The PitIn light of the Newtown Massacre and the response it has provoked, I would like to invite any member of the National Rifle Association to insert his nose into my left armpit.
No, this isn’t the way to offer insult among the Dwarf-lords of Khazad-dûm. I have a logical reason for extending this invitation to all those who feel the scourge of gun violence deserves no better response than to train several million overworked, underpaid public servants to kill. Those who dare the adventure of my left armpit will discover something that could make America a better place to live. For deep within they will find a small ring of scar tissue. It is neither a bullet hole nor the aftermath of acne. I got it at the age of three, when I was vaccinated against smallpox.
Once upon a time, there were trillions of soulless little terrorists in the world. They could hide in thin air, no security screen could catch them, bullets wouldn’t stop them. A smallpox epidemic was like the zombie apocalypse, only worse: cutting off people’s heads wouldn’t even slow it down. The situation was so hopeless people prayed to smallpox gods for succor. Sometimes they got it; often, they didn’t. Authorities estimate that throughout history smallpox killed up to half a billion people—and that was just in Europe. Compare this to the 200 million world-wide killed by World War II. Even atheists prayed to the smallpox gods.
“When your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.” And when your only tool is a gun? What would have happened if the NRA had been in charge of dealing with smallpox and not the World Health Organ-ization? For that is the role the NRA wants to take on with their guns-in-the-schools proposals: to spearhead the battle against gun violence (herein, “GV”), as WHO took the lead role in the battle against smallpox. So let’s apply their own logic to see if they could have done as least as good a job as WHO.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”—Wayne LaPierre, millionaire lobbyist for the NRA, will go down in history for these words. His next words, however, are more revealing of how the NRA views the cause of gun violence: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them.” Which is to say: GV is caused by orcs.
From LaPierre’s words we can guess how the NRA would proceed against smallpox. For starters, they’d ignore virus variola. They would have treated the cause of the disease as a recent article in the New York Times treated the madness of Adam Lanza:
Nothing we could have learned from Columbine would have allowed us to prevent Newtown. We have to acknowledge that the human brain is capable of producing horror, and that knowing everything about the perpetrator, his family, his social experience and the world he inhabits does not answer the question “why” in any way that will resolve the problem (NYT, 23 Dec 2012).
According to Wayne LaPierre, and to Andrew Solomon, author of best-seller Far From the Tree and the above quote, the mind of a mass murderer is an eternal mystery, a bizarre phenomenon beyond the laws of cause and effect, something no one should even try to understand. “At best, these events help generate good policy,” Solomon remarks. Perhaps he has a similar view of the ineffability of global warming. I’m sure the families of the Sandy Hook victims find such know-nothing sentiments a great comfort.
Having abandoned causal analysis the NRA would then spring into action. Since their only tool is guns, the problem would look like targets, and the solution would be . . . to gun down anyone with smallpox. Such persons are a clear threat to the community. Kill them, kill the disease. Self-defense, right? Of course, in the early stages of infection the victim is contagious but shows no obvious signs of illness, and those with such signs would stay home. So a bloodbath would be unlikly—but so would any reduction in cases. People would just keep dying.
As it became plain that the disease could not be stopped by staking out schools, theaters, or shopping malls, the NRA would demand the right to conduct house-to-house searches for infected individuals to kill. As the kin of these unfortunates would likely object (and shoot back), firefights would be common, as would people fleeing to escape “justice.” And in stomping about the bedrooms of smallpox victims, many NRA members would pick up the disease themselves. The NRA leadership would have a lot of explaining to do to an increasingly sceptical public.
There would, of course, be those who would suggest that smallpox could be stopped by stopping its cause. But such voices would quickly be shouted down. The media get a fair chunk of advertising revenue from Walmart—the world’s largest gun retailer —and governments have long been accustomed to finding money for more guns by slashing budgets for schools, roads, health care, and so on. So reports of mass deaths would become a staple of the evening news, and the public would be left with nothing else to do but . . . pray. To the Gun Gods. And to their priests: the men of the NRA.
Now let’s turn the tables and see how WHO might attack the plague of gun violence. As they did with smallpox, they’d first identify the cause. And they’d quickly learn that the cause of gun violence isn’t guns—OR the people carrying them. That is, they’d quickly reject LaPierre’s “bad guy” language for a view of GV perpetrators of people who are sick and in need of treatment.
