And when words fail, what else should a writer — or anyone else — do but shut up and listen?
But to what? And to whom?
To media outlets recounting in endless sequence the sketchy, horrifying details, no less horrific for being wrong, for being woeful, hopeful underestimates of the numbers left dead? To reporters asking how the families of the dead are faring, their sombre faces a charade of sympathy? To news anchors engaging in pointless conjecture, or to talk show hosts asking vapid, leading questions of pro- and anti-gun lobbyists and mental health pundits? To agencies angling to be the first to publish pictures of the dead children, their faces sweet and shining and somehow sepia toned even in recent family photographs?
To the individuals and organizations too eager to use tragedy to advance their ideologies? Who blame too many guns, not enough guns, mental illness, video games, a Godless America, intervention in foreign wars, immigration, elitism, schools, parents and even the children themselves?
To colleagues and acquaintances who signal their shock through social media, and post links to petitions and share second-hand opinions, and then, a little later, resume recounting the minutiae of their lives — recipes and videos of cats and collages of Christmas trees?
To the neighbours and distant relatives of the victims, or to parents of the children who escaped physical harm, or to the teachers whose classrooms were not invaded, or to the crisis teams standing by to provide counselling to the survivors, or even to the law enforcement officials attempting to piece together all that is irretrievably broken?
To friends and strangers averring that they will hug their children more tightly tonight (grateful, their subtext, that they are not those other parents, the parents whose children’s bodies lay for lonely hours in blood-soaked classrooms), and wondering aloud how to explain the inexplicable to children whose classrooms will never be invaded?
The dead children will never speak again; their bodies providing answers only to what is already known.
And their parents: how can they speak the unspeakable? How can they clutch framed photographs and stuffed toys and clothing that still smells sweetly of their dead children? How can they articulate their anguish and express the magnitude of their loss? And enter sunlit bedrooms still awash in pink Ponies and plastic trucks to pick out funeral clothes and mementos to place in caskets that are too unbearably small to contain all that loss? And open refrigerator doors decorated with drawings their children have made of the families they have now left behind? And sleep and shower and bury their children and endure the comfortless words of those who have become strangers because they cannot enter that dark antechamber of grief?
They cannot. It is too much.
And we will watch, because watching is what we do when we encounter a tragedy that does not include us.
If only we could remember that when words fail it is time not to speak but to listen.
Oh little children: Charlotte, 6; Daniel, 7; Rachel Davino, 29; Olivia, 6; Josephine, 7; Ana, 6; Dylan, 6; Dawn Hocksprung, 47; Madeleine, 6; Catherine, 6; Chase, 7; Jesse, 6; James, 6; Grace, 7; Anne Marie Murphy, 52; Emilie Parker, 6; Jack, 6; Noah, 6; Caroline, 6; Jessica, 6; Avielle, 6; Lauren Russeau, 30; Mary Sherlach, 56; Victoria Soto, 27; Benjamin, 6; Allison, 6.
[Below is a text I posted on Facebook a few days after writing the above. Adding it here because it is essentially a continuation of the same thought. ]
I am finding that the level of commentary and responses to it (ref, e.g., the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” blog post, although other examples abound, especially on the subject of guns) speak as much to the origins of the tragedy in Sandy Hook as anything else. There is an impotence in all this misdirected outrage, an impotence that plays out in semi-automatic sniper attacks via comments sections and social media, driven by a sense of moral superiority, appropriated victimhood and generalized contempt for the experiences (and perhaps even the existence) of others.
Given the prevalence of mental illness (according to the NIMH, a quarter of the American population experiences mental illness in any given year, and between a third and half of the population will suffer mental illness in their lifetimes — figures closely paralleled in other countries), it is meaningless to identify mental illness, without any other qualifiers, as the ‘cause’ of the killings. You might as well say that being obese or having a college education – equally prevalent demographic phenomena) ‘cause’ violence [and by ‘violence’ I mean all forms of violence, including social violence].
Add to this the challenging reality that people who commit violent crimes, especially mass murders, are typically considered mentally ill by popular definition, in the sense that it is widely assumed that anyone who would commit such acts must be off their rocker in some critical way. [That courts attempt to distinguish between mental illness and criminal insanity is an entirely separate and probably moot subject, given that it revolves around the ability to punish, not prevent.]
The fixation on mental illness in this case seems to me to be problematic not only because it stigmatizes the significant proportion of the population experiencing mental illness [and here I will not enter into the debate over whether autism, a neurodevelopmental phenomenon, can even be considered a ‘mental illness’ – and let alone for the moment whether the shooter had ever been diagnosed with autism, or any mental disorder, which remains entirely unknown at the moment], but because it is a kind of red herring.
How convenient, it seems to me, that the gun control debate the shootings elicited has shifted so quickly, and so subtly, and so nearly completely, to the subject of mental illness. Don’t think it has? Tempted to respond that both subjects will or should remain on the table? Guess what: even the gun lobby has signalled its openness to measures that would make it more difficult for the ‘mentally ill’ to acquire guns. Clever of them, given that such provisions already exist in the form of thin prohibitions against folks convicted of certain crimes (who are often considered ‘mentally ill’ by definition – see above) obtaining guns. Clever, too, to anticipate Congress or state legislators squabbling for years about which mental illnesses should proscribe the purchasing of guns. And even more clever to ensure American progressives will waste precious time signing petitions urging better mental health care funding – until they are distracted, in a week or two, by some new cause and some new set of petitions.
Let me speak about guns.
I come from a hunting culture. I have fired both long guns and handguns. I have family members who are soldiers, and an in-law who is a retired cop. I think it is fair to say that I understand guns – and their utility – in a way many city dwellers do not.
Beyond this, I know enough Americans to understand that element of its culture so deeply defined by distrust in authority that it demands, even now, two and a half centuries after the Revolution, the right to bear arms against a political oppressor. I know this well enough to understand that the Second Amendment will never be repealed.
Thing is, little children aren’t political oppressors. Nor are theatre-goers, college classmates, congresswomen or co-workers.
And the US Supreme Court has already ruled that the right to bear arms is not an unlimited right – any more, in fact, than free speech is unlimited.
So one question, it seems quite reasonably to me, should be: what new limits should be placed on guns? Why, for example, should a citizen – any citizen, irrespective of mental well-being – be able to purchase a semi-automatic assault rifle with a large capacity magazine? A pump-action shotgun (also widely used, incidentally, as a combat weapon in the US military) or a boring old .22 is far better for hunting. A .357 Magnum, a common handgun, is more than adequate for self-protection.
The arguments gun lobbyists make against gun control are largely specious. Gun control is hardly a slippery slope: there is arguably less gun control now, and less political motivation for it, than at any historical point in the American past. The claim that citizens require access to firepower equalling what their governments possess is ludicrous, unless you covet a personal cache of long-range missiles and atomic warheads. The suggestion that gun laws should not change because mass shootings are statistically rare is empty, given the reality that other statistically rare but devastating events (airplane crashes, terrorist attacks) lead almost invariably to legislative change. Even the old line about only outlaws having guns is disqualified on the grounds that (a) the conversation has never been about banning guns entirely and (b) muggers, bank robbers and even hit men tend not to use assault weapons of the sort used in mass killings.
It is a truism in environmental science (one of the fields I teach in) that while diffuse sources of pollution (e.g., auto emissions) are important to identify and treat, it is the point sources (e.g., oil spills) that require our most urgent attention.
To me, assault weapons are a point source. And they require our urgent attention now.
And the diffuse source? It isn’t mental illness. No: it’s displaced rage.