Politics & Policy

Newtown Answers

The search.

Twenty children and six adults are dead. In Nigeria, people put their lives at risk going to church on Sundays. But in New England? The thought that going to school could be a final act is hard for us to comprehend. The seeming senselessness of what happened in Connecticut on Friday is not something we easily process. As the media and political class rush to legislative answers, we ask what is a healthy response to what has happened.

CHARLOTTE ALLEN

Like most people, I’ve been thinking and thinking about the Sandy Hook massacre. I’ve even pored over a map of the school and its killing sites — and studied a timeline of the incident, which appears to have unfolded over about 20 minutes. I have three observations:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel — the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist” — were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.

#ad#People, even unarmed people, need to fight back against criminals — because usually, no one else will. It took the police 20 minutes to arrive at Sandy Hook. By the time they got there, it was over. Cops and everybody else encourage civilians not to try to defend themselves when they are criminally assaulted. This is stupid advice. There are things you can do. Run is one of them, because most shooters can’t hit a moving target. The other, if you are in a confined space, is throw things at the killer, or try a tackle. Remember United Flight 93 on 9/11. It was a “flight of heroes” because a bunch of guys on that plane did what they could with what they had. They probably prevented the destruction of the White House or the Capitol.

Parents of sick children need to be realistic about them. I know at least two sets of fine and devoted parents who have had the misfortune to raise sons who were troubled for genetic reasons beyond anyone’s control. Either of those boys could have been an Adam Lanza. You simply can’t give a non-working, non-school-enrolled 20-year-old man free range of your home, much less your cache of weapons. You have to set boundaries. You have to say, “You can’t live here anymore — you’re an adult, and it’s time for you to be a man. We’ll give you all the support you need, but we won’t be enablers.” Unfortunately, the idea of being an “adult” and a “man” once one has reached physical maturity seems to have faded out of our coddling culture.

Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ.

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JIM DALY

It strikes me as painfully poignant that, as we try to find our way through the trauma of the tragic slaughter of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary and cope with widespread mayhem across the globe, that people the world over will be singing these timeless words of a beloved carol: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years, Are met in thee tonight.”

The coming of Christmas may strike some as bad timing, and for certain this year’s season is appropriately more somber. To process senseless loss is a pain too great to fully bear. But it is helpful, I think, to remember that Christmas is more than a season of sweetness and glad tidings. For Christians, this is a holy time. It’s a time when we remember with hope that God sent His Son in the form of a helpless baby to save the world from sin and yes, evil.

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“He will swallow up death forever,” wrote the prophet Isaiah, “and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8)

As parents, we must help our children navigate a corrosive culture. We can do this by encouraging and championing a strong moral foundation. Morals help to maintain order in the culture. It’s become en vogue in some circles to consider that morality is relative, that good and bad are subjective. But as we were reminded this past Friday, nothing could be further from the truth.

The best news in the darkest of times is that God has not given up on us. He is in the middle of the mayhem. He now holds these precious little children in His arms. And as we mourn we must hold tightly to the hope and promises of His Word, that He truly is “Our Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.”

— Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family.

ANTHONY DANIELS

Mass killings seem to be symptomatic of some people’s willingness or desire to express their personal distress, frustration, or discomfort in a dramatically public way. This is not confined to America: For example, in 1994 a Moroccan pilot deliberately crashed his plane into the side of a mountain, killing 43 people as well as himself. He was distressed that his wife had left him.

The perpetrators of mass killings seem to be maladjusted people with a grievance against life, sometimes crystallized by a relatively minor incident like being fired from work or rejected by a woman in a nightclub. Quite often they have been justly accused of what they have in fact done. One killer shot people in two brokerage firms (having first killed his wife and two children) after he had lost a lot of money day-trading. Presumably he thought that the opportunity to make a lot of money was actually the right to make a lot of money, a right that had just been denied him. (The right to pursue happiness has long since been replaced by the right to be happy.) Hence he revenged himself upon those who denied him his right.

These terrible killings are different from the serial murders of old that were usually committed for financial gain or sexual gratification. They seem often to be the expression of a tormented egotism, a protest at the refusal of the world to take the perpetrator at his own inflated estimate of his importance. Needless to say, such people are incapable of genuine self-examination, which has been replaced almost entirely in the modern world by psychobabble and sociological pseudo-explanations of human behavior.