The media have made out Adam Lanza to be “crazy,” a “genuine monster.” The implication is that no one could have anticipated his rampage. But as Gavin De Becker, one of America’s leading experts on violence, points out in his book The Gift of Fear, the “crazies” who perpetrate heinous crimes can be understood—and their behavior can be predicted. And this is because people, no matter how insane, don’t just “snap”—they always give advance warning of what they’re about to do. Like smallpox, psychopathic hate has its own logic, and follows a particular pattern.
In other words: Adam Lanza could have been stopped. And not by a bullet.
I conduct regular safety training sessions for employees at my place of business. In these sessions I point out that:
a) the 2nd-leading cause of workplace fatality in America is homicide,
b) such homicides are almost always perpetrated by employees, and
c) the actions of the perpetrators can be predicted and disaster averted by following a few fairly simple procedures.
Potential murderers show specific signs of their intent to kill. Correctly reading those signs allows others to stop them. I know—I’ve done it. Using the principles De Becker describes I’ve helped head off two potentially violent threats to the security of my workplace in the past three years. All it takes is preparation, observation, and appropriate action. But above all, it takes knowledge—and a willingness to use it.
Someone knew that things were seriously the matter with Adam Lanza—because the evidence assembled by De Becker from similar mas-sacres reveals that someone always does. And if someone knew, someone could have done something that might have saved the lives of twenty small children. Who could have stopped him? I think we can guess —with a little help from news organizations outside the US, and by reading between the lines of our Walmart-dependent newspapers.
The British Broadcasting Corporation reports that Nancy Lanza took her son out of his senior year in high school because she was “dissatisfied at the school’s educational plan for him.” Individual educational programs (IEPs) are commonly written for kids with special needs: kids with dyslexia, autism, Down Syndrome, and so on. The BBC also reports that one of Lanza’s instructors had to watch him whenever he was soldering something in technology club because if he burned himself he wouldn’t feel it.
A relative described Lanza’s mom to the BBC as “rather high-strung—understandable under the [unspecified] circumstances.” Mom divorced dad sometime during Adam’s middle-school years; she kept their house in a “secluded” neighborhood and received sizable alimony/child support/trust fund money, so she didn’t work. One gets the impression she was a “socialite,” a person whose "profession" was throwing cocktail parties.
Even the US media have hinted that something about Lanza’s re-lationship with his mother was . . . odd. According to an AP article of 19 Dec 2012 she had almost absolute control over her son: on his monthly visits to the barber he wouldn’t talk to anyone, and would get up or down out of the barber’s chair only when she instructed him to do so. She was also called frequently to his school to “deal with him” when he did some (unspecified) something that only she could handle.
With increasing public understanding of the relationship between criminality and the experiences of early childhood, it is no longer a secret known only to the experts that every crime contains a concealed story, which can then be deciphered from the way the misdeed is enacted. —Alice Miller, For Your Own Good
All in all, not much to go on. But enough to ask lots of questions:
If Lanza had an IEP, someone must have diagnosed him. Who was this person and what was the diagnosis? Would it have served as a red flag? What did this (hypothetical) IEP tell Nancy Lanza about her son?
What of the rumors Lanza was schizophrenic or autistic? As persons with such disorders are less likely to commit acts of violence than “normal” people, these labels are probably red herrings. What was his real problem? If it was obvious enough to disturb his barber and his teachers, who else did it disturb?
Why did Nancy Lanza so control her son? Did he need such a high degree of guidance or did Ms. Lanza have a craving for dominance? Taking a kid out of his senior year in high school—an extremely important time in a teen’s life—is a pretty drastic step. Did she really need to take it? What “circumstances” made her so “high-strung”?
What incidents required mom to intervene at her son’s school? Are his teachers going to tell us? Lanza’s mother is dead and his father was non- custodial, so permission to release confidential records shouldn’t be a problem.
What were the arrangements Nancy made with her ex for the care of their children, and what impact did these have on Adam? We are told that the boys were “upset” by their parents’ divorce—are we to believe this “upset” drove Adam to kill? And why did Lanza’s elder brother have no contact with him for two years? Why did his father leave town to start a new life? Were he and his elder son running away from something?
