Words to the wise about the Newtown tragedy

There are a couple of other pieces about Newtown that I thought were worthy of your eyeballs.

First, on the New York Times editorial page, Priscilla Gilman, the mother of a child with autism, urges us not to blame autism for Newtown. She sets the record straight about this type of disorder: autism and Asperger’s are not mental illnesses, they are developmental disabilities. Contrary to stereotype, people on the autistic spectrum do not lack empathy. In addition, being mentally ill is not the same thing as having “a psychopathic, sociopathic or homicidal tendency.” The mentally ill and people with autism are no more likely to commit acts of violence than are people without such illnesses or disabilities.

In another life, I was a caseworker for kids with disabilities, many of whom were on the autism spectrum, and what Gilman says in this essay is consistent with my observations and my training. These kids have enough challenges as it is and they don’t need an extra dose of damaging stereotypes and stigma.

Secondly, Amanda Marcotte has written a post arguing that Nancy Lanza, the killer’s mother and victim, is, like the other Newtown victims, deserving of our sympathy. Sadly, this is a controversial argument, since it has been reported that the guns that her son used in the massacre were her guns, and that she had trained him to shoot. I think it’s always a bad idea to keep guns in the home. Less controversially, I think pretty much everyone but the gun nuts will agree that it’s a terrible idea to allow mentally unstable to have access to guns and/or to teach them how to shoot.

That said, we are not sure exactly what happened here. I just started reading David Cullen’s highly acclaimed book about Columbine. I’ve had it on my shelf for a while and had been meaning to get to it; I finally picked it up two days ago, for obvious reasons. I haven’t gotten far into it yet, but one thing that is already apparent is how very wrong much of the initial reporting about Columbine and the two killers turned out to be. Already with Newtown, we’ve learned that a lot of what we thought initially — even basic info, such as that Nancy Lanza taught at the school, or that Ryan Lanza was the killer — turned out not to be the case. So let’s not assume, yet, that she didn’t lock up her guns, or that she did teach Adam to shoot.

So, first of all, we’re still not sure what role Nancy Lanza may have inadvertently played in this tragedy. But beyond that, she was a human being who died a miserable death. No one deserves to die that way, no matter what kind of horrific misjudgments and tragic mistakes she might have committed concerning her son. I have heard people saying some extraordinarily nasty things about this woman, but none of us know what it was like to be in her shoes. Let this poor woman rest in peace, and may the rest of us try to learn from her mistakes — once we know enough to find out what they were.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee