Tidings of Discomfort and Joy
Several years ago, my wife and her mom took off on a family research trip to central Ohio, hoping to find out more about Irish ancestors who migrated west in the 19th century. Theirs was a family of schoolteachers, and their research in courthouses and libraries around Findlay, Ohio, proved bountiful. They were able to connect names and faces to real people they'd only known only from family stories and scrapbooks.
In the course of their investigations, however, they also unearthed a newspaper story about a deranged man who showed up one afternoon at a one-room schoolhouse and murdered a dozen children and their teacher before he turned a gun on himself.
I was observing a blissful media blackout and doing a bit of late afternoon Christmas shopping in Greensboro a week ago last Friday when a clerk wrapping a present mentioned the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, taking the joy out of my afternoon.
Oddly enough, though she didn't know many of the details, the first thing that popped into my head was the schoolhouse massacre over a century ago in Findlay, an event that apparently made most Ohio newspapers but went largely unnoticed by the rest of the nation.
The second thing that went though my mind - probably yours, too, if you have children - were thoughts about my own children, both now grown and graduated and working first jobs in New York City.
It seemed like just five minutes ago that they were happy first-graders at Woodside Elementary School in Topsham, Maine, an old Yankee town where hunting and fishing are simply part of the fiber of daily life and every other person you meet owns a gun of some kind. The people of Maine like to say it's a place that prides itself on being "The Way America Used to Be."
As darkness settled and I headed back down U.S. 220 to the Sandhills, my phone received a text. It was from my former wife, the mother of our children, who anchors the other end of our extended family back home in Maine. News of Sandy Hook had taken the joy out of her Christmas, too.
She wrote, "Almost called you on the way home tonight, feeling a brick on my chest imagining such a thing happening at Woodside when M&J were in K and first grade. Decided to spare you the thought only to cave now. It's so horrifying. We are lucky. And I am so grateful and sorrowful."
Theologians of Us All
Though they happened more than a century apart, the tragedies at Findlay and Sandy Hook are comparable because they constitute the act of a deranged individual preying on our weakest and most vulnerable and precious citizens. In a nation with a frontier history as rugged and violent as ours, you don't have to dig too deeply to find shocking massacres of this nature in every nook and cranny of the Republic, beginning with the systematic extermination of North American original peoples.
They are distinctly different events, on the other hand, because in Findlay's case the tragedy did not instantly become the focal point of an international media feeding frenzy and a platform for a passionate and politically charged debate over gun control - a true indication, depending on your viewpoint, of how much we've either progressed or declined as a civilized society.
Tragedy makes theologians of us all. But when I heard former presidential candidate and Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee say the unspeakable horror of Sandy Hook was the result of taking God out of the schools, my first thought was he must have been channeling Iran supreme Ayatollah Khamenei because he said essentially the same thing in eerily similar words just hours before. Facing a back-lash from angry viewers and people of faith everywhere, Huckabee attempted to "clarify" his simplistic and spiritually divisive comments by offering his deepest sympathies to the victims and their families.
No Thanks to Them
In the rush to be first with breaking news, meanwhile, before double-checking their sources to ensure the accuracy of their reports, several Internet and cable news outfits flashed the name and identity of the alleged Sandy Hook shooter to their audiences, all erroneously identifying the dead shooter's older brother as the alleged gunman. Reportedly Ryan Lanza was at his desk at the office of Ernst & Young in Times Square in Manhattan when his face and name went out across America on Facebook at a rate of a thousand hits a minute, marking him as the nation's latest mass murderer.
In understandable shock, the young accountant headed home to his apartment on a city bus furiously trying to defend himself on social media. Given the dynamics of the situation, he's lucky he survived the trip home - only to find police ransacking his apartment, according to reports.
Few if any of those media outlets later apologized for their lemming-like rush to judgment, providing a powerful clue to why the vast majority of Americans, according to every objective poll, hold modern journalists in only slightly higher regard than one of the most dysfunctional Congresses in American history.
Over the past week, unlike the grieving families of Findlay who were granted community privacy to bury their dead and begin the difficult healing process, the people of Newtown and Sandy Hook have had their lives and homes and privacy so thoroughly invaded, analyzed and probed, you have to wonder if they can ever recover the community equilibrium and rural charm the quiet area was famous for just a fortnight ago.
In the space of 10 minutes the other night, live from Sandy Hook for the umpteenth night in a row, I heard Wolf Blitzer anxiously declare no less than three times that locals were going out of their way to "thank the media" for telling their stories to the world - as if, what? We might otherwise have thought they all were a village of insensitive monsters and Sandy Hook a real-life Stepford?