Weapons of any kind are obviously dangerous in the hands of such people. I leave it to constitutional scholars to decide whether the Founding Fathers ever imagined that the population would one day bear semi-automatics.

Anthony Daniels, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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CHARLES A. DONOVAN

When an act of enormity beyond all description occurs, we seek answers both to make things better and to make ourselves feel better. Distinguishing between the two is hard. David Kopel in the Wall Street Journal makes a series of informed suggestions about what would improve our chances of reducing incidents of random violence like that which was visited on Newtown. Reform of our laws regarding mental illness, with recognition that today’s panoply of medications are not a panacea for every afflicted person, is likely to be the most difficult area to pursue, and for that reason alone is the avenue that deserves the most attention. It will have to be a serious effort and not a gesture. There is also a chance this particular pursuit can be heartfelt and nonpartisan, an occasion for deliberation, not for finger pointing and street marches to NRA headquarters.

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Our times offer another opportunity that is not the work of legislation at all. The coarsening of culture has been proceeding for decades, and now in High-Def and 3D as well. I remember sitting in a theater watching Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In an earlier age of cinema men were shot off horses and tumbled to the ground dead with scarcely a trickle of blood. In Kubrick the violence was realistic, minutely detailed, and terrifying. But what was more terrifying was the audience’s cheers at the crimes of Alex de Large, the film’s monstrous anti-hero. This was in 1971. The slippery slope is steep and longer than we knew.

Laws cannot work where our fallenness has so much fuel, where violence is, per se, a pastime, where solving problems with the shedding of innocent blood is so routine. Lincoln fell to his knees because, he said, he had nowhere else to go. Neither do we.

Charles A. “Chuck” Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

DAVID FRENCH

Confronted with tragedy, the human mind immediately and desperately seeks comfort and understanding. We want to know the how and the why. In a way, our legislative and cultural fights are a type of coping mechanism: If we can just tweak the law or change the video games, then we can not only avoid future horrors, we can imbue our actions with a sense of mission in the aftermath of death.

But we can’t deceive ourselves that legislation or any other policy reform can redeem a fallen world. Mankind, by its very nature, is fallen — broken and sinful — and broken men will cause immense suffering. That is not a comforting thought, but it is real; it is true.

Thousands of years ago, a man named Job faced the horrible, violent death of his children. He begged God for reasons for his calamity. He pled his case at great length and with great eloquence. Yet when God finally answered, the response was not what Job hoped. The God of the universe answered Job by essentially declaring that He was God, and Job was not. So Job literally placed his hand over his mouth and trusted in the God who he could not fully understand.

Our lives are full of the inexplicable — virtuous men die at evil hands, good men fail while bad men succeed, and justice is forever elusive — but like Job, we must trust our Creator, the God who gave us life and loved us enough to send a Savior. When all words fail, we trust, we pray, and we rely on a promise:

“Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.”

May God fulfill that promise for the victims and families of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

— David French is senior counsel and director of digital advocacy at the American Center for Law and Justice.

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ROGER KIMBALL

The problem of Sandy Hook is the problem Dostoyevsky conjured within The Brothers Karamazov, the problem that St. Augustine struggled with nearly two millennia before that: It is the problem of evil. The question that one has seen again and again in the anguished commentary is a question we cannot answer. “Why? Why did this 20-year-old young man murder his mother and then proceed to a school and snuff out the lives of another 20-odd women and children?” As I write, the “search for a motive,” which the police are said to have inklings of but have yet to reveal, is the topic most bruited by the commentariat. But no revelation the authorities vouchsafe us will have anything of substance to reveal.

#ad#The actions of young Adam Lanza betray that unfathomable opacity, the heart of darkness. Coleridge, writing of Iago, diagnosed his evil as an example of “motiveless malignancy.” So it is here. The psychologist, the social worker, likewise the “gun control” zealots, have nothing but nostrums for us in such cases. With the lives of a score of children suddenly snuffed out, likewise the several adults who were brutally murdered, it is pointless to pester the Almighty with “Why?” This really was — terrible phrase — senseless murder, though we find it all but impossible to rest in that senselessness. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to spare much sentiment for Adam Lanza when many of the corpses he produced have yet to be interred. But what a tangled, desperate horror his heart must have been. We are in the presence, here, of a hard, dark, numinous mystery that we can recoil from but never explain.

