Twenty-eight dead. Lone gunman. On Friday, December 14, 2012, news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, blazed across every form of media like a wildfire.
Many of us are responding to that wildfire with a flood of feelings. Heartbroken. Devastated. No words. In tears.
We’re sending our hearts out to those who are grieving. We’re sending our prayers.
Some of us are angry. What the hell is going on? What the hell is wrong with people?
Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora movie theater. Portland mall. A reporter inevitably asks, “Why does this keep happening?”
We presume the gunman must be crazy. We say he must have snapped or been on drugs. Well, I guess we can’t do anything about that.
We call the situation a senseless act. Hey, if it’s senseless, we rational people certainly aren’t going to be able to comprehend it. Right?
We say the crime is unimaginable—meaning that we can’t imagine ourselves committing such an atrocity, so the killer had to be crazy. And now we’re back where we started, deeply sad, yet lacking any responsibility.
In other words, we let ourselves off the hook instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue and action.
Even when we push ourselves a bit more, we don’t seem to get at the crux of the matter. We talk about how we can do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of killers, as if guns are the only means of committing violence. We mention school drills, lockdowns, and other methods of teaching people how not to be victims, as if skills are a guarantee of safety in the face of a weapon-wielding murderer on a rampage. We take too much comfort in the notion of being able to protect ourselves and of dis-arming others who would try to do us harm. How safe are we, really, if somebody wants to hurt us?
If we really want to know why this keeps happening, we’re going to have to lower are well-honed defenses and be honest with ourselves. While most men would never engage in a shooting spree or any other violent crime, men committed every mass shooting, from Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook today. This is not a coincidence. Violence has a gendered nature.
The men who committed these killings are every bit as deadly and hateful as suicide bombers. When the mass murderer is from another country and uses a bomb to do his killing, we call him a terrorist and attribute his behavior to his culture. When the killer is from our own country and uses guns to murder others, we look for any explanation other than our culture, especially when the murderer’s white.
And let’s not skip over the fact that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter began his rampage by killing his mother. In 2011, the Seal Beach shooter killed his estranged wife and seven other people at the salon where his wife worked. In 2009, the Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home shooter was also targeting his estranged wife at her job when he killed eight people.
Sometimes murderers have one person in mind when they kill a lot of people. Sometimes they plan a massacre, but just kill their main target, as in the case of Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich, who was stalked and shot to death in the bookstore café where she worked in 2009. More often, killers have just one target, as in the murder of Kasandra Perkins, who was killed by her football-player boyfriend earlier this month. Allowing ourselves to perceive these as completely different scenarios prevents us from recognizing the factors they have in common.
We can’t fix what we don’t acknowledge. We have created a culture where men can see themselves harming others and where men see violence as a viable option. We have continued to feed a culture where others are valued so little, they are seen as expendable.
We have consistently chosen to focus on responding to violence after it has occurred. This feels more manageable than the alternatives, but this strategy only treats the symptoms of violence, rather than curing and preventing the violence. Up to this point, we’ve clearly decided that symptom management is sufficient.
Perhaps someday we will become fed up, heartbroken, and brave enough to tackle the disease of violence that’s killing our children, our women, and our men. I wonder . . . how many more will it take?