Shell-shocked

Print edition : January 11, 2013

Children wait outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, after the shootout.-MICHELLE MCLOUGHLIN/REUTERS

The shootout in Newtown, Connecticut, in which a lone gunman killed 27 people, including 20 children, in an elementary school explains a broader tragedy

TRAGEDIES ARE TRAGEDIES. THE MURDER OF 27 people, 20 of them children around the age of six, in the space of an hour is an undiluted tragedy. On December 14, a 20-year-old man, Adam Lanza, killed his mother, got into their car, drove down the road, parked the vehicle at Sandy Hook Elementary School, broke open the door of the school, and, despite the heroic efforts by the teachers to save the schoolchildren, unleashed a bloodbath before turning the gun to his head.

Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook school after the shooting incident.-SHANNON HICKS/AP

Sandy Hook Elementary School is in Newtown, Connecticut, along Interstate 84. Founded in 1711, Newtown has become a bedroom community for people who work at the higher end of the income chain (in New York City and Stamford) and at the lower end (in Hartford and Danbury). To the south of Newtown is the Gold Coast, which runs from the border of New York to New Haven, with towns such as Darien and New Canaan housing Wall Streets financial elite. To Newtowns north is rural Connecticut, with farms and orchards that hold on against the tidal wave of globalisation. In 1999, The New York Times noted that Newtown was scrambling to hold on to its hometown image and rural landscape while coping with a population growing as inexorably as Pinocchios nose. Little has changed a decade later. Annual household income in the town is $83,553, which is considerably more than the Connecticut average ($53,935). Violent crime was virtually unheard of (0.02 per cent of the population was affected by such crimes), and property crimes were also well below the States average. Newtown was not prepared for what occurred on December 14.

A memorial to the victims of the shootout. Violent crime was unheard of in Newtown.-LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

Some of the families of the victims came forward with their stories, honouring their childrens brief lives and praising the bravery of the teachers and the principal. One teacher, Vicki Soto (27), hid her students and faced off the gunman before being shot to death herself. Vicki Sotos cousin, John Wiltsie, a police officer from Fairfield, said, Im very proud to report that shes a hero. I would expect nothing less from Vicki. Vicki Sotos mother is a nurse and her father a crane operator. Like her family, Vicki Soto was in the union, Local 1727, the Newtown Federation of Teachers, whose statement reads in part: We credit the teachers, staff and administrators for reacting immediately to protect the children.

What will perhaps never be known is what triggered Adam Lanza to begin his morning of violence. He and his mother, the only two witnesses present in the home when it all began, are dead. Speculation is rife, including about his mental state. None of this is sufficient. Plenty of people with varying degrees of social pain nonetheless function perfectly well in society, able to take care of their disabilities with the care of their community and with the advances of medical science. It answers nothing.

A protest in Washington, D.C. on December 17. The U.S. has 300 million people and 310 million registered guns.-PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP

The immediate public policy questions raised by the Sandy Hook massacre circle around the frequency of these senseless massacres: why do they happen so often, and do they have anything to do with guns? President Barack Obamas immediate statement was highly emotional, and yet to the point: Weve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years, he said. Whether its an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theatre in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicagothese neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, and these children are our children. Massacres are dramatic. Most of those mentioned by Obama are of this kind. In 2012, there were at least seven such assaults (see graphics).

The Newtown shooting forms part of this series. It is also part of another series of mass killings, those that have taken place in educational institutions. The most dramatic one in American history was the killing in Columbine High School (Littleton, Colorado) in April 1999, when two schoolboys terrorised their campus for an hour, killing 15 and wounding 25. Columbine was bookended by two other school massacresin 1927 at Bath School (Michigan), where the school treasurer, Andrew Kehoe, killed 45 (including 38 children) and injured 58, and in 2007 when Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 and injured 17 at Virginia Tech University.

Customers look at a target range at the Los Angeles Gun Club on December 7.-KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AFP

Obamas list pointed in another direction. These mass shootings in recent years have often been in parts of the country where gun violence is generally a surprise: in suburban malls, in elite colleges, and in white-collar offices. Other violence is not recognised, largely because it happens in the world segregated from the upwardly mobile white suburbsin the largely African American and Latino sections of Chicago, for instance, where one person dies every day because of handgun violence. In 2012 alone, 425 people have died in Chicago by the gun, 117 of them children. That was what made Obamas invocation of a street corner in Chicago so significant. It did not allow the tragedy to only exist for white communities (which are described as bucolic). This is a much broader tragedy.

