealing with the hubristic social root causes of each successive tragedy should not be long delayed.


  1. Great post. I am surprised by how popular Panglossianism seems to be in the U.S., at least among some people. So many people seem to think that there is no way to reduce the likelihood of these sorts of massacres. It is a bit like the argument that “there will always be poor people.” I mean, I guess that is true in some sense, but could we do better than we are doing now?

  2. Hi John! Thanks for the comment!

    I wonder if Panglossianism is intrinsically linked to the theopolitical heresy of American exceptionalism. If the United States truly is the nation chosen by God to be the 'shining city on a hill' as an example to all the rest of the world, how can our way of doing things not be the best in the best of all possible worlds? Of course, such a view is monstrous in light of the Sandy Hook shootings, but it is a view oft repeated by those defending our lack of a decent health care system, our current patent and IP laws, our national security state, our current level of ODA and so forth. And they all tie back into this mythology.

    And yes, I think it is something like a physical law that some people will always be poorer than others (that is, a Gini coefficient of zero is practically impossible), but we can try to make the gradient as shallow as possible, and give poor people the greatest amount of control possible over their own circumstances. But we mustn't pretend that this is the closest we're ever going to get.