I don’t own a tv. Maybe five, six years ago, I realized how easy it was to get sucked into stuff that didn’t matter; but even worse, to obsess about bad news. The pornography of the unthinkable, snuff films for the suburbati… the compulsive this-just-in and gruesome rehashing ad nauseum of the unthinkable.
Not out of denial, but survival, I cut myself off. Gave the tv to a home for older people, and didn’t look back. But that doesn’t inure me to tragedy or the insanity of what goes on. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel the voltage of something gone badly awry… nor reel from the horror of the brutality of common America.
Here I am, the day after the second biggest school slaughter in American history. Even without the “we want your eyes” exploitation reporting – hear the words they use, know they’re calculated – I keep jumping over to the net. Doing the Google Search for the most recent update, People.com for the least grisly details, an occasional network report or topline daily paper – and it is the New York Times for a reason – to try to understand.
But I can’t.
I just can’t.
I don’t even know where to begin. Beyond the facts, which will tumble out and tangle for days, without ever truly knowing.
Some basic facts: a 20 year old man with some sort of psychological disorder took registered guns and went to the local K through 4 school after killing his mother, shot the authority figures in the office, then opened fire on a classroom. He killed 6 adults, 20 children, some of whom were making gingerbread houses, not to mention a teacher who’d rushed her children to a closet and was shielding them with her body.
The mother, who may or may not have been a teacher at the school, was the person the guns were registered to. Some reports say she registered the guns for her son, because minors couldn’t legally own weapons. Other reports, including The New York Times, say she was a gun enthusiast. Either way, this is not a case of “if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns…”
We also know she was divorced. Her husband worked for GE. And whatever her means, she could pay for landscaping, live in a house on a hill in a nice Connecticut suburb – meaning this is not the ghetto, survivalist culture or meth country – and have time for games of Bunco with other ladies in the neighborhood.
Some people said she was the kind of woman who was direct, would make sure any treatment needed for her withdrawn, brainiac son would be sought. Others suggested a brave front that camouflaged her son’s problems, one even commented, “she was a woman coping with a difficult situaion with exceeding grace.”
Here’s what I know. Twenty children won’t grow up. How many little ones will be marked by the trauma? What kind of help will they get? Or their parents, siblings, community? Will they be smothered under a blanket of “the memory”? Go to a place of blanked out recollection and triggers they can’t recognize?
Not that it’s the same, but it is. Jerry Sandusky, who’s whining he needs a better prison experience. Young children in a place they should’ve been safe. Pants pulled down, heaven knows… and no sense of recourse. Indeed, an entire football program cocked to tell them their life, their innocence isn’t worth jeopardizing their machine over.
Look away. Or rather: Look. Stare. Gape. Be horrified, but remember: the real horror is that it keeps happening.
No one speaks up, so shocked by the utter depravity. Nor stands up with a quiet force. Instead it’s endless demands of extreme response: BANISH ALL GUNS! ARM THE KINDIEGARTNERS! Any sane solution drowned out by the tumult of rage and white noise.
Columbine… Arizona… Virginia Tech… Chardon, Ohio… Nashville’s own John Trotwood Moore Middle School… and on, and on, and on. And those were high profile scenes of the slaughter. People pushed so far past the edge, they act out in unthinkable ways, and because they’re unthinkable, we stare until we go blind. Then blink to push the glare from our minds.
After all, if we can point to mental illness,, then it can’t happen to us. We can pretend everybody’s okay… We can go back to living… We can even stop whistling by the movie theatre, the high school, the middle school, the shopping mall…
Until it happens again. And if you think we don’t forget, we do. Trotwood Moore is near my house. I stood, like so many, watching the police cars and frightened parents when Nashville’s only – to date -- school schooting happened. Then when I posted, listing a bunch of these “events,” I failed to mention, indeed to recall it.
Easier to live with when we forget. But how does one do that? Oh, yes, it happens.
Chardon, Ohio, a bucolic little community that makes Mayberry look like Manhattan, is where the maple syrup we used growing up came from. They descended like ants at a picnic when that shooting happened: CNN, network affiliates, reporters from all over…
It didn’t even warrant a mention in this latest massacre.
My friend, first idol and local folkie Alex Bevan went to work that night, out of sorts and demi-vertiginous from the proximity. Local folkies can’t take the night off, you see, and so heavy-hearted he reported to John Palmer’s Bistro, less than 8 miles from where the shooting occurred.
On the floor, in the kitchen, he found people who had children at the school or were friends with the families whose children had been shot. He didn’t know what to say, or even process. He got through it, by auto-pilot and the journeyman’s internal compass.
At 3 am., it hit him. “Tired Pilgrims” is a gentle song about not making sense, not knowing what to do, nor feel.
Halfway through, what might best be called a prayer set to music, this soft, worn-voiced journeyman sings,
“Grace and mercy are the gifts revealed
Soiled and dirty is how I feel
After all these prayers, for those distant souls
The dirt’s not here to fill these holes…”
When Alex called to play it for me down the telephone line, he didn’t say he felt better. Nor did he suggest he had any answers. All he had was this song, but it was all someone like him could offer. But in that, in a chorus of – “When sad angels learn to fly/ In the brittle winds of an iron sky/ No church bell rings a welcome tone/ Just sad pilgrims coming home” -- there was so much: mercy and compassion, a gentle place for the people struggling with anger, with futility, with bottomless grief and confusion.