It is no surprise that the killer in each of these massacres was a man (typically a white man). In the warp and weft of modern American culture is a dominant masculine view that negotiation and discussion is not the way to deal with conflict. Violence is the immediate antidote to disagreement. Display and use of power is seen as far more authentic than the deployment of reason. There are many ways to be a man, but the cult of violence and war narrows the field for many men. Why, in this country, asks writer Amy Davidson, when an angry man reaches into his bag, is it so easy and common for his fingers to find a gun? Why cant that same angry man reach for his cellphone and call a friend, or reach for his friends hand and seek comfort?

President Barack Obama prays during a vigil held at Newtown High School for families of victims of the shooting on December 16.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

In his remarks, Obama noted, Were going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics. What Obama refers to is the power of the United States gun lobby to block any real regulation of gun sales. The U.S., a country of 300 million, has over 310 million registered guns, the highest rate of gun ownership in the world after Yemen. Adam Lanza used three guns in his fusillade: two 9mm handguns (a Sig Sauer and a Glock) and a .233 assault rifle (Bushmaster). Both handguns are not really old-fashioned pistols. They are capable of shooting five bullets per second at a velocity of 1,200 feet a second. These are deadly weapons, dangerous in the hands of anyone with intent to commit a mass murder. Many of the young children Adam Lanza mowed down had multiple gunshot wounds in their tender bodies. Lanzas mother had owned the guns. She had taught her two sons how to shoot. Those lessons resulted in 28 dead bodies.

CONNECTICUTS GUN INDUSTRY

Connecticut is the heart of Americas gun culture. The largest gun factory in the world grew along the Connecticut river between 1848 and 1852. Gun factories were built in New Haven (Winchester Repeating Arms Company), Hartford (Colts Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company) and Springfield (Smith and Wesson). Each of these factories boomed during the Civil War, and then thrived in each of the overseas wars that the U.S. engaged in, including the wars of the past decade. Connecticut, for all its liberal sensibilities, is a major defence state, with its charming roadways intersecting with manufacturers of Black Hawk Helicopters (Sikorsky in Stratford, where Vicki Soto lived) and nuclear submarines (General Dynamics Electric Boat in New London). Newtown is the base of Forecast International, a defence construction intelligence firm that has been promoting the increased production and use of drones. It is also the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Federation, the firearms industry trade association. The culture of violence lingers under the surface of the manicured lawns and white picket fences. Connecticuts arms and intelligence typically create mayhem in faraway battlefields, in the borderlands of Pakistan or in West Asia.

Little will be done to address this enormous tragedy of violence, not only in Sandy Hook from the Sig Sauer and Glock, but also in Mir Ali and Wana (both in Pakistan). In September 2008, Obama said, Im not going to take away your guns. The firm adherence to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed) blinds the public from the facts. Twelve times more fatalities occur among children under 15 in the U.S. than in other developed countries, with gun violence being the main culprit.

After Sandy Hook, polls showed that half of those surveyed said that U.S. gun laws need to be made more strict, with 29 per cent wanting them unchanged, and a striking 14 per cent wanting them to be less strict. Remarkably, the number of people who own guns in the U.S. has declined from 29 per cent in 1980 to 21 per cent in 2010. A social majority might slowly be emerging who would not like to see someone like Adam Lanza, however angry or disturbed he might be, to have access to such deadly weapons. The guns, of course, do not do the killing themselves, but they certainly allow the killer to murder at an industrial scale. This is what gun regulation would prevent.

But the culture of guns remains alive and well in the U.S., and its use, whether for sport at home or for war abroad, has taken on a patriotic aspect. Such patriotism always ends in tragedy, whether in the killing of the 176 children by U.S. drones in Pakistan, the 20 children in Newtown, the 117 children in Chicago or an eight-year-old, killed not far from my home. An hours drive from Newton, in Westfield (Massachusetts), eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj was given a 9mm Uzi submachine gun to shoot at the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo in 2008. The little boy lost control of the gun and shot himself in the head. He died in the arms of his father, who brought him to the gun show and gave his consent to let him fire this deadly weapon. He is a victim of this culture of violence.

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