As your editor, I’m loathe to comment more than necessary about last week’s massacre of 26 lives — all but six children under the age of seven — in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. From where I sit, rare incidents of mass carnage tend to bring as much of the worst out of people as they inspire the good. So far, I haven’t been proven wrong. From simplistic calls for gun control laws, to senseless proclamations about the propensity for violence among the mentally ill, to the scapegoating of any bogeyman available for the picking, far too many people have allowed their righteous indignation at the slaughters of these innocents to overwhelm their thoughtfulness.
Yet any close look at the Newtown massacres shows that this, like so many incidents, avail no one of a simple solution. For one: Mass murders are incredibly rare, with 100 incidents in the past three decades, or less than one percent of the 13,913 homicides reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year alone. The fact that mass murders are rare — along with the fact that the mother (and victim) of Adam Lanza, who committed the heinous murders — was a law-abiding gun owner, makes it is hard for any thoughtful person to use mass murders such as what happened in Newtown as either a strong case for enacting new gun control laws or for crafting laws allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in classrooms. One would even dare say that both sides of the gun control debate appear to be craven opportunists instead of being compassionate caregivers to the families of the victims in their time of suffering. The fact that less than two percent of homicides involving youth happen on school grounds, according to the U.S. Centers on Disease Control, and, even with questionably-reported statistics, that school violence has been in decline for the past three decades, also makes the Newtown massacres even less-useful for any solid discussion about preventing crime against our children or about the use of school discipline in schools. Such overreaction over the massacre in Columbine High School in 1999 was one reason for the overuse of suspensions and expulsions (as well as passage of zero-tolerance laws) that are a major culprit in the nation’s education crisis, and why 150 children drop out each hour into poverty and prison.
Anyone using Newtown as a fulcrum for a discussion about the role of mental illness and mental health treatment must also keep a few things in mind. The first? That few of the mentally ill ever commit a violent crime. This includes those diagnosed with schizophrenia — a disease often associated with violent crime in the public imagination — who are less likely to commit a violent crime than someone with bipolar disorder or major depression. If anything, as Heather Stuart of Queens University in Canada has pointed out, the mentally ill are more-likely to be subjected to violence than those of us in (arguably) good mental health, and are especially prone to abuse by relatives and significant others taking evil advantage of their vulnerabilities. A drug addict or alcoholic is three times more likely to commit a violent crime than anyone with a mental illness, according to medical sociologist Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University based on data from the National Institute of Mental Health’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area. Certainly a real discussion needs to be had about overhauling the other super-cluster of failure that is the mental health treatment system, a matter about which I have become well-versed on a personal level as a relative of someone with a mental illness. This is especially clear from the horrific fact that prisons and jails have now replaced the barbaric institutions known as insane asylums as the mental health centers of first and last resort for young men and women who are both homeless and mentally ill. But as with any incident of mass murder, Newtown will prove far less useful in advancing such discussions one way or another.
Meanwhile we all need to be sensitive about the conversations we have and how we have them. Behind every incident such as the Newtown massacre are people. Mothers and fathers who are grieving. Sisters and brothers who are in sorrow. Communities where the victims are known and beloved by even the most-distant of neighbors. It is important to have honest conversations about the ills that plague society. But we must also take care to remember that times of tragedy are not about our own concerns. We should spend our time praying for the families, and supporting organizations that are helping them during their moments of sorrow. One way to do this is to support the Connecticut Parents Union’s effort this week to provide counseling and teddy bears to Newtown’s families. Another is the effort being undertaken by the United Way there. And, most importantly, pray for the families; they need that more than any sloganeering and punditry.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some lessons that can be learned from the Newtown massacre — or that they cannot be applied starting now. Certainly there are. The most important of them is that we must build nurturing cultures so that our children know their own names and weather the storms and tragedies that come as part of being alive.
This starts with our families providing love, moral fiber and undying faith. As Proverbs 22:6 makes clear, a child who is taught well by their parents and caregivers will stay on the path to being a healthy, confident person of character. It also includes our schools — and not just about academics. We serve our children well when we transform education in order to ensure that they are taught by high-quality teachers and school leaders who care for them, and attend schools whose cultures build up them up. Finally, each and every one of us should take a child who is not our own under our tutelage. This was a point Howard-John Wesley, the pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., made clear in a sermon he gave yesterday. As the old African proverb made clear, it truly does take villages to help our children become men and women of strong character.
Most importantly of all, we must keep in mind our obligation, both to our children and to our fellow men and women, the role we each must play in improving the world in which we live. This extends beyond the systemic reform of American public education or overhauling any of the social systems that feed into our communities. As Americans, we have an obligation to live up to what John Winthrop, and later, Ronald Reagan, would call our status as the shining city on a hill upon which the eyes of the world shall rest. We cannot fail to meet our obligations at the hill’s summit, especially when it comes to the futures of our children. When we volunteer at a soup kitchen, launch a ministry within our churches, or simply donate to a worthy cause, we are doing our part to make our nation and our world better places in which to live.
Let’s take this time to pray for the families. Let’s put the energy unleashed by this tragedy to thoughtful and productive use. And let’s teach all of our children well.