As someone who covered his share of public tragedies of this nature and, in fairness, more than once felt the same innate sense of guilty invasiveness Wolf Blitzer perhaps was giving voice to, I must confess I'm haunted by something a famed crime psychologist remarked to me in the height of Atlanta's "Missing and Murdered" crisis in 1980. At that point more than 25 children - mostly black and poor - had turned up murdered, and police were desperate to find the killer, in part because, though they wouldn't publicly admit it, they feared a number of copycat killers were also prowling the city.
"To anyone who suffers from violent psychosis or delusional mental illness with intent to injure themselves or others," he told me, "the kind of mass and detailed media coverage we're witnessing - a mass spectacle of details played out every minute and hour of the day - is an irresistible allure. These kinds of events, I predict, will only multiply as the media's appetite f-or it increases in the years ahead."
For a little deeper perspective on the matter, a top mental health expert the other day noted on NPR that there are roughly 7 million Americans (many undiagnosed) suffering from acute mental health issues, only half of whom are receiving any kind of regular or even occasional treatment. Even more sobering, he estimated there may be as many as 70,000 at-risk individuals capable of sudden and irrational violence walking the streets of this country.
Fifty years ago, he pointed out, there were half a million beds in mental hospitals able to receive and treat people like Adam Lanza. Today, however, there are less than 50,000, and most have complicated guidelines and lengthy waiting lists for admissions.
Moreover, owing to a hodgepodge of confusing and contradictory state and local mental health laws, some of which were intended to protect patients' rights, the ability of struggling families to have a troubled loved one committed to involuntary psychiatric care, in order to prevent violence to themselves or others, has all but vanished. The firestorm created by the frustrated mother who wrote the "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" blog in the hours after Sandy Hook powerfully illustrates the frustration of many thousands.
The simultaneous and overshadowing debate over gun control is merely one aspect of the national grief and gestalt over gun violence.
In the wake of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Aurora and a shopping mall in Oregon, what some now view as an epidemic of lone psychotic mass murderers just waiting to strike, the usual proponents of much stronger gun control measures used the tragedy of Sandy Hook to hustle before the cameras and call for a restored ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. The allegedly powerful NRA, perhaps sensing a turning point, adopted curious radio silence for the large part of a week before breaking that silence Friday ... and called for more guns in schools.
As someone who grew up hunting and fishing and still believes fervently in the rights of Americans to bear arms - and even still owns a pair of rarely used firearms - I'm perplexed by anyone who feels the need to keep an AR15 Bushmaster assault rifle at home, the killing machine of choice among this epidemic of lone shooters. It's a lethal work of art, after all, originally designed exclusively for use by the military, meant to eliminate as many of the enemy as efficiently as possible. The survivalists and extreme fringe who favor such weaponry, of course, are fond of saying the real "enemy" these days is a federal government secretly bent on taking away our weapons - and thus our democracy.
Among my many friends who view hunting as a sacred rite of American life, by comparison, not one of them owns an assault rifle. The nation's police chiefs and sheriffs seem to concur on the matter. They've overwhelmingly lobbied for the elimination of such weapons for decades.
So where will this all lead?
Impossible to say. The hallmark of our open and free society is also its starkest vulnerability: constitutionally safeguarding the rights of the fringe to bear any extreme view as passionately as the mainstream that holds its values dear - as long as no one goes off the deep end and starts shooting.
A New Age?
Meanwhile, it's Christmas, and we have both grief and joy on the doorstep.
Speaking as a father whose heart is still heavy from Sandy Hook, I plan to hug my grown-up kids even more than usual before I let them go home to Christmas Day in Maine and their deeply relieved mom and grandmother.
But grief is holy ground that always leaves room for the inevitable return of joy.
Last Friday, despite another instance of media-whipped frenzy that caused schools to actually shut down in Michigan for security reasons, the so-called Mayan Long Count Calender - purportedly announcing the End of Time - passed its sell-by date with barely a whimper, a remarkably slow news day across the fruited plain. The media was forced to talk again about the fiscal cliff we're about to plummet over, and our dysfunctional do-nothing politicians.
On an encouraging note, one leading Mayan scholar - the one nobody paid much attention to - quietly observed that the end of the Long Calendar might simply herald the start of a new period of human evolution, perhaps the beginning of a new age of heightened human awareness and cooperation between old adversaries, ultimately yielding a better world.
What a fine thought to keep in our hearts this Christmas as we pray for Godspeed and healing for neighbors in Sandy Hook and Aurora and even long-ago and now forgotten Findlay, Ohio.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at jim@the pilot.com.
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