Depending upon which news account of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting we read or hear, we are told about different numbers of victims. Some reports emphasize the 20 children. Many accounts also include the six school personnel for a total of 26 victims. A small number of stories reference the 26 people murdered at the school, plus the mother killed by her son, the gunman. Hardly any news reports include the gunman in the death toll.
The Newtown gunman shot his mother. This woman is no less a victim of homicide because her son is the man who shot her. This woman is no less a victim of homicide because she owned the gun that was used to kill her. A young man made the decisions to develop and carry out a plan to massacre children and women and then to kill himself. He, alone, committed these heinous acts.
As it turns out, we’re a judgmental bunch when it comes to victims. We tend to believe that a person must possess the innocence of a newborn and the purity of a saint to be considered a true victim. We look closely for perceived mistakes and flaws to disqualify people from receiving full victim status and the full warmth of our support. Very few people emerge from this scrutiny without being blamed in one way or another for what happened to them.
The older the victims, the less likely we will see them as innocent, but some of us will actually find ways to blame children for harms committed against them. We often take into consideration whether victims are somewhere we feel is appropriate and at a time we deem appropriate, and then we assign some degree of responsibility to the victims for their victimization. If we think that the victims were engaged in less than upstanding behavior at the time, or ever, we tend to feel they deserved whatever happened. We like to believe that victims had control over the violence committed against them because we like to believe that we are smart, strong, and good enough to avoid being victimized.
We especially like to blame victims who have been harmed by someone they know. We are quick to hone in on the victims’ behavior and to neglect a thorough examination of the perpetrators’ behavior. The victim must have incited the perpetrator to do what he did. The victim must have known the perpetrator wasn’t stable, but failed to take action. Why did the victim stay? We fool ourselves into thinking that we would never allow ourselves to be in such a position . . . until we are.
Our victim-blaming ways offer us a fleeting sense of security while ironically decreasing our actual level of safety. Victims of some crimes are too vulnerable to deal with society’s misplaced scrutiny that they don’t ever come forward. We need to hold offenders accountable instead of making victim-blaming excuses for their behavior. Perpetrators commit crimes because they can and, too frequently, without facing many consequences. We should expect violent offenders, not their victims, to answer to us as citizens.
The reality is that each of us will find ourselves in circumstances where we do not have the power, where we are at the mercy of others’ decisions and actions. Whether we are crossing a busy street, buying lunch at a restaurant, or sending our children to school, we make numerous decisions each day that essentially entrust others with our health and safety. Sometimes strangers do very bad things, but most often it’s the men whom we love and should be able to trust who hurt us. And then society is quick to kick us when we’re down.
Nobody deserves to be murdered or sexually assaulted or beaten or bullied. Thinking anything else is just another way of condoning violence.