Exploring many perspectives on the Newtown tragedy

There’s a lot of public conversation cropping up in response to the massacre in Newtown. Although not all of it is as creative as it could be, the health of democracy depends on us talking together and opening ourselves to many relevant perspectives, causes, implications, and potential solutions. The more we can understand about this tragedy and our society, the more we can help make conversations and the resulting policies be wise.

In my post of December 17, I pointed to some links dealing with four major issues related to the Sandy Hook murders:

1. regulation of gun ownership;
2. the state of the mental health system;
3. the place of violence in America’s national culture; and
4. what kind of culture we want.

Since then I’ve run across more articles and resources that could expand our thinking on these and related topics. I’ve included some of the best below.

Some of these resources explore the many factors involved in the gun ownership debate – on both the gun control and gun rights sides of the issue – including provocative questions about how much gun control and murder statistics can validly be compared among different societies, and reflections on both the power and the limitations of regulatory solutions.

Other articles tie the issue of violence to America’s foreign involvements, to its national history of slavery and indigenous genocide, and even to its domestic policies towards poverty, pollution, health care, and environmental degradation, especially climate change – all of which sometimes involve the harming or killing of children.

Some essays explore the role of violent imagery and mythos – including the mass violence chronicled and even celebrated in the Bible. Other resources see the roots of criminal violence in the shaming and marginalization that occur in schools, prisons, street life and elsewhere, causing certain people to lash back at perceived tormentors or at other people in general.

In response to suggestions that mental illness plays a key role in such tragedies, several articles point out that mentally ill people make up a disproportionately small percentage of criminals. Others suggest that psychiatric drugs may play a larger role in violence than the original mental illness.

The role of morals, ethics, conscience, character and empathy are featured in a number of articles and messages I’ve received, but I am still looking for one about Newtown that clarifies how we can make our culture more moral and ethical without grounding it in specific religious, spiritual, or nationalistic orientations. After all, we need to develop the ethical character of children and citizens not only to prevent mass slaughters by individuals in schools and malls, but to prevent murderous and toxic acts by agents of concentrated national and corporate power and by ideological and religious fanatics. Let me know if you have good articles that tie the Newtown tragedy to such a broad ethical perspective.

Finally, an emerging factor showing up in research is the presence of lead toxicity. It turns out that the rise and fall of crime in the last century follows (by about 20 years) the rise and fall in the use of leaded gasoline – at all levels of society (cities, states, countries) and in diverse nations. Significantly, lead toxicity undermines not only IQ but young people’s ability to control their impulses and emotions.

There are a lot of different factors and perspective here! It is tempting in a complex situation to gravitate towards one or two solutions that fit our individual or group narratives about life, and to avoid the complexity that other people’s values, narratives and solutions bring to the conversation. However, this seldom enhances our ability to address the fullness of what is actually going on in the situation. I believe it is wiser to see how much we can usefully take into account as we learn about the situation and make our decisions about how to handle it.

John Stewart Mill once observed that “In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.” That may be an oversimplified formula, but perhaps it can give us pause, when considering an important issue, to give fair hearing to all views, to give fair consideration of their relative gifts and limitations, and to do our best to address all concerns that arise in ways that meet shared deep needs and values.

Co-intelligent group and conversational processes can help us do that. Co-intelligent democratic institutions (like citizen deliberative councils) can help whole societies do that.


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The Best of Our Gun Debate
This resource estimates which states have most and least gun owners – and offers a fascinating compilation of hundreds of individuals’ responses to the question of why they own or don’t own guns.

People with Mental Illnesses Aren’t More Prone to Violence
This article states that “The contribution of the mentally ill to overall crime rates is an extremely low 3 to 5 percent.”

Mental illness, medications and school shootings: Preventing another Sandy Hook
This article points to a connection between psychiatric drugs and violence and suggests legislation that would limit the combination of certain psychiatric drugs with gun ownership and access.

Celebrating the Prince of Peace in the Land of Guns
The Killing of Eric Mark: Gun Violence, Massacres and “Other Developed Nations”
Both these passionate, well-reasoned articles – while supporting stronger gun control laws and more mental health services – suggest that there is a deeper cultural shift required by the US in order to achieve the low gun violence found in other developed countries.

From Sandy to Sandy Hook: The Moral Urgency of Action
This essay suggests that the moral imperative of protecting children should be applied to climate change as much as to mass murders in schools, since it will have far greater impact on more children than school shootings have or will. (Given that Sandy is short for Cassandra – who embodied the curse of unheeded prophecy – we may wonder about the coincidence of the name Sandra for both the storm and the school where the shooting took place.)

Does the Bible Make Americans More Violent?
This essay notes the remarkable violence in the Bible and goes on to explore violence in all our cultural imagery, media and mythos. It also reminds us that violence in general is decreasing in the world and the USA – despite the media’s focus on it. (When we look at the leading causes of death
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm , it seems crime is a minor factor. This could inspire us to examine the economic, social, and psychological dynamics that drive mainstream journalism, and how that journalism could better serve democracy.)

Another Path to Stopping Mass Violence
This article is notable largely because it was written by Senator Joe Manchin III, who is a member of the NRA, and features a call for national dialogue. He says: “We owe it to those children and their families to take it seriously. As a nation, we must reconsider the treatment of the mentally ill. We must challenge a popular culture that accepts stomach-churning violence in our movies and video games. We must look at the use of high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style assault weapons….No matter how strongly any one of us holds our positions, we all must be willing to respectfully hear each other out – elected leaders must hear recommendations from the mental health community; gun-control advocates must listen to gun rights supporters; the entertainment community must listen to those who want to see less violence on their screens. And vice versa. If we let irrational fear and antagonism control the debate, then we will continue to be a nation of violence. We need leaders who can be open-minded. We can’t villainize those who disagree with us, and we can’t dismiss their legitimate concerns outright. We cannot pay lip service to those perspectives; they must be the driving force of change…. Any solution that doesn’t take all concerned parties into account will lack the credibility it needs to become a reality.”

Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic
This book by James Gilligan identifies how feelings of shame – the destruction of self-respect – generate violent acts. It makes an interesting companion to the study of school shootings below:

Roots of a rampage
This article about the book “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” by Katherine S. Newman and others identifies how feelings of marginalization feed violent acts by students. “We could promote a more diverse set of male images, reinforce that diversity by celebrating the math team as much as the football team, and find ways to help kids who hear rumors [of a friend or classmate turning towards violence] to come forward to adults who can intervene.”

And finally, perhaps most intriguing of all, I highly recommend an article in the January-February 2013 issue of Mother Jones Magazine “Criminal Element” by Kevin Drum – which is not yet available online – which presents truly compelling evidence, both statistical and neurological – of the role that the element lead plays in violent crime and teen pregnancy, due to its impact on the emotional management and impulse control centers in the brains of developing children, especially boys. A few hints of this data – although nowhere near as comprehensive and compelling as the new Kevin Drum article – can be found online in such articles as these:
Lead, Prisons, and Crack: Why Violent Crime is Down
“A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S.”
See also
Get the Lead Out of Our Children’s Brains 



The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) is exploring ways dialogue and deliberation professionals can support productive conversations about all this – see http://ncdd.org/10540. And sources like CharacterPlus and Michele Borba provide guidance for teachers and parents who want to engage children in conversation about Sandy Hook – see http://www.characterplus.org/page.asp?page=4097 and http://www.micheleborba.com/blog/2012/12/14/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-the-newtown-school-shooting/.

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