And if his mother knew there was “something the matter” with Adam Lanza, then why—oh gods, why—did she: (a) train him in the use of a Bushmaster machine gun, and (b) keep one around the house?
And why was she her son’s first victim?
Adam Lanza isn’t the only young murderer whose actions raise questions about how he was raised. In New Mexico recently a 15-year-old killed his mother and then his siblings with a hunting rifle. Then, he waited for his father—a former gang-banger who became a pastor—to come home before pumping him full of bullets with an AK-47. Both weapons came from the family broom closet. What kind of pastor keeps machine guns in the broom closet in a house with four children, the youngest of whom was a two-year-old?
The NRA agrees with the rest of us that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill. But Nancy Lanza put that Bushmaster into the hands of her son, and in the eyes of society she was perfectly sane. And Greg Griego was a “man of God,” yet his piety appears to have had no influence on his son—though some other aspect of his personality obviously did.
Adam Lanza and Nehemiah Griego are typical of many mass murderers. Both seem to have suffered from what psychologists call a “disrupted attachment bond” with their parents. Many factors can contribute to such disruption, but parenting style appears to be the major influence. A parent who is authoritarian (e.g., likes to give orders), selfish (e.g., lives off a trust fund), lacks empathy (e.g., takes her son out of his senior year in high school), and is obsessed with violence (e.g., keeps machine guns around the house) is unlikely to form the warm, nurturing bond every child needs to develop properly. In extreme cases, this lack of bonding can cut the child off from the human race, leaving him isolated and enraged.
Some historians still wonder why Adolf Hitler did what he did. Yet as Alice Miller shows in her masterpiece, For Your Own Good, Hitler’s hates had clear origins. Why did he send thousands of people with scoliosis to the death camps? Why in an alcohol-drenched culture did he never touch the stuff? Why did he define a Jew as anyone with a Jewish grandparent? Why did he have his father’s hometown destroyed? Miller’s work shows that it’s no puzzle: we need look no further than his upbringing. I suspect Adam Lanza’s upbringing will be similarly enlightening—if those who knew him allow us to know anything about it. And if we can get past our culture’s tendency to make excuses for the parents, like those Solomon makes in his article quoted from above.
Within the last five centuries the human race has learned to make sciences out of many things—the motions of the planets, the origins of disease—that were once left to myth. Within the past century, we have learned to do this with evil: with the kind of psychopathic hate that results in Auschwitz or Columbine or Sandy Hook. There is no need to mystify it, as the New York Times does, or to demonize it, as does the NRA, or to despair of dealing with it, as America has long done and seems on the verge of doing yet again. We know where this evil comes from. And this knowing is the key to defeating it.
The fundamental issue America needs to decide in the aftermath of Sandy Hook isn’t about the Second Amendment, or about guns, or about gun owners. It’s about this: do we accept pretend solutions to GV like those offered us by the NRA? What kind of “solution” is it to call mentally ill people “genuine monsters”? Was Adam Lanza a cave troll, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold a pair of Balrogs, the guy who killed Christina Taylor-Green a Nazgûl? What kind of “solution” is it to turn school-teachers into mercenaries? How do we know they won’t run amok? Is America so much like Mordor we must all become orcs to survive? Must we become what we hate?
Have the gentlemen of the NRA never heard of the One Ring?
I won’t speculate here as to what drives the 4 million members of the NRA to push their nightmare on a population the vast majority of whom have long wanted stronger gun control laws. Nor will I speculate as to why that population has allowed gun-junkie bullying to go on as long as it has. I’ll simply invite the reader to examine the wisdom of my left armpit. For in that little ring of scar tissue—and not in any Ring of Power—is proof that miracles don’t need magic to happen.
In the year of my birth smallpox killed 2 million people. Now, it kills no one. Smallpox is dead. It was killed by an army bearing a weapon more powerful than any gun: knowledge. Smallpox died because people knew what caused it, knew how to recognize those effected by it, and knew how to mobilize the resources needed to help its victims and to keep it from spreading. The eradication of smallpox is the best proof I know that knowledge really is power, and that despair is not the answer to any question.
As Gandalf said: “Despair is for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” And Gandalf knew a thing or two about weapons that morally corrupt their users.
Fortunately, we don’t need answers to our questions about Adam Lanza to begin tackling the problem of GV. What we need is a plan. Here’s mine. It is simple, uses existing resources, and can start working for us today.
