The Sandy Hook grief will be raw for quite a while, yet as the days go by more of us find it irresistible to move from empathy to commentary. Tweets, posts and punditry about guns and God began almost right after the awful shooting—too soon for some, but inevitable for most of us.
Our comments reveal a search for a cause. Faced with such unthinkable wrong, the heart demands an explanation. Only a sociopath would calculate this tragedy in Darwinian terms, shrug and move on—the rest of us will construct a cause-effect narrative as a pretext for some kind of action plan. We will want to fix it.
A root-cause analysis ought to give us a single thing to work on, but it does not. Most honest analyses of problems show an interconnected web of causes, and Sandy Hook is no exception. It would be nice, if true. If the cause is access to guns, then we work on that. Or if the culprit is the absence of God from school curricula, then we focus there.
Having multiple causes makes every pundit partly right, but incomplete when advocating his or her favorite position. Everyone then has a piece of the truth. This leads to the talk show shouting matches between biased half-right / half-wrong people who seek to land their points more on decibels than on reason.
Yet there is a cause underlying them all: It is the condition of the human heart. By this I might be referring to the offender’s heart, that by some possession of illness or evil a human being would be capable of such horror. But I mean more, much more. I refer to our own hearts, each of our own individually and together corporately. And I do not mean to infer that some lack of heart in Connecticut is to blame locally—I am referring only to the wider culture, and our responsibilities in it.
The social fabric is frayed, and each of us is one thread in particular. And we have become—I have become—insulated and unconcerned for its integrity. So I blame, when I should look within.
And what do I find within? If I’m honest I see my comfortable and accepted hatreds, my limited affections, and my consumption of entertainments that distract me from those who might try my patience or exhaust my interest. I see my supreme self-interest and my unconnected and insulated life (online connections do not count in this assessment).
Now take this narcissism and multiply it over all of us, over the millions of us. In its full flower we see a kind of moral abdication. We have turned our cry for independence into the demand to be left alone. We then create huge bureaucracies that will care where I will not, or cannot, and then some of us complain (rightly, I think) that those bureaucracies are too large and costly.
If we saw this abdication, this vacuum, and understood its negative power we would repent. We would turn from our ways and meet our neighbors, learn the names of their kids and watch for their safety on the streets. We would bring them meals when their grandparents die, ask to see the pictures of their vacations, pray for their teenage daughters when they run away. We would volunteer. We would repent of our most insidious judgments, where we have called others wackos or fly-over-people, lefties or hicks, fags or breeders. We would stop all that and weave a new fabric.
History gives us a few examples of such spiritual and cultural reformation, such as America’s “Great Awakenings” which contributed to public sentiment on slavery. Or on a smaller scale, and more recently, we can point to a grassroots effort like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers that moved the dial on public perception of drunkenness from a quaint humor to a deadly irresponsibility. Yes, the force of law came to bear on these examples, outlawing slavery and increasing punishments for drunken driving. But the foundational re-assessment was at first a matter of the public soul.
I am not saying that we table our attention to the important social questions before us, whether those are the solutions loved from the left or right, whether about guns or prayer. What I am saying is that all of us, left, center or right, must look to ourselves first, even before we leap to root out the broken systems, the inadequate laws or the wrong-headed interest groups.
The tragedy was even more than an injury to us; it was an affront. The killer shamed us. He shamed our community and our humanity. One of our members spited us; he snuck under our instruction and avoided our scruples. He defied us, or perhaps ignored us.
We think how could this happen? Like a fix-it person who’s certain the problem must be out there, like a broken fuse in a circuit, we rush out, brow furrowed and tools in hand, yet fail to look inwardly. Most of the discussion after Sandy Hook is about blame, and not introspection. Rather than “shame on us” the messages are shame on the NRA, on the court rulings against prayer, on the Reagan-era disinvestment in community mental health practices, on video gaming or on movies.
However important some of those things are (and some of them are), that is not my point here. I think we, and the way we live, is more at the heart of the matter than we want to admit. In the words of the late Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”