How does this happen?

December 17, 2012

Nicole Colson looks at the facts about the terrible mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School--and asks where the real causes of violence lie.

THE NEWS was heartbreaking: 20 children, all aged 6 and 7, shot and killed, along with four teachers, a principal and a school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The gunman, Adam Lanza, killed his mother earlier in the day, before later killing himself.

It's gut-wrenching to learn about the victims and to consider the grief and horror of the families they left behind: 6-year-old Charlotte Bacon, who pleaded with her mom to wear her new pink dress and boots to school, even though it was supposed to be for the holidays. Or 6-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene, whose family moved to Connecticut two months ago from Canada because of the community's reputation as a nice place.

Or teacher Lauren Rousseau, who, after years of substituting, finally got a full-time teaching job this fall. Or fellow teacher Victoria Soto, who saved the lives of the kids in her class by reportedly hiding them in a closet and telling Lanza they were in the gym before he shot and killed her.

School psychologist Mary Sherlach and principal Dawn Hochsprung were among the first to confront the gunman. They had run toward the sound of shooting in the hopes of saving lives.

Outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in the aftermath of the shootings
Outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in the aftermath of the shootings

Violent crimes take something out of every family and community they touch. That the majority of the victims in this case were small children compounds the horror. In the outpouring of grief in Connecticut--and across the country--millions of people are left to wonder: How could this happen? And why?

THE SHOOTING brought out the best and the worst.

For many people, the instinctive response was one of solidarity and sympathy--of reaching out to those around them to offer help and comfort.

On the other side was the gross media sensationalism--scenes of reporters sticking microphones in the faces of frightened children for their "reactions," not to mention the rampant and irresponsible speculation about Lanza's mental health, his home life and his motives. Or there was the idiotic response from those looking to profit politically off a tragedy--like Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who declared, "We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools."

In the aftermath of such a horror, people naturally want to know: "Why?" It's a question that should be asked. Unfortunately, many of the answers we'll be hearing from political leaders and the media will fall woefully short of the answers we deserve to hear.

We'll be told that Lanza was mentally ill--but we won't be told that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than to be perpetrators of it. We'll hear how easy it was for Lanza to gain access to his mother's substantial gun collection--but that doesn't explain why he used them. Some reports will blame his mother--others will focus on the video games he reportedly liked to play.

As this story was being written, however, little was known about Lanza and nothing at all about his actual motivations in planning and carrying out the mass killings. In that regard, media speculation about Lanza's reported autism and personality disorder are particularly irresponsible in a society that routinely treats those with mental illness and disabilities as "problems" to be contained, rather than full human beings--while providing next-to-no resources to support them or their families.

Whatever answers we eventually learn or don't learn about this one individual, a broader discussion needs to take place about why such terrible acts take place--seemingly with more and more regularity--and the roots of the violence that is rampant in U.S. society.

MASS SHOOTINGS are particularly shocking, but they aren't that uncommon in the U.S.

Easy access to guns--one-third of Americans own a gun, and the U.S. as a whole has half the world's guns in civilian hands--may provide the means for committing certain types of crimes, but the roots of Adam Lanza's actions go deeper. They lie in a profoundly alienated society in which violence in general is sanctioned by the most exalted American institutions--as long as it is carried out for "legitimate" purposes, like U.S. wars abroad or police at home defending law and order.

So far this year, more than 90,000 Americans have been shot by guns--over the past three years, there have been 231 shootings in which four or more people have died.

So it's entirely understandable that many people who ask what could have stopped the Newtown massacre would look to stricter gun control. Socialists believe guns are a symptom, rather than a cause of violence--but no one should ignore what this symptom tells us about a sick society where people can purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition off the Internet, including the kind of high-volume clips apparently used at Sandy Hook, whose only possible purpose is to "hunt" human beings.

Nevertheless, when someone like New York City's Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg jumps to the front of the pack to demand tougher gun control laws, anyone who considers themselves on the left ought to be skeptical.

There's something particularly gruesome about Bloomberg talking about gun control at the same time that he presides over historic cutbacks in government services, including mental health, for New York City, though he could cover the shortfall himself out of his personal fortune of $25 billion.

Likewise, Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, announced that she would push for a renewed ban on assault weapons on the first day of the next session of Congress. "[W]eapons of war don't belong on our streets or in our theaters, shopping malls and, most of all, our schools," Feinstein said in a statement.

But so long as "weapons of war" are used in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or so many other countries around the world, Feinstein has no problems. In fact, this allegedly progressive Democrat has been a major part of the ideological edifice that justified the worst abuses of the U.S. "war on terror"--including physical torture that has led to the deaths of detainees.

The central elements of the "war on terror"--including racist scapegoating of Muslims and Arabs and the use of drones and torture by the military--are not only embraced by both mainstream parties in Washington, but far beyond. Witness the near-universal rave reviews for director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden that firmly asserts that the ends justifies the means when it comes to fighting "terrorism."

How could the enthusiasm for such violence by those at the top of society have no effect on those at the bottom?

POLITICAL LEADERS AND the media portray spasms of violence like the killings in Newtown as isolated occurrences--the fault of single individuals who "snapped."

But this ignores how U.S. society is steeped in anger and alienation. This doesn't originate with the poor and powerless--it originates with a world in which, for many, daily existence is a struggle filled with constant reminders of their helplessness and meaninglessness to society as a whole.

On the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook, Barack Obama told reporters at a press conference, "'There's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. Whether it's an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children."

Obama's words no doubt moved millions of people. But the disconnect that they represent is profound. How can the head of the most powerful government in the world--a government that tortures, that justifies bombing innocents, that sanctions the assassination of its own citizens–make a serious plea to end violence?

It's the same disconnect that Martin Luther King was talking about in his 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam," when he challenged the hypocrisy of a nation engaged in a barbaric imperialist war halfway around the globe, while condemning individuals driven to violence in their own lives:

I have tried to conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But, they asked, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.

Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

It is the same disconnect that Vonda and Michael Shoels talked about in 1999, after their son Isaiah was murdered in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, in which two students, armed with an array of assault weapons, killed 12 fellow classmates.

Then, as now, the U.S. president expressed deeply felt words of sympathy. Then, it was Bill Clinton, who called for "a culture of values instead of a culture of violence"--as he was inflicting devastating violence from the air in a war on Serbia. In a letter to Clinton, the Shoels wrote: "Those who made pipe bombs may well have cheered your bombs dropping over Kosovo and Yugoslavia. There is a connection."

As Paul D'Amato wrote in the International Socialist Review,

The Shoels hit upon a central hypocrisy of capitalist politicians. They make a lot of noise about the impermissibility of violence–except when it is the violence they employ in pursuit of their own interests. Then, everything from blockades that murder hundreds of thousands of children to the use of tactical nuclear weapons is permissible. "The most 'humane' governments, which in peaceful times 'detest' war," wrote the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, "proclaim during war that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of the greatest possible number of people."

At a vigil for the Sandy Hook victims on Sunday, Barack Obama told the crowd, "Surely we can do better than this."

Surely we can. But not unless the real causes of violence are addressed.

Amid the tributes and vigils across the country and beyond was one in Karachi, Pakistan. One picture shows a group of Pakistani children lighting candles to pay tribute to the Sandy Hook victims, with a sign reading, "Connecticut school killing--[We] feel [your] pain as [you] would feel our pain."

In 2011, a report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that seven years of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan had killed at least 168 children.

That basic sense of humanity and solidarity--the compassion for fellow human beings who are suffering--shows the real way forward.

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