Americans are struggling with how to make sense of the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. What could lead Adam Lanza, or any human, to take such perturbing actions, regardless of the chaos and pain he contained? Why have these shootings become a pattern and why predominantly in the USA? The swelling of emotions that arise—grief, rage, and hopelessness— quickly give way to calls for action. Understandably we want something done, something to prevent such horrific acts from occurring again. Unfortunately, it is at these times that we may be least able to develop thoughtful responses. We do need to respond and our emotions can inform our actions. But to respond solely from a place of woundedness, horror, and rage is to limit opportunities for taking wise action.
A big mistake we make when acting in a sea of raging emotions is to act with limited understanding. Already some are conceptualizing what happened in what can be described as the narrative of exceptionalism. To lay it out simply, it goes something like this: this is the act of an insane, disturbed man who had access to semi-automatic weapons. This narrative portrays the event as a stark departure from the norms and values Americans hold as a nation, fitting in with how many of us prefer to view our government, our communities, and ourselves.
This story leads to responses that are familiar. One side comes to believe stricter gun-control laws are the best answer. Prevent guns, especially semi-automatic weapons, from getting into the hands of “bad people”, or people in general (aside from police and military), and we decrease instances of violence. Access to guns becomes the central focus. On the opposing side are advocates of 2nd Amendment rights. They contend that “guns don’t kill, people do”. For them the problem is guns getting into the wrong hands, not guns themselves. They argue that if more “good citizens” had guns we would all be safer. The problem in their view is still “bad people”, but the solution is not enough guns in the hands of “good citizens”. While locked into this polarizing debate, any deeper exploration of the issue is limited.
Other analyses of the problem take issue with lack of funding for mental health, problems of masculinity, and government inaction. All of these add important pieces to the discussion, yet they are limited. We acknowledge this event is a part of a larger pattern of violence. We see that shootings of this type have occurred predominantly the US. Yet most of our discussions ignore the pattern of systemic, political, and cultural violence that is widespread and in which we, Americans, are largely complicit. Describing the the problem as simply access to weapons or individual acts of evil allows us to avoid the larger problem of violence and to shed our accountability. It allows us to defer responsibility.
One thing must be clear: individuals do not commit crimes in a vacuum. However disturbed or psychologically unstable, they act in a social context where their actions are compelling to them and take on meaning, however distorted. Individuals develop and become “disturbed” in the context of a family, community, and society. If we do not examine what type of social conditions foster the type of alienation and pain people like Adam Lanza experience, we deprive ourselves of a deeper awareness that would invite us each to take broader, more informed responses. Only this will free us from the grip of violence.
The truth is that violence is part of our history and part of our economic and political institutions. Violence is perpetuated by institutions that represent us and receive our support. It may come as a shock when such brutality occurs in white privileged neighborhoods, but for many violence in one of its many forms is normal. To have an honest discussion we must acknowledge the many forms of violence, admit the ways we benefit from them, and see how we are involved in these systems.
Violence comes in many forms and is insidiously kept out of view and denied. Nonetheless we are inextricably linked to it through our tax dollars, consumption of goods, our blind eye, our silence, and our inaction. We manufacture and sell weapons that arm states, groups and individuals around the world who then massacre children, women, and men. Our military and police commit atrocities here and abroad using drones, bombs, armies, torture, and police brutality. Laws, trade policies, and tax incentives are used to empower multinational corporations that have no democratic accountability and whom engage in human and environmental exploitation, ecological destruction, and pollution, bringing us to the brink of collapse. Their products allow us many of us the luxury of a disposable materialism. The economic system we propagate throughout the world creates conditions of poverty and near poverty that leave a great many psychologically and materially vulnerable. This leads many to violent or illegal strategies for survival. These desperate choices are in turn used as justification for the imprisonment and brutalizing of millions living in poverty. These common examples are some of the ways violence is promulgated with our passive or active consent. And though these forms of violence may not have the sensational quality of the Newtown tragedy they are devastating on a much broader scale.
Too many prefer to go on pretending these things are not happening, or that we do not share responsibility for their occurrence. Many of us struggle to make ends meet and survive, others make ends meet nicely and look to those more well off as proof our modesty. Some rail against the government, pointing to their corruption and inaction, from the relative comfort of their privilege. All of these, and other, efforts become a strategy of a denial that allows us to live with the internal paradox that we all share, in part, some culpability for Adam Lanza’s actions. This can be a paralyzing realization. Yet it does not have to be, and there are ways to address the painful emotions that rise as we come to greater awareness of our role.
The first step is to attend to the paralysis and the conditions that engender it. Paralysis stems from feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and hopeless. It is fed by and leads to underlying anxiety and depression, which often leads to addictive compulsive behaviors, such as overconsumption, both materially and in the sense of distractions. Flooded by things and images we can temporarily anesthetize unease, but we become imprisoned in a cycle that offers no way out. There are other means.
One way to address paralysis is to pursue a contemplative practice whereby you consciously set aside time on a regular basis to step out of avoid-ant and addictive cycles and attend to your inner being. Many are beginning this process of developing greater connection to themselves. This is important because it gives us the capacity to tolerate a fuller range of feelings and thoughts without impulsively running away. It builds our relationship with ourselves and gives us a richer, fuller understanding of who we are and our motivations. This in turn allows us to connect more deeply with others. And it is these deeper bonds that leads us to attend more fully to our needs and brings us out of isolation, alienation, and fear.
As we build these richer networks of relationships we increase personal, social, and political power which enables us to take more effective action and to respond flexibly with more wisdom. There are signs of this already taking place throughout the world and here in our own country with movements for democracy and for increased corporate accountability. It is also taking place in mutual aid projects where people don’t simply demand and wait for the government to act, but recognize that they are actors themselves and can develop projects in their communities.
When we take time to care for ourselves we increase the energy we have to care for each other. We decrease our need to be constantly distracted in addictive doing and consuming, and we nurture a great power inside each of us: the power to wisely transform our lives and the world. And when we acknowledge our power we can no longer displace responsibility and accountability. We can no longer sit back and smugly say, “It’s there fault. We are victims. They need to do something.” Instead we begin to say, “We cannot allow this to happen. We must do something. Let us act together. Let us act with wisdom.”
Of course, the practically minded will say, “That may all be well and good, but we must be sensible and start somewhere. A good gun-law is a concrete change we can make today.” Ah yes, the sensible voices, these arbiters of moderation. The problem with these sensible types is that they have a way of prolonging the disease by giving us a false idea that the problem has a narrow cause and therefore a narrow solution. These sensible voices say they can take care of it for us, we don’t have to think about it, and this is false.
Reforms are important and necessary. Yet how we chose to frame the argument; who is accountable; who has power and responsibility; this will ultimately provide the vision for how we move forward and how we address the matter. It is far more difficult to say: We must re-assess our lives and choices and radically change how we are living. We must create a world where a crime like this is unthinkable. We must build a world where we are not forced to be complicit in violence and where we feel paralyzed. We must speak out and say yes to life, yes to our power—yes to the potential for a world far beyond the violence that today is status quo, whether perpetuated by States or individuals. We must say yes to systems that operate in harmony with nature and human needs not in opposition to them.
If there is any way to honor the grieving families of the children and teachers at the Sandy Brook school in Newtown, Connecticut, it is to challenge ourselves to consider deeply what we will each do to change our lives, our communities, our governments, and by extension our world to make it less violent and more compassionate. Let us honor the dead by doing all we can to create a world where the seeds for mutual aid, empathy, accountability, and wise action are planted. We can start today with a moment of silence.