— Roger Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books.

THOMAS LICKONA

A healthy response to the Newtown tragedy is to ask the hard questions and acknowledge, in humility, that the whole truth is not easy to come by. What is the role of mental illness in such killings? Most likely it is a factor; but we must remember only a small percentage of mentally ill persons are disposed to violence; they are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. What is the role of easily available guns? Clearly, Adam Lanzer would not have been able to kill 20 children and six adults if his only weapon was a knife. What is the role of a culture where each minute, three developing human beings are legally killed in their mother’s womb? Mother Teresa said that abortion is “war on children” and the greatest destroyer of peace.

What is the possible role of demonic spirits? An evangelical Christian pastor was asked about this on a national talk show this week and spoke of “the existence of dark forces,” yet shrank from speaking explicitly about demonic possession. What is the role of a culture in which more than 40 percent of children go to sleep in homes where their father does not live? We know father absence is now the leading predictor of nearly every childhood and adolescent pathology. “Abandonment by the people who brought you into the world,” says my daughter-in-law, herself a victim of divorce, “creates an existential darkness.” How does family disintegration interact with mental illness? And where does religion — faith in a loving God — enter the picture? Certainly, one can believe in God and do deranged things; one can believe in God, and plot to blow up innocents. But one can’t believe in the Prince of Peace and be comfortable in a world where so much killing happens, day in and day out. Ultimately, in a fallen world, we will never be free of the evil within us and around us. In the face of a Sandy Hook, we can only pray harder and work more to create what John Paul II called “the civilization of truth and love.”

Thomas Lickona is director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York at Cortland.

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EMILY STIMPSON

On Friday evening I went to Mass. I wasn’t sure what else to do. I arrived early, and knelt down to pray. As I did, the words of a friend echoed in my mind. “I don’t know why God allows our blighted race to persist.” I was wondering the same. When would he decide enough was enough and just end the whole blasted endeavor?

Then, looking up at the crucifix, I remembered: To him, the tragedy in Newtown came as no surprise.

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From all eternity, he knew what a mess we would make of the gift of free will. He knew all that would happen to those beautiful babies at the hand of Adam Lanza. He also knew much, much more. He saw the sack of Constantinople and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. He saw Verdun and Gallipoli, Auschwitz and the Gulag. He saw acts of horror beyond imagining, as well as a million hidden acts of petty cruelty and narcissistic self-indulgence.

He saw it all, and he still gave his life for us. He thought the sacrifice was worth it. He thought we were worth it.

So who am I to question that? And who am I to do anything different? If he was willing to shed his precious blood for this blighted race of ours, then the least I can do is pray for Adam Lanza, to beg God to have mercy on his deeply troubled soul. I can also strive to be kinder to my neighbors, gentler with my family, and more thoughtful of strangers. I can share the truth about God’s love more freely and accept the sufferings he sends my way more willingly. And I can do it all without counting the cost.

I’m sure there’s more. But today, this is where I start.

— Emily Stimpson is the author of The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years.

HEATHER MAC DONALD

The New York Times, of all outlets, published some of the sagest words about the Sandy Hook abomination the day after the massacre:

Research on mass school killings shows that they are exceedingly rare. Amanda B. Nickerson, director of a center that studies school violence and abuse prevention at the University at Buffalo, said studies made clear that American schools were quite safe and that children were more likely to be killed outside of school.

Public discourse has long since leapt over that fact, and understandably so. But it is a puzzling matter what the collective response should be to such rare but horrific events — besides sympathy and sorrow — even if the natural inclination is just to do something, anything.

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It is easy to mock the opportunistic overreaction to the Sandy Hook massacre, which comes not just from the Left but from the Right — I have heard proposals that every school have an armed adult in it. But if the pro-gun lobby argues the rarity of such mass shootings as one reason (among others) against further gun regulation, it cannot then use that same rare mass shooting as an argument for wider gun carrying. The call to put prayer back in the classroom is just as opportunistic. Moreover, it is safe to say that every official with the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, as well as every non-deranged individual who attended a prayer-free school, understands that killing children is wrong.

