There must be something amiss when a nation that spends trillions to protect itself from terrorists cannot find the wherewithal to safeguard 20 grade school children from one man in Newtown, Connecticut. This comes shortly after killing sprees in Oregon, Aurora, Minneapolis, Tulsa and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Mass murders are not of recent vintage: Herod ordered the execution in Bethlehem of all males below two years to forestall the Magi’s prediction of a newborn King of the Jews. This led to Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt and the birth of Jesus in a manger.
We have our fair share of psychopatic killings in the Philippines. In November 2009 members of the Ampatuans reportedly murdered 58 men and women on a march. Over the holidays Ronald Bae shot 8 people in Cavite.
Deaths of innocents are a recurring event in Sudan, Congo and Syria but none have elicited the emotions and outcry of the Newtown incident. It must be the unexpectedness of it, that horrible things can happen even in an idyllic community of white picket fences and steepled churches. Mass violence, like everything else, is now global.
It is also its timing, a fortnight before Christmas. The kids’ letters to Santa would have been written, the gifts wrapped and sitting under the tree. What happens to the presents, will they be returned to the stores with the explanation “Our child was shot -twice- while in class so we would appreciate a refund”?
Every mass murder has its provenance. In Newtown and Aurora it was mental disturbance, in Mindanao it was clan rivalry, in Syria it is political preservation, in central Africa it is genocide, in the Middle East it is religion (and the prospect of heaven and vestal virgins). Yet common to them all is fear, fear of social inadequacy, fear of loss of power, fear of annihilation. When combined with a lack of self- esteem, fear breeds aggression against those weaker than oneselves. Video games with names like Resident Evil and violent movies add to this aggression. Bullying in schools is becoming a norm.
Sociologists claim technology and the age of information have contributed to the alienation of communities and individuals from one another. In His book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver argues that the first devise of mass information, the Guttenberg printing press, produced hundreds of years of holy wars. By allowing ideas to become more readily accessible, the printing press created mass confusion: “ The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than people’s understanding of what to do with it… resulting in increased isolation along national and religious lines.” The internet is arguably doing the same today, deepening the rifts between brothers be they Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, or Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. The tsunami of data, somehow, reinforces our inner-most biases. Technology has made for a divided world.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for the right to bear arms. The Michigan Congress recently passed a law allowing for concealed weapons in schools. The National Rifle Association argues with a straight face that more guns, not less, is the solution to mass murders: Newtown could have been averted had school officials been armed. Is that the idea, that teachers should now pack heat, preferably AK-47’s and Glocks with 30 round clips? In the Philippines Congress sits on gun control bills.
Gun promoters have it wrong but, in their perverted sense, have a point namely the deeper issue is not in the hardware but in the software. Mass murder -be it from genocide or a lone gunman- is ultimately about a culture: It is not guns that kill people but people who kill people. The long-term solution is therefore in the value system that we live with, the social norms we embody and propagate, and these all start at the level of the family and the individual. We will not be able to control the act of one deranged person either acting alone or in conjunction with a private army but we can minimize their recurrence if we collectively stand up to the culture of violence that is permeating our communities and our young.
It is said people’s judgments are a mirror of themselves: What we hate or love in others is what we hate and love about ourselves. So as a society and as parents we need to instill in our young an appreciation of their self worth for it is the love of self –or, rather, its absence – that is at the heart all the tragedies.