Once again we are confronted with the stark and desolate intersection of mental illness, guns and a culture of violence. We gaze out at the bitter landscape of Newtown, Conn., struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible and recognize that we are confronted with a reality for which there may be no ultimate answers, no definitive explanations. And yet we ask in voices filled with disbelief and anguish, why?
For many, the past week will be more than they can bear, a grievous loss that is unendurable: 20 small children and 6 adults, many shot multiple times by a 20-year-old man in the grip of a dark and deranged fantasy, wearing combat gear and armed with pistols and a semi-automatic rifle.
Of course, we know that what occurred on that school day morning was not the first mass shooting we have experienced, and it will likely not be the last. Looking back, the years have been punctuated by such events that have grown familiar. Recall Portland, most recently, and the devastating July shooting in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., which killed 12.
Can we ever fully comprehend what occurs in the human heart that allows an individual to take, indiscriminately, the lives of innocents? Of children? We do know that it is a bleak and desiccated place that gives birth to such unspeakable impulses. We can call it mental illness. And we can look to therapeutic and pharmacological interventions, however fragile and tenuous they might be.
But what we also know is that we cannot find all of those who are lost and treat them. Often theirs is a rage, compounded by sinister delusions, shaped by twisted and violent images, and deeply hidden until they're not.
History teaches us that evil, in all its manifest forms, will ever be with us, a pathology that exists just beneath a patina of civility. Theologians refer to this grim truth as "mysterium iniquitatis," the mystery of evil, a penetrating presence in our lives from which there are no ultimate defenses. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe described this best, however obliquely, when he wrote,"While, like a ghastly rapid river
Through a pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh — but smile no more."
Eli Wiesel, in his book "Night," wrote, in sparse and fragmented prose, about his time in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. There, as a boy, he witnessed an inhumanity that was beyond his capacity to understand. He knew only that he was in the presence of an incomparable evil that knew no remorse, in a place that God had abandoned. He has spent his life finding a path out of an emotional labyrinth, marked by profound despair, from which there seemed, at times, no exit. It was called the Holocaust and its depth and breadth still elude ultimate explanations.
For those who are left behind, not only in Newtown and Aurora, but beyond, Wiesel's words will resonate:
"Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust "…"
Perhaps faith can offer surcease. But we can assume that, for others, no grace will ever be found, no matter the passage of time.
There is, of course, something tangible that we as a nation can do: We can make illegal those semi-automatic assault rifles, equipped with high-capacity magazines, weapons meant for war. By any definition, these are not sport rifles. They are not designed for hunting. And when their bullets hit soft tissue the damage inflicted is horrible, and even if nonfatal, the gaping wounds can barely be repaired.
As well, we can decisively close the gun show/flea market loopholes where individuals — teenagers, ordinary criminals, terrorists, Mexican drug cartels and arms traffickers — can purchase semi-automatic weapons without qualification. This we can do as a society.
The Second Amendment, written in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, was conceived in the context of the War for Independence. Its intention was to keep local militias armed (with muskets) and prepared. It was never meant to ensure that our citizenry possess proto-military weaponry and high capacity magazines. A citizen cannot own a Stinger missile.
Freedom is not the issue. The safety of our community is the issue.
Regarding whether ours is a culture of violence, that's a debate worth having. Certainly there exists a constellation of entertainment (movies, video games, gang culture) that romances the gun and gives pause. We lose 2,800 children and teenagers annually to gun violence. But causation is deeply complex and elusive, as difficult as answering the question, why? But we can begin. We can do this.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.