I am an alumnus of Sandy Hook Elementary School. While I have not lived in that little town for more than 30 years, the shootings brought me back home. Like others, I have been swept over by feelings of overwhelming grief. Although I know no one related to the school, I experienced this event as if it were happening to me, to my community, and to my friends and neighbors. It was not simply an abstraction occurring elsewhere. I can imagine the long driveway leading up to the school on the hill; the hallways through which I walked; the friendly feeling of this small, safe school. It was steps away from the volunteer fire house, a neighborhood grocery, and John’s Barber Shop, where John himself cut my hair.
Previous acts of violence had left me angry, but not grief-stricken. It is with some shame that I recall, after 9/11, saying to a colleague, “As a nation, we are so distraught; but this type of thing is happening all around the world. Our pain is not larger than that of others.” My colleague — infinitely more wise than I — replied, “But it’s different when it happens to you. This is our pain, and we must grieve.”
Those wise words contain seeds for addressing our cultural problem of violence: We will seek real solutions to our collective problems when we begin to take them personally. We must come to experience violence not as something happening to someone else, but as something happening to our community, to our children, to us. We must resurrect our individual and collective responsibilities to each other; we must work to see ourselves as each other’s keepers.
How can we do this? First, we must become a more benevolent and compassionate people. We can do this by restoring a sense of public virtue to our culture. What are the qualities that we wish to cultivate in ourselves and in our children? Despite our differences, we should be able to agree that compassion, empathy, kindness, understanding, and caring for others are virtues to which we should aspire. What would it be like if we taught our children to ask, “What can I do today to become a better person?” rather than “What will bring me the most pleasure?”
Second, violence has its origins in shame, humiliation, insult, fear and an inability to forge a socially worthy identity. If this is so, we must work to create space for all individuals to build a worthy social identity. This includes treating the problems of poverty, race, class, education, social identity and mental health seriously. We do not know what motivated the young man to take arms against his mother and the teachers and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I would not be surprised to learn, however, that his problems had their origins in a sense of exclusion and marginalization, aided and abetted by psychological dysfunction. A benevolent society cannot eradicate psychopathology. However, it might be able to create space for such individuals to experience themselves as legitimate and worthy members of society.
A third path toward a less violent society involves enacting sensible gun legislation. Such an approach would balance existing rights to own firearms with the responsibility to ensure public safety. Most gun owners are aware of their responsibilities. They store firearms appropriately and receive training in their proper use. We have little to fear from such individuals. We have much to fear from firearms — particularly sub-automatic weapons — placed in the wrong hands. There is no contradiction between affirming the right to responsible gun ownership while simultaneously calling for strict licensing and registration, universal training and severe restrictions on sub-automatic weapons. The right to bear arms brings both private and public responsibility.
Although reducing the availability of firearms would diminish the number of gun-related deaths in the U.S., we should not kid ourselves. Even if we passed strict gun laws tomorrow, gun violence would remain. It is easy to procure illegal firearms. Our relationship with firearms is a cultural problem that demands a cultural solution. Sensible gun regulation is part of that solution.
Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” tells the story of Joe Keller, a manufacturer who, faced with imminent bankruptcy, shipped defective plane engines for use in World War II. The defects resulted in the deaths of American pilots. Joe’s son Larry, himself a pilot, soon became MIA. Eventually, Joe learned that Larry’s death was an act of suicide, committed in shame over his father’s actions. Upon learning the true reason for Larry’s death, Joe realized, “Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were.”
The children and adults who met their deaths in Sandy Hook were someone’s sons and daughters. Our choice to take serious action against societal violence will occur when we realize that the sons and daughters of Sandy Hook were not just someone’s children; they were all our children.
Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D, is a professor of psychology at Merrimack College. He lives in Salem.