What will we do now? What’s going to happen whenever it is that all of this finally sinks in? What happens after we learn about all the details of such tragedies, about the lives lost and destroyed, and about the monsters that have caused us so much pain? I hope, for our sake, that we heed very seriously the dire implications of dehumanizing those responsible for such acts of violence. In fact, I think it’s imperative that in our assessment of the damages and the damaged, we see those who have taken these lives as our own kind, as human beings.

You have to be careful when you say such things, though. No one wants to hear that kind of talk. We don’t allow those who hurt us to be human like us. You can’t appear to embrace, or even remotely identify with killers. There’s a well-known game in the world of human socialization called,
“Not It”. Also known as “Who’s the Bad Guy now?”, this is a very dangerous game. In the public eye, to sympathize with those who take life so brutally is nearly tantamount to complicity. As far as some are concerned, you might as well have pulled the trigger yourself. It takes one to know one—that’s what they say; so say one, so say us all. But now, how do we get out of this mess?

Well the quickest way out is to name the bad guys; history must first underline their names with a fat red marker. Then, we have to name the heroes. And lastly, we forever idolize and immortalize those slain. Particularly, though, we find it helpful to not only deny the shooters our good graces and sympathy, but also their own humanity. And so, hard effort is put into making our most troubled members into non-members, animals, monsters, and unthinkable beings of pure evil—we do everything in our power to isolate them from the light of humanity, condemning them to the existence of a distant rock lightyears from the nearest star. Infinitely cold, infinitely black. Superficially, it’s a good strategy. That is to say, it works out well in the short term. But, it doesn’t do much to address the source of the issue. It seems to me that such acts of inhumanity only indicate an inherent need for an eminent dose of humanity—not its absence. Such a display of anger and acting out require attention and empathy from a place that says:

“This is our troubled brother/sister, who we as a society have failed, and who felt so much pain that he/she could find no better relief but in the slaying of others. And so, as we honor and remember those whose lives were taken in this tragedy, let us also embrace our troubled brother/sister in the hope that all will eventually find peace.”

When Facebook lit up with statuses about the tragedy at the elementary school in Connecticut, much of them expressed disgust and hatred. There was an angry-villagers-with-pitchforks vibe that seemed to spread like wildfire across the consciences of all decent human beings. To be sure, your participation in such a public declaration of outrage and sadness meant that you were one of the good guys—that’s a pretty safe bet. No one wants to be a member of the bad guys in a riot. And yet, still, I had trouble joining in the hate and disgust; it just felt like we were missing something crucial.

It seems that when tragedy strikes, we often get stuck asking all the wrong questions, we prioritize hate in the face of hate, taking up arms with anger to wage war against an anger that has already taken lives. Here, there is much more to learn if you’re willing to look hard enough.

When infotainment news channels start flashing that question around on their one-hour-special edition, “Why would anyone do such a thing?”, it becomes obvious that the question is rhetorical; no one really wants an answer. We just want it to be over. We want to stay angry and disgusted. We use hackneyed words and phrases to describe the killer: they were “crazy”, they had “problems”. We don’t want to wonder if the unspeakable acts of a few might reflect something about the whole of this society we’ve built. We use labels like “loner”, “outsider”, and phrases like “disturbed individual”. Next we start the fear machine; but not fear for a society that fails to serve the needs of our humanity, but rather, fear for the silent lone killer that lives in every town and attends every school. This kind of fear mongering only serves to promote more cynicism and isolation—not the kind of unity that might find trouble before it becomes big trouble. I actually heard a news report start off with the tagline “No Place is Safe”. One politician even remarked that “Evil” had visited the small community in Connecticut. Evil? Man…think of the heaviness of that word. It’s unbearable. We don’t ever ask the smart questions, though.

We don’t ask why nearly all such school shootings are committed by young white males.

We don’t ask what happens when a society becomes closed and feelings of isolation become more and more prevalent among its members.

We don’t ask about skyrocketing depression rates and shrinking community resources.

We don’t ask why shooters of this nature are so often from middle class families, and almost never from wealthy ones.

We don’t ask about how corporatism and its marriage to politics is destroying the wealth of middle class families and their support systems.

We don’t ask what happens when working class parents are forced to move far from their employment, spend 2-4 hours commuting for 9-hour work days, and still struggle to make ends meet.

Rather than asking the right questions, we end up asking the same questions: questions that don’t really seek concrete solutions as much as they seek to appease the moment. I mean, think about this for a second: this 20-year old guy was presumably angry at his mother, and then, he killed her. If we had heard that story on the news, we might have just change the station to see what else was on. If he was merely angry at his mother, surely killing her would have sufficed, right? But, killing his mother didn’t satisfy his anger; he needed to go to her school and shoot 20 children and 6 adults. Now this next revelation is important, so pay attention:

The shooter’s actions were not merely an expression of anger. The shooting of 20 school children doesn’t just say, “I’m angry”, it says, “Look at me and what I’ve done, can’t you see how angry I am now? Can’t you see me now?”

As a student of psychology, one of the most important insights one can have about the therapeutic relationship is that of the witness. The witness is someone who is there, literally, to bear witness to your story and your pain. Someone who simply allows us to be human, to be vulnerable, who expresses understanding, and confirms the reality of our pain, can help us heal. We can find ways to channel and release pain and anger in positive and constructive ways. Yet, with increasing commute times and working hours, and decreasing vacation time, communities and personal relationships have shrunk. In a recent posting I wrote, entitled Busy Americans, Lonely Americans, one study found that close friendships in American culture shrank from a close circle of three friends to zero friends, over a span of 20 years or so.

And so, when these kinds of horrible situations happen, people just don’t ask the right questions. They forget about humanity and seek to find the devil among them. Instead, we’ve got to question the messages of a society that sells bad news for ratings and advertisement dollars. We have to wonder how much difference there is in selling the idea that you might finally be heard if you shoot up a school, and selling name brand clothing through a popular TV courtroom drama.

A good friend of mine, who’s a doctor, once asked me why people are taking advantage of government systems and cheating taxpayers out of money. At the time, she was having trouble resolving her anger about a situation she observed often in her field. To help answer her question, I referred her to an analogy  I had used in an article I wrote just before the election, Obama VS Romney. In the analogy, I cited the relationship between the digital music industry and piracy to illustrate one simple point:

If society cannot provide a reasonable and effective means of living, including just opportunity for the meaningful expression of our own humanity, civility will break. 

It goes without saying that the horrible actions taken by that young man are inexcusable. It’s also true that nothing ever written nor said could possibly make up for the pain felt by the families who have been affected. Yet, as we grieve, we must also strive to open our eyes even wider. The problem of the school shooter goes deeper than the “quiet neighbor that no one ever thought would do such a thing” story. The story of a person so troubled that they had to take 26 lives just to cope, warrants a deep investigation into our cultural values and the messages they send. Environment is a powerful thing in all considerations of life. And so, we must thoroughly understand the demands of our society and the quality of life it offers, because, whether or not any of us care to ask the right questions, the integrity of our environment will surely dictate how deep the roots of a shooter will grow.

*To the those families affected by this great atrocity, I send my sincerest of prayers and heartfelt condolences.