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Posted Dec 14, 2012, 10:49 pm
Nearly two years ago, the nation held Tucson to its heart.
Not even six months ago, horrific mass shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and a Colorado movie theater led to further national outpourings of emotion.
And today, on a Friday morning when schoolchildren's thoughts should have been drifting toward what they might find under the Christmas tree, we yet again feel our eyes well with tears — a horror more unexpected, more unfathomable, in a place even more ordinary.
Today, let us offer our prayers to the people of Newtown, Conn. — to the victims of this terrible shooting, to their families, friends, and the people of that city. Let us send them our love, our thoughts of healing, our helping hands if needed.
But tomorrow, let us move beyond the platitudes from afar. They indeed may bring comfort to Newtown as they make us feel good and moral, but prayers over what has been done change the future no more than they change the past.
And that past is entirely too anguished.
Newtown. Oak Creek. Aurora. Binghamton. Westroads Mall in Omaha. Ft. Hood. Columbine. Not to mention two mass shooting incidents in just over a decade in our Old Pueblo. Mass shootings happen with distressing regularity. Just in the time since Jan. 8, at least 184 people have been murdered and over 400 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.
And those are the mass murders. Each year, over 10,000 Americans die because they've been shot with a gun.
How many shootings must occur? How many perfectly innocent victims must be murdered before we take up the task of having a serious conversation?
Such crimes are beyond reason, but it does not follow that our response should be beyond reasoning. We cannot accept mass murders as inevitable.
Our mental health system is fundamentally broken. Our day-to-day interactions are characterized by insularity at best, if not disdain and vitriol for others. Our society values confrontation over cooperation. We value our neighbors little, and strangers nearly not at all. And deadly weapons are simple to obtain for the tragically troubled.
You may accept the bumper-sticker slogan that "guns don't kill people, people do," but that trite phrase does nothing to prevent disturbed individuals from leveling a gun and pulling a trigger. Certainly we are not individually responsible for such evil acts by others, but are we not collectively responsible for creating a more healthy community?
Our politicians duck from any discussion of gun control. "Now's not the time," they say.
Will there ever be a time to reconsider how our society handles the sale of weapons when mass shootings happen nearly every week? Innocents are gunned down every week, every week there are more grieving families.
Now's not the time? When, then?
The National Rifle Association would have us believe that shootings occur because not enough of us are armed everywhere we go. Supporters parrot "an armed society is a polite society," but Robert Heinlein was a science-fiction writer who lived in a circular house north of Santa Cruz, Calif. Travel to Mogadishu if you want to test that thesis.
The Christian right says, in the words of Mike Huckabee, that we've "removed God from our schools."
"Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?," Huckabee said on Fox News.
I say we should be more than surprised, we should be horrified. I'm sure God is, not because teachers can't lead their classes in prayer, but because we so easily walk away from attempting any action that might be effective.
It's become common to speak of these events as tragedies. "The Tucson tragedy." "The Aurora tragedy." Now, "the Newtown tragedy."
Tragedy implies responsibility, that events are the result of a terrible flaw or moral weakness. Who bears the tragic flaw when a mentally-ill gunman opens fire on a crowd of innocent children? Shall we elevate these sick, doomed young men (for they are nearly all young men) as heroes in the drama?
Or does that weakness lie with us? Do we do such an absolute godawful job of treating those among us who are ill, of ensuring that they don't have ready access to deadly weapons, of finding better ways to handle our petty disputes than squeezing a trigger and ending a life in agony?
Even as mass murders by gunmen become so common that we are no longer shocked by them, we cut funding for mental health care. Children today do lock-down drills in school, just as Baby Boomers rehearsed ducking under their desks to hide from nuclear blasts. But little is done to evaluate their mental health. As we saw all too well in Tucson, even the obvious "troubled loners" are a problem to be brushed off, pushed away. They're somebody else's problem — until they're holding a gun.
Firearms are a significant part of American culture, an accessory to our national ethos of self-reliance. It's not a realistic proposal to nearly ban guns, as in Japan, or radically limit them, as in Great Britain. Both of those nations have much lower murder rates than we suffer — not just from guns, but overall.
But those are just the numbers.
Twenty small children in Newtown are more than just a number. A dozen people in Aurora should be more than just a number. Six in Tucson should have been more than just a number. They should do more than just give us pause for a moment of silence.
Silence is no longer enough. We must find the strength to do something. I only wish I knew what.