The tragedy at
Yesterday, in an effort to understand why this happened, a family member walked up to me and said, "You're smart. You know about this stuff, why do people do things like this?"
Like most of you, I didn't know how to respond right away. I didn't know the person responsible for this. I never had a conversation with him. Until Friday, I didn't even know this person existed. But the sad fact is my family member was right. I do know about this stuff.
I grew up not far from
where two thirteen year old kids gunned down their classmates. I had a friend
when his classmate gunned down his friends. I knew students at Virginia Tech
when their friends were gunned down. I went to school with a thirteen year old
who went to prison for murdering a stranger. A former classmate is in prison
for murdering her child. Another is in prison for murdering his girlfriend's
child. My mom's best friend's 12-year old son went to prison for killing his
stepfather. I've held the hands of parents whose children were shot or stabbed
by complete strangers. And I've hugged parents whose babies were dying because
of the abuse of babysitters and family members. Pearl, Mississippi
But I'm no different than any of you reading this because you know this violence, too.
You've seen it. You've lived through it. You may have even lost someone to it. And you may never be able to point to a single factor and say with absolute certainty that "this right here is why" these things happen. I have a degree in Forensic Psychology and another in Criminal Justice, but I can't point to a single thing and say "this is why" either.
Perhaps it is, as many have lamented this weekend, because our nation's response to mental illness is to pretend it doesn't exist. Two hundred years ago, we tossed the mentally ill into prisons and left them there until disease or violence claimed their lives. Fifty years ago, we placed them into state hospitals and institutions and experimented on them. Thirty years ago, we closed most of our mental health hospitals and tossed our mentally ill out onto the streets or into homes with caregivers incapable of meeting their needs without help we didn't offer. We let insurance providers decide who qualified for help, and those who didn't were tossed right back into prisons.
We deemed the mentally ill "criminal", and we haven't stopped since. We were outraged at the possibility of someone being "let off" by pleading insanity, so we made that plea all but impossible. Never mind that such a defense is used in less than one percent of criminal cases, is successful in less than .002 percent of cases, that defendants are more likely to deny mental illness than fake mental illness, or that psychologists can successfully determine in 95% of instances when mental illness is faked. Never mind that those who successfully use such a plea spend as much time or more in a mental health facility (often a maximum security mental health hospital) as those found guilty without an insanity plea attached. And never mind that many of those with a legitimate mental illness who cannot use the insanity defense, those who don't always know right from wrong or are easily influenced or prone to uncontrolled outbursts, now languish in prisons and learn from hardened criminals before they land right back on the streets.
Perhaps, as others have said this weekend, it's because we've decided that guns make us safe. We've decided the Second Amendment guarantees us the right to as many weapons as we want and as many bullets as we want. We've decided our right to the feeling of safety owning a gun provides trumps the right of safety for those who don't feel safe with so many guns floating around out there. We've decided our right to own weapons to see to our safety has absolutely nothing to do with the 9,000+ homicides a year in which guns were the weapon of choice. We've decided the only way to safely protect our stuff from a criminal is with a weapon. And we've decided that we can police our weapons ourselves and don't need strict regulation.
Never mind that having a gun in the home is more likely to result in an accidental fatality than in the prevention of a crime, or that guns were only used in defense successfully in two out of every 1,000 criminal incidents in a ten year period. Never mind that a child in the
United States is more likely to die by gunfire
than a United States soldier
serving in Iraq or .
Never mind that only 28% of incidents in which a gun was used as self-defense
involved an offender shooting at the victim (or that nearly 20% of those
self-defense incidents involved police officers). And never mind that in many
areas of the nation, you aren't even required to report if your weapon is
Or perhaps, as we've also heard this weekend, this happened because our culture thrives on violence. We love horror and gore. We cheer when the good guy starts blowing things up. We want our video games and movies to have realistic violence, and we get testy when that violence doesn't live up to our expectations. We want criminals to die violently and painfully. In fact, we often demand their violent and painful deaths.
