As I consider Sandy Hook School I often find myself with that same sinking feeling that sits in the pit of your stomach just after you turn away from the last time you will see a loved one. That feeling of helplessness and loss and permanence that is hard to shake.
I grew up in the wonder world of the 50’s blissfully unaware of racism, suicide (never spoken of), poverty (never seen) and no political correctness (not even invented). Nearly every adult fearlessly smoked cigarettes, kids walked to school without fear, and at least in my neighborhood, the biggest worry for most kids was getting caught in the corner lot where the old man who lived in a three-room house was rumored to eat children. Kids were mean to each other, and real bullying (much more so than now) happened. We had physical and verbal fights between ourselves and got over it. We fell out of trees, broke bones, and stayed out until the streetlights came on.
There weren’t any Goths, Skaters, or Nerds, because society enforced a certain code of behavior and appearance and we were all pushed into a particular mold. Many of us didn’t fit exactly, but expectations were that we should try to fit in for the good and safety of all. Most of us needed and wanted to come as close as we could to fitting in with the rest of society as the comfort level for those who did not was very low. Teachers and societal norms were often strict and uncompromising and for certain segments of our society, unfair and discriminatory. Through it all most people believed in the power and benevolence of our educational system, our government and our citizens.
In the early 60’s, in response to the real wrongs of racial, poverty, and other forms of discrimination we began to mistrust our government, religion and most importantly ourselves. In response we correctly began to make societal molds in many different shapes out of more and more flexible materials. No longer was it okay for “one size to fit all.” As this idea of a free society took hold, bolstered by the Viet Nam war and the civil unrest fomented mostly, by of all people, “well – off white kids,” it seems to me that our society began to lose its shape. It became like an old corset from which we slowly removed more and more of the foundational stays that held it upright, together and functional. Our society is like that corset, as the stays were removed society began its collapse into an incoherent mass, shapeless, and directionless, slowly becoming powerless to truly meet the real needs of its citizens. In short we began to measure ourselves in terms of the limitations and qualities of our government instead of the qualities of our people.
Now, too often, in the name of personal freedom we seem to be constantly following the logic of Frost in “ Mending Wall” where he says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” forgetting all together the poem’s counterpoint that says , “ Good fences make good neighbors.”
So what is a fence or a wall, other than an understanding between people that something should be kept out or kept in? I believe that we may have taken down too many of society’s fences, too quickly. Too often we have torn at the fences our founding fathers erected around the foundations of our country often tearing them down while not even considering “why the fence was built in the first place,” concerned only with our own personal freedom rather than the good of the country. This has led to the almost paradoxical war on drugs while at the same time we are legalizing marijuana in some states. In truth we may be sinking under the weight of the acceptance of almost everything and anything as normal behavior.
After Sandy Hook I pictured a scene in my mind where two middle-class, non-fur wearing, vegetarian, suburbanites stand in front of the video game case at Target first lamenting the deaths at Sandy Hook and wondering how it could have happened, but shortly thereafter complaining that the store was out of a video game called “Extremely Violent Violence IV” and wondering how they were going to explain to their 9 year old why his desires to safely kill and maim in new ways, in his living room, were not going to be met by “Santa Claus.”
I used to believe that video games, TV, and movies did not have any effect on the actions of our children, but then I began to wonder where did our children learn to not be satisfied with winning a fight in the school yard, too often now seeming to have a need to brutalize the loser with kicks after they are down. Hitting someone when they were down is something that would have been looked on as an absolute wrong when I was a kid. I have also wondered who taught children and adults that they needed to kill others before committing suicide. Is this being taught by parents or in the schools and if not where are they learning it? Who has taught our children to lie and cheat at home and in school without guilt or regret and little fear of repercussion? Who taught murderers that children were a fair target for their obsession? Where did we learn that now, the ends always seem to justify the means?
Video games, in particular, allow children to participate visually and at times even viscerally in violent acts without the mess, the smell of death, guilt or repercussions, but instead replace these with the reward of numerous do-overs both when you yourself are killed or should you fail to successfully kill your adversary. Real life does not offer death without side-effects, but as we have gone from an agrarian to a suburban society death is no longer a reality for many kids. Kids who grew up on a farm in the past were very familiar with death as the sights and sounds of the farm and occasional slaughter of animals were a part of their lives. Even we city kids used to understand that death was not a game as grandma and grandpa and our pets died at home not in a hospital. We understood that death was the absolute final version of reality. The real cost and effect of death has been lost to too many of our children. Lost to the sanitized version replayed over and over in video games and legitimized by overwhelming news coverage of the catastrophe du jour or the paradox of people acting stupidly or badly winning a million dollar reward for their publically displayed perfidy on a reality show.
And this brings me to title of this blog.
“Where Did They Learn That?”
Where did politicians learn to lie without guilt?
Where did we learn that in order to commit suicide we must first kill others?
Where did we learn that children/schools/shopping malls were legitimate targets?
Where did we learn that killing was an acceptable solution to our problems?
Were any of these things taught in our schools, churches or our homes ? I hope not, but children and adults who act like children often learn by observation and as each mass murder is advertised incessantly in the media and this coupled with the pervasive wrongful understanding that life hands out no real consequences for our actions often leads to catastrophic results. As a retired teacher of 40 years or so, I have observed that over the years too many children and often their parents, now firmly believe there will always be another chance, another do over, or perhaps an immunity idol just around the corner.
I believe that kids are good observers, even when they appear to not be looking or listening, and that observation and experience are the basis of all real and meaningful learning.
So then we are back to, “Where did they learn that?”
When we are faced with tragedies like the elementary school shootings we argue about controlling guns, rather than the sickness and violence that permeates our movies, video games, books, newscasts and most importantly, our society.
We are addicted to bad news and the networks are the dealers of our drug of choice. The proof of this will come as the Sandy Hook story unfolds. We will hear a great deal about the killer and his motivations, his family, his history and how society failed him and/or the children he murdered, but after an initial guilt phase, very little about the victims. So the circle will remain unbroken as the next mass murderer watches the coverage in rapt fascination.
What then is the cure? Gun control may help but history tells us that prohibition of anything the public wants will not work in the US. Perhaps if we can determine the answer to the question, “Where did they learn that,” we can find a solution. There would be no need for a divisive discussion of guns or psychology or which government agency failed the murderer or the children. If we could find and stop how killers learn to kill, as Kipling tells us the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How,” of mass murder, perhaps Dexter’s “Dark Traveler” embodied by these truly mentally ill individuals will become more rare.
We hear time and time again that “Education is the Key,” and if that is true we must, if we are to stop this ongoing disaster, ask simply and aggressively , who or what “taught them to do that,” Where did they learn to murder without remorse or conscience and become famous at the same time?
The answer comes from Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
When we realize this fact perhaps we can begin to solve this problem.