Newtown: Forcing America to Stare Into the Abyss

In this painful but necessary post-Newtown discussion, gun control advocates should prepare for the worst. That Republicans will ratchet up their extremism, that Democrats will cave as they do – some legitimately fearful that the NRA’s cartoonish villainy will haunt them next election cycle. It is likely, therefore, that even after such an unfathomable tragedy, policies like a national gun registry and the assault weapons ban will remain but pipe dreams, despite the fact that these guns – including a high powered rifle – were purchased legally.

Fine. If we can save lives without one iota of gun control, so be it. It’s time, then, that we talk about the deep-seeded malaise that is turning civic institutions into gruesome crime scenes. After all, there are people that own impressive weaponry who don’t feel the need to use it to tragic effect – so let’s launch an inquest as to why this is the case.

Mental health is becoming a massive issue in this debate and with good cause. The subject, in general, might have long been held as one of America’s last taboos. But that was shattered – at least in the context of mass murder – after a clearly disturbed Cho Seung-Hui circulated a ranting video to media outlets just before launching his killing spree on Virginia Tech’s campus in 2007. The Tuscon massacre committed by Jared Lee Loughner, too, made us stare the issue square in the face in early 2011, after his disturbing mugshot was plastered above almost every centerfold in the country. Aurora shooter James Holmes also reportedly sought out help before committing his heinous killings – and, allegedly, declared himself to be The Joker afterwards. And, while facts are emerging, it appears that Adam Lanza, too, “had some sort of mental disability or developmental disorder” and “often [made] those around him nervous because he was painfully shy and seemed to struggle to be social and form connections with people.” This isn’t to say that all mentally ill or developmentally different people are risks to the public order – far from it. Its just that they can act out in a spectacularly violent fashion when their conditions go untreated, unnoticed and misunderstood.

So what are some social conditions that might cause a mentally unwell person to deteriorate to the point of acting out in such a manner? On one hand, a collective failure to fully comprehend and care for mental illness exacerbates it. On the other, a regrettable frat-boy exalting culture stokes the flames of instability. Mark Ames – Matt Taibbi’s old colleague at the gonzo Muscovite paper, The eXile, for those unfamiliar – looked into common themes in rage massacres in his book Going Postal. He managed to sketch a compelling profile of workplace killers and school shooters as the victims of sustained bullying campaigns – a byproduct of the culture fostered by the dog-eat-dog Reagan years (though some of the killers might not seem to fit the profile of a goth nerd stuffed into lockers, neglect is a form of abuse). This isn’t to say that everyone who is bullied commits mass murder. But that mass murder often results from a culture that was unsafe to begin with.

Democrats could, therefore, use this mass shooting epidemic as an opportunity to talk about this: How we systematically encourage (if only tacitly) our children to bully for marginal gains in status; how our sons and daughters remain neglected because parents work long hours at menial jobs that barely pay the bills.

I assume that Republicans – having just failed to elect a cold-hearted bully of Presidential candidate – would squirm at the thought of having this discussion if Democrats increasingly demanded that it happen. It would be ideal, in my opinion, if we did address these issues. If not, then pressure on the GOP to engage in such a discourse, might at least force it into talking gun control instead.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.