Never mind that kids spend hours in front of these games we demand. Never mind that many of those whose executions we cheered were exonerated after death. And never mind that those gory movies we're watching often have some grain of tragic truth in them.
We've seen the real-life victims kept in dungeons. We've found the real-life bodies of those who were chopped to pieces. We've found the skin-suits worn by the real-life Hannibal Lecters of the world and the torture instruments and chambers used by the real-life John Kramers of the world. We've sat in front of the news for hours, soaking in every detail of these horrid, real-life crimes. And we've watched with as much fascination as horror and revulsion.
So, perhaps, the problem isn't any one of these things. Perhaps, and more likely, the problem is the combination of all of these things. Things like the heartbreaking tragedy at
happen because our response to mental illness is subpar. Our right to protect
our stuff from criminals trumps the right to life. Our desire to know what
happened to the Jaycee Dugards and Elizabeth Smarts of the world allows us to
badger them for answers until they cave and relive all the sordid details to
sate our curiosity. Our love of violence and gore desensitizes us to the point
where it takes a tragedy like the murders of twenty first-graders to truly shock
and horrify us.
Don't believe me?
How many of you have heard about Vincent Ajeh? Deonte Judkins? Mikias T. Tibebu? Mark La Bonte? Christiaan Oldewage? Kayla Campbell? Khan Ash?
How many of you are truly surprised to learn that every one of them is a murder victim? Or that they were all under 18 and were killed within the last two months? Or that every single one of their deaths was on the news, either state or national? That two of them were killed by their parents? Four of them were shot? One of them was abducted?
What happened at
is absolutely devastating. The loss of the seven above should be equally as
devastating to us as a nation and as individuals, but it isn't. Because we've
become so used to parents killing their kids, or people abducting and killing
kids, or kids being shot and killed on the street, that we no longer grieve as
a nation for those children. When we hear about them, we get sad, and then we
forget their names and their faces, just like I did. Until tonight, I knew only three of their stories, but I didn't remember their names. Like everyone else, I moved on to other things, and their names escaped me. This bothers me more than you know.
As a society, we only stop to feel the horror when twenty babies are gunned down in their classrooms on a busy Friday morning. We cry and scream and say the man who murdered them was evil. He was disturbed. He wasn't like us. But the sad fact is that he was one of ours. He was raised in our society, by members of our society, on the very same things that fuel the rest of our society. And that's a damn tragedy in and of itself because we're supposed to be great. We're supposed to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. We're supposed to be a nation moving forward and overcoming incredible odds together.
Instead, most of us don't know our next door neighbors. We don't even realize that the woman we've sat next to on the train every day for the last two years is suicidal. Or that the horror movie we're soaking up like sponges is based on a person who destroyed real lives five, ten, thirty years ago. We don't remember the name of the baby whose mom shook him to death two towns over, of the teenagers killed on street corners in our states last month, or of a single victim of a school shooting that happened more than a year ago. I'd met one of the little girls who died in Jonesboro, but I don't remember her name now.
And that's heartbreaking. Because those kids we swore we'd remember, the ones we cried for as a nation…we moved on and forgot. We forgot their names. We forgot their faces. We forgot why they died, where they died, and when they died. We lost the belief that it didn't have to happen and that we could have stopped it.
Maybe owning a gun will keep you safe. Maybe strict regulation won't stop criminals or the determined from getting their hands on guns. Maybe Adam Lanza would have stolen a gun had his mother not owned a single one. Maybe more equitable access to mental healthcare wouldn't have stopped this. Maybe he didn't have a mental illness at all. Maybe he never played Black Ops 2. Maybe he never saw The Expendables. Maybe he was born evil and couldn't have been saved no matter what we did. I don't know. I don't know if the police will ever figure out why he did what he did. But I do know that we made it easy for him, because we forgot our vow not to let it happen again when it was a theater in Aurora, or a campus in Virginia, Ohio, Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, or Minnesota.
We could have stopped this, but we didn't. We let this happen. We keep letting it happen. And that's why we lost twenty, innocent little kids on Friday. We forgot how much we've already lost to apathy and division, and we failed them because of it.
That is devastating.