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We can imagine any number of new policies that might have prevented the tragedy at hand, from placing the burden on family members of the mentally ill to secure their guns to preemptively locking up many more people with mental illness — only a small percentage of whom will ever become violent. But we need much more information in order to balance the benefits of such measures against their costs, especially since they may have prevented the last highly unusual tragedy but may not avert the next one. Even seemingly win-win solutions, such as greater resources for mental health treatment, have their costs in a time of zero-sum budgeting.  

Yet there is also a risk of underreaction to such enormities. It is possible to too quickly say: There is nothing to be done about X or Y tragic occurrence, such events simply are part of the random awfulness of life. In the early 19th century, it also seemed obvious to most observers that there was nothing that could be done about tuberculosis or malaria.

For now, we should grieve.  Before acting, however, we must use our reason and the facts.

Heather MacDonald is a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and co-author of The Immigration Solution.

FR. GERALD E. MURRAY

The approaching feast of Christmas celebrates the birth of him who is proclaimed by angels and men to be the Savior of the world. We are vividly reminded of humanity’s need for a Savior by the terrible school massacre in Newtown. God’s presence in Bethlehem is our sure hope that evil does not have the final word in our world. God has the final word. That word has been spoken, “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

The Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 is a reminder that violence and mass murder have been part of the human condition since the Fall of Man. Innocent boys were slaughtered by the evil Herod. The senseless act of violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a shocking instance of the ever-present possibility that a man will choose to do unimaginable crimes. We are stunned by such murderous hatred, which is diabolical in nature and gravely offends our natural instincts and our religious convictions. What can console us and reassure us?

Sympathy and kindness towards the grieving are important and necessary, but man cannot restore what has been destroyed. The only true and lasting consolation that the Church can offer to those who mourn the untimely death of their loved ones is the Divinely revealed truth that this life is but a preparation for life eternal in Heaven. Those who die are in the hands of a Good God.

May the knowledge of God’s goodness console those who now live in such great sorrow, yet are sustained by the hope of being reunited one day with their loved ones in Heaven.

— Fr. Gerald E. Murray is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.

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MICHAEL PAKALUK

When The Times invited essays on the topic, “What’s wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton in a letter offered his famous terse response, “I am.” We applaud his reply — and presumably the world has not changed. So if someone were to ask you, what was wrong about Newtown last week, will you reply similarly? A blog post entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” has gone viral, but I do not see anyone yet claiming to be Adam Lanza.

I don’t know why Lanza went to the school. Assuredly he went there to kill, shooting each victim multiple times with a rifle from close range using frangible bullets. Perhaps he flipped out, or perhaps he was getting revenge or covering up another crime. But until I know that, not of his own fault, he became like a zombie and lost responsibility, I’ll hold that he did something evil. So I won’t yet say that the shootings were a “tragedy.” A suffering which befalls a great hero by fate is a tragedy. The German invasion of Poland was not a “tragedy.” A rape is not a “tragedy.” To shoot first graders systematically is not a tragedy.

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Likewise I refuse so far to view Lanza as a conduit for the abstract force of “Violence.” President Obama came near to saying so in his otherwise admirable reflections at the vigil: “The causes of such violence are complex” and “no set of laws can . . . prevent every senseless act of violence in our society;” yet for all that we shouldn’t say that “the politics is too hard.” Keeping guns from conduits of Violence is an obvious first step.

I rather side with Plato in The Republic: “In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature,” and “there is no conceivable folly or crime which . . . when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit.” Christians call it Original Sin, the inheritance of Cain. “We are all equal, all of us are children of Adam and Eve, weak creatures with virtues and defects, and capable all of us, if Our Lord abandons us, of committing the worst crimes imaginable,” says St. Josemaria Escriva.

Is it so unbelievable that you and I are Adam Lanza? If you are one of those few readers who has not procured an abortion, betrayed a spouse, abandoned your child through divorce, made yourself bestial with porn, or simply indulged a hatred of your fellow man, it’s only by the grace of God that you have not.

I know that that is a moralistic conclusion. But I’m a Catholic, in the “minor penitential season of Advent,” which should elicit self-directed moralism. My practical advice is therefore: Let us examine our lives, repent in sackcloth and ashes, be as medieval as possible in “doing reparation” for others, and repeat, after Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!”

— Michael Pakaluk is professor and chairman of philosophy at Ave Maria University.

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