Maybe if we started with these kids: the misfits, dorks, losers, faggots, fat girls, pukers, whores, sluts, you know the litany. Maybe if we remembered they are human beings, too. In some ways, more human than the jocks, the sosh’es, the cheerleaders, the stoners, the hippies, the class presidents – because these excluded kids, the outcasts and lost souls know the pain of derision, being mocked, belittled, tortured physically and psychologically, emotionally and via the internet; they also understand the pain that can be inflicted from the inside out.
See, that’s a big part of the problem: the lack of empathy. the notion that cruel words or harsh acts cut into another human being in a way that mutates, scars, creates tremors held in eludes us. Until… until they shutdown and withdraw, or worse. Either a life ended, or a rampage like what we’re trying to make sense of now.
It’s not that these kids were losers, it’s that they were pushed past the brink. Exclusion. Shunning. Ostracizing. Mocking. Humiliating. It adds up. And how stunted are the people who derive pleasure or feel more for the belittling?
Bullying has become its own reward. It robs the bully of pieces of their own soul, until they feel nothing and teeter on the brink of sociopathy. A shudder-inducing truth no one wants to consider. How often though have people found ways to not blame the popular kids who act out? But in many ways, that’s the darkest core truth of sociopathy: the inability to feel what anyone else is going through.
That is as much a mental health issue as anything plaguing the perpetrator.
How we became such a mean nation, I do not know. But we did. Victimizing others, marginalizing, blaming – and then shaming them for being weak. It’s their fault. They asked for it. deserve it. What makes us such big people? Who are we to say? To know?
Then to wring our hands in mock-shock that some kid snaps.
No, people. It’s not the drugs, though they can cause crazy side effects. It’s not even the video games, where kids become desensitized to violence as they kill, blast, beat and pummel. It’s not the guns, though does anyone really need an automatic weapon to defend their home? Or hunt deer?
It’s the fact we’re becoming a nation of look-aways until we can can’t stop looking. The refrain of “it’s not my job/place/responsibility” doubles down to the sad truth of, “Then who?”
How many people stood silent, knowing the kid was a little weird, the coach or priest, even parent was a little off… But the ramifications of taking action, of protecting the innocent come back to not wanting to get involved or deal with the fall-out. Just like this. Twenty-one times since Columbine.
All because we’re so busy grasping after more, deifying the famous, the avaricious and the bullying we miss sight of the ones mowed down in their wake. What if someone had treated any of these kids like they were okay, like the deserved to belong? What if including, rather than belittling, was the rule?
Growing up, as a small kid who didn’t weigh much, my father taught me hard truths. He never flinched in the face of right or wrong: it was very clear, never negotiable. “Playground justice,” he called it. It came down to a simple deal: “If you see some kid beating up on another one on the playground, and you don’t do something, you might as well get a baseball bat and join in, cause you’re just as culpable.”
Now a kid who didn’t break 50 pounds until well into 3rd grade wasn’t expected to bust up a fight. My father – though with issues – wasn’t delusional. Or as he’d break it down for others when he’d share this thinking at various times growing up, “You don’t have to rush in there, where you won’t do any good, but you can sure can get a bigger or older kid, or a grown-up. Get someone who can help, because that is what’ll make it stop.”
Obviously, you have to get to the bully long before they drive a kid to take on a grade school for target practice, but it’s something to think about as you’re feeling big cutting somebody down…
Even grown-ups, because truncated grown-ups can pass what’s bottled up inside onto their kids. Or subordinates who have no recourse and their own pain. It’s a ripple effect of very dire consequences.
As for Adam Lanza, as well as countless other shooters and teen suicides, they should be supported as they try to work through their broken places. Some kids are “born that way,” others get there by abuse at home, odd structures or family dynamics, a lack of confidence that sets them up for mockery.
There is help. But there is often shame associated with “being weak” or “damaged,” backed with a societal notion “you can just snap out of it.”
Many health insurance companies won’t pay for conventional therapy, often as or more effective than the drugs with such heinous side effects. Their actuary tables prefer the margins of how low the incidence of a homicidal binge is to the reality of how bad it gets when the exception busts that quota to bits.
This is sensitive, combustible stuff. Not to mention the hell the person is feeling that drives them to this place. Hell on the outside vis-à-vis being ignored or tormented, hell on the inside with all the voices, warped places and chemical imbalances that cause these meltdowns.
Again, a nation of profit margins and lobbyists, making sure big pharma gets theirs and never mind the carnage. They echo a chorus: “So rare, so unlikely…It can’t happen here.”
Until it does. And what can you do? Tear down the system? Arm the kids? Ban the guns? Force people, already reeling from feeling like a loser, into therapy? Make insurance companies do the right, not cost effective, thing?
You can be kinder, gentler. You can speak up for the people who can’t speak up for themselves. You can tell the truth about someone being bullied, victimized, mocked or ostracized. You can help them understand how to temper the hurt and the rage, to find ways of connecting instead of shutting down, baiting and getting worse or turning inside.
It comes down to Saint Francis of Assisi, who asked, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…”
I, personally, can’t change the world. But I can pay attention, see who might need a kind word or a hand to hold onto. Busy, trying to make my way, I feel more urgent than I ever have. I’m not only not alone in that, I have many blessings – and, in this moment where I feel so powerless and paralyzed, I realize the greatest gift I can give is to remember little things can make a difference, small gestures have huge impact if they land where you stand.
Had someone tried that with Adam Lanza, who knows? Hopefully whomever the next time bomb is, we won’t know, because someone did – and so a hurt was healed, a life salved and brought closer to acceptance. Wouldn’t it be nice?
-- Holly Gleason
15 December 2012