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I'm not going to get into President Obama's speech on the shooting in Connecticut just yet, though that deserves some analysis. Instead I want to dig into the background of the shooter and the family history that allowed him access to high-powered weapons. From the UK Daily Mail:
Friends and family portrayed Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy as a paranoid ‘survivalist’ who believed the world was on the verge of violent, economic collapse.
She is reported to have been struggling to hold herself together and had been stockpiling food, water and guns in the large home she shared with her 20-year-old son in Connecticut.
Mrs Lanza, 52, was a ‘prepper’ – so called because they are preparing for a breakdown in civilised society – who apparently became obsessed with guns and taught Adam and his older brother, Ryan, how to shoot, even taking them to local ranges.
The Daily Mail portrays the act of teaching a child to use a weapon as an inherently awful, evil thing. That characterization is unfair and inappropriate. Teaching a child how to use weapons in a safe environment is no different than any other tool. That this boy was disturbed, it is from there that the issue arises. Again from the Daily Mail:
Ryan Kraft, who babysat for Mrs Lanza when Adam was ten, said the boy was prone to serious temper tantrums. The fiercely protective Mrs Lanza insisted the babysitter never left Adam on his own for a moment, even to go to the lavatory.
But he remembered her as an ‘engaged’ mother who did her best to arrange playdates for her sons.
Marsha Lanza, the killer’s aunt, described him as a ‘nice, quiet’ and ‘very, very bright’ boy who had issues with learning.
That verdict tallies with the accounts of fellow school pupils who said he was very bright, particularly at maths, but painfully shy.
The description raises plenty of red flags, making connections to Dahmer and Kazinski. But it also reminds me of plenty of other people who are a little off but who never became a mass murderer. It's only through the hindsight granted by history we are able to point and say, "oh, look, they ignored the warning signs."
Mental health issues run rampant in America, often left untreated because of associated costs. And though we've come a great distance from the days when people who deviated from social norms were dumped in asylums to rot, attended only with barbaric excuses for "treatment"--the equivalent of using a sledge hammer to pound in a penny nail--we still don't always take it seriously in an overtaxed system.
If any silver lining can be found from the events of Newtown, the attention being paid to mental health issues is one. From USA Today:
"We wait for things like this to happen and then everyone talks about mental health," says Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, an associate professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at Georgetown University Medical Center. "But they quickly forget."
"Mental health has shrunk down to the level of short-term crisis management," [Dewey] Cornell of the Virginia Youth Violence Project says. "If we are going to focus on prevention, we can't think about the gunman in the parking lot and what to do with him. We have to get involved a lot earlier."
Schools and communities "have cut their mental health services to the bone," says Cornell. "We're paying a price for it as a society."
The point is that this sort of violent incident should not result in a rush to judgment but a process of understanding. The problem wasn't the gun, it was the mindset that allowed this disturbed child to do something horrible. We'll interrogate that when we look at President Obama's speech.
For a long time we were ashamed of "abnormal" mental states and did our best to bury them away from public view. That became a self-perpetuating cycle. Then we, in an attempt to normalize, labeled every behavior, no matter how minute, as a "disorder." In doing so, we ceased to take serious those behaviors that warranted attention, afraid of stigmatizing those who posed a danger to the world.
There are more people out there like Adam Lanza. Parents like Liza Long at Gawker are afraid of their children.
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7- and 9-year-old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.
That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn't have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.
We still don't know what's wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He's been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood-altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.
So what do we do? I have no idea. But we do need to have a discussion about how to prevent something like this from happening again. But have a knee-jerk "ban the guns!" response does not help. At all.