1. Ban any firearm that isn’t specifically designed for hunting. There is no legitimate reason for any citizen not a member of a “well-regulated militia” to own an AR-15 full of Teflon-coated dum-dums. And if you think you need such armament to protect yourself from a tyrannical Big Gummint remember the Black Panthers. If anyone in this country has a “right” to fight back against tyranny with guns it would be African Americans, and under Nixon a bunch of them did. And it didn’t work. The Black Panthers didn’t get revenge for racism—nor did they put a Black man in the White House.
2. Have every child entering school undergo the Ainsworth Strange Situation. This is a simple test that analyzes the relationship a child has with his or her primary caregiver. On the basis of the test children can be assigned to one of four categories according to their “attachment style”: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized. A distinct style shows up in the personality by eighteen months, and tends to be fixed by age five. And attachment style at age five is predictive of future life outcome, with avoidant and disorganized children more likely than others to engage in criminal behavior.
3. Attachment style can change, but only through intervention. So let’s assemble the resources to provide avoidant and disorganized children what they need to form secure attachments with adults. Rather than blaming people like Adam Lanza’s parents for “bad” parenting, let’s stop identifying with aggressors (as Andrew Solomon does), start asking the hard questions (as our media don’t), and find out what could have been done differently. There are plenty of high-needs children out there, and plenty of parents who struggle to cope with them: let’s give them the resources they need to cope more effectively. These resources must certainly include paid parental leave, universal health care, and most importantly, destigmatizing mental illness as we’ve already destigmatized Down Syndrome.
And for children past grade school, or for adults? The older a person gets the more fixed their attachment style becomes, yet even so there are therapies that can mitigate the effects of avoidant or disorganized attachment. The therapies are expensive and take a long time to work (when they do) yet the alternative is to abandon such individuals to a fate that could be fatal for others. We’ll never know about our successes, for successfully treated individuals won’t be making the papers. But our failures will be horribly obvious.
By requiring immunizations for attendance, schools are already the front line defense against measles, whooping cough, and other childhood physical diseases. So let’s make schools the front-line defense against childhood mental disease. More money for programs, more pay for teachers, more training for councilors—let the Pentagon hold bake sales to buy bombers. And let’s put the Strange Situation in every school, so that entering kindergarteners can be tested the same way they’re tested for eyesight, hearing, and so on. Let’s honor the memory of those 20 little children at Sandy Hook Elementary in a way they themselves would understand and appreciate: let’s give our children the attention and nurture they need. It’s too late for them, or for their killer—but not too late for the kids down the block, or next door, or in our own living rooms.
The NRA tells us the only way to stop a person with a disease . . . is another person with a disease. What do we call people who actively fantasize about committing mass murder, who stockpile the means to do it, who show no sympathy for the potential victims, and who see nothing wrong in what they’re doing? We call them Jared Lee Loughner, or Adam Lanza . . . or Wayne LaPierre. Maybe he thinks it takes one to know one.
The “good guys vs. bad guys” model of GV doesn’t allow us to predict where, when, and by whom GV will occur. The Ainsworth Strange Situation might. It won’t tell us specifically, “watch this kid—he’s going to shoot up his school someday.” It does tell us, “watch this kid—he needs extra attention. And if he doesn’t get it, there could be trouble.” That extra atten-tion could serve exactly the same function as a vaccination, super-enabling the child’s emotional immune system to throw off the loneliness, confusion, and rage that drives the mind into the arms of madness. What Alice Miller calls the “sympathetic witness” may be all a troubled kid needs to fend off the despair that leads the child to a disastrous life and shapes a culture that can eradicate smallpox but can’t say “no” to guns. We can fight the orcs—by keeping them from becoming orcs in the first place. We can train adults in the art of sympathetic witness. We can immunize against hate.
And maybe after we’re healed enough of the children, we’ll have the leisure to turn our attention to their elders, and heal the bitter, frightened, mean old men of the NRA. They can shake off their priestly vestments, throw that Ring into the Cracks of Doom, and breath free at last. And the Gun Gods can join the smallpox gods in the ash-heap of history.
Some easily-accessible resources on the Internet
On attachment theory and the Strange Situation:
On the relationships between insecure attachment and criminality:
May all sentient beings benefit