17 December 2012

No Easy Answers in Newtown

The Washington Post reports the results of a poll the paper conducted with ABC News following the Newtown amoklauf. It reveals that a majority of respondents attribute the latest massacre to unspecified "broader problems in society" rather than writing it off as "the isolated act of a troubled individual." The Post finds this a significant reversal from previous post-amoklauf polling, but the result implies no necessary agreement on the "broader problems" or their solutions. Gun nuts and their ideological opposites might agree on the premise in broadest terms, since the former will want to blame broader problems rather than widespread gun ownership, and the latter will simply include widespread gun ownership among the broader problems. As well, liberals and progressives might include violent popular culture among the broader problems, while conservatives and Republicans might prefer to cite a mass rejection of revealed morality. Returning to particulars, the topic of the moment is "prepping." While the actual shooter's motives remain unknown if not unfathomable, his aunt has told reporters that his mother had become a "prepper," the modern euphemism for a "survivalist," -- one who anticipates a societal collapse and prepares for it in any number of ways, including the stockpiling of weapons in some cases. That may explain the guns in her home but not necessarily her son's use of them. Given that his mother was his first victim, the shooter may have repudiated her beliefs in the most forceful fashion, his subsequent choice of targets and his own fate suggesting all-out war on the future rather than any commitment to survival. There are few grounds yet for further speculation.

For now we can only attempt to generalize from all amoklaufs. Are they acts of compulsion or entitlement? That is, are they the acts of people who've lost control of themselves, or do amoklaufers act from a conscious conviction of their right to kill? Is there a mere urge or a will to kill? The answer could matter if we can discover something pathological under the surface of Americans' defining concern with personal freedom. That the impulse may not be purely cultural is suggested by Friday's reminder of China's strange fad of farmers invading schools to go after children with knives, but the U.S. obsession with a freedom supposedly threatened constantly by enslaving powers may exacerbate a global tendency. Is the spirit of amoklauf a genie that can be rebottled? It seems possible. How hard can it be to remind people that they have no right to kill? I suppose it depends on the argument. Some people will insist that we all be mindful of God. Others will say that social justice, however defined, is the inescapable prerequisite. Others still will prescribe a lifelong regime of therapy, or medication when necessary, and not just for the potential amoklaufer but also for all those who might provoke him. Whatever the remedy, individuality (if not individualism) has to be reconciled with equality on the simplest level: recognition of every human being as morally equivalent to oneself, no matter how they look or how they live. No one should grow so convinced of how special they are that they see others as less human because they seem less special. But all this may not be as easy as it looks on the screen if you believe that society must change for reasons beyond the menace of amoklaufers that might justify the coercion of dissidents. The utopian ideal is one in which each person is an end unto himself, not to be sacrificed for any other perceived good, but can that ideal be realized -- and if it can't be realized on the political level, can everyone be convinced on the personal level? These aren't new questions, though the amoklauf remains a relatively new phenomenon that focuses attention on the relatively new phenomena of mass media and mass gun ownership. These may not be addressable in an either-or fashion, no matter what activists or ideologues may prefer. But the broader question is how much these modern phenomena have changed society and culture: only to a point reversible through traditional appeals to human nature, or to an extent that requires changes to human nature, however discomfiting they may seem to today's humans? I promised no easy answers, so don't say I didn't warn you.


Anonymous said...

One failed shoe bomb and we all have to remove our shoes at the airport. 31 school shootings since Columbine and still no change in gun regulation. Time to ask repugnicans "WHY"?!!

Anonymous said...

The sad fact is, some individuals are simply aberrant. Call them sociopaths, psychopaths, whatever, they offer a danger to society as long as they breathe. We can argue all day long about the moral way to deal with them, but they, themselves, have no morality.

What it comes down to is the greatest good for the greatest number. Sometimes the greatest good is to simply put such abberants down. Sure we can lock them up and hope they never escape, but is it worth endangering 1 single innocent life to keep such beings alive because of some unjustifiable morality?

Samuel Wilson said...

The sadder and more difficult fact to deal with is that individuals often become aberrant, rather than being that way all along, while we have no reliable way to anticipate someone going that way. That seems to keep us reacting to amoklaufs instead of finding some proactive means of preventing them, either by further restricting access to guns or changing the culture so such people don't simply reach for knives instead.