When I first learned of the massacre of children and teachers in Connecticut, my first thought was “not again.” Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds I am not alone. “Not again,” we say, first in disbelief, and then in resolve. Yet until something changes, we all know, it will happen again.
The first step, I think, is to realize that we face a human problem. Evil is part of our nature as surely as good is. We are a species of violence. This is a profound truth—a historical truth, a biological truth, a moral truth. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once declared, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” and now we have yet more horrific evidence of this truth. Yet if we stop our thinking there, we remain mired in a hopeless nihilism. Surely evil will always be with us—in this world, at least. But the persistence of evil is no reason to cease working for good. We can’t make a perfect world, but we can make a far better one.
We are now appallingly familiar with the script that plays out in the hours and days after an atrocity like this, and so we know that soon enough some pundits or politicians will start declaring that the answer to gun violence is more guns. If only a teacher had been armed, or the principal. Since evil will always be with us, they say, if the other guy has a gun, I better have one too. A bigger one. This is the answer of moral nihilism. We can do better.
Pondering evil is a fine place to start, but we need to understand that this kind of evil is not just a human problem—it is, sadly, a particularly American problem. We live in a culture diseased by violence. Ours is a frontier society, born and nurtured in conquest, genocide, enslavement, and revolution. Ours is a beautiful and noble experiment in freedom and democracy too, admirable and good in many ways—but also, clearly, a society still living off an inheritance soaked in blood. This inheritance has left us a culture that glorifies war and weapons, that preaches perverse doctrines of honor and distorted notions of manhood. The Swedes and Japanese and Indians share our same human condition, but they don’t kill like we do. We are reaping what we have sown.
This realization too might lead one to despair. With so many guns, and such a legacy of violence, the best we can do, says the gun lobby and its enablers, is arm ourselves, protect our own. Aside for the empirical reality that such defensiveness rarely works—as in the case in Newtown, the guns in ours homes are far more likely to kill through crime or accident than to protect—this position fails to understand that cultures can and do change. Our American cult of violence is a product of history, and it can be undone in history. Not easily, not quickly, but schools and parents and churches and governments and people of courage and character can move the tectonic plates of culture. We may never live in a world without violence, but we can live in a society that doesn’t worship killing and glorify killers. We can. Some day.
But we don’t have to wait for that day before we save lives. We can start tomorrow. Most obviously:
We can regulate guns.
We can provide better mental health care.
These steps would vastly reduce the mass killings that happen in those places where people say, “we never thought it could happen here.” To middle class folks. To white folks. In malls and offices and kindergartens. Good policy ideas abound, ideas that could immediately reduce the number and scope of these kinds of mass murders. All we need is the political courage and leadership to make it happen. These simple steps really shouldn’t be that hard.
Most murders, of course, don’t happen in those places. Most killings happen in ghettoes of violence, in the places where people know all too well that it can happen here, because it does, relentlessly. The chronic violence of these forgotten places, places where the poor and black and brown live, is a product of our particular history too, the result of our uniquely American combination of racism and neglect and greed. We can and must root out the violence in these places, through policies that provide educations and jobs, hope and opportunity, free from the shackles of systemic poverty and racial injustice.
This is hard, never-ending work. But we must start, now, if we want “not again” to mean anything more than an empty cry.