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Adam Lanza's Grip on Reality: A Civic Perspective

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A murderous earthquake has been followed by a tsunami of national debate. In the coming months, will some positive consequences follow? Reinvigorated controls on assault weapons? New mental health initiatives set in motion? The scandal of everyday violence against children brought under frank public scrutiny? This would be a miracle, a welcome one.

More profound results may still be out of reach. Can we grapple with how common, widespread, and American this supposedly "meaningless" murder is? Can we discover why "meaningless" murder is a fundamental topic for our civic life? Some deep-seated misunderstandings block this path. Perhaps we can begin to clear them away.

Our most widespread and tragic mistake has been to imagine the suicidal mass murderer as someone who lives outside of society, the ultimate and perverted individualist. For, no matter how isolated we make him out to be, even the loneliest loner is a social type. Adam Lanza was not an alien, not a monster, nor a machine. He was one of us. We share with him a social reality that is the common spring of both good and evil.

Some traditions underscore this duality and point to its consequences. The civic perspective takes us a step further. Because human beings develop in constant engagement with multi-faceted experience, no person is a simple unity. Underlying every individual is a divisible and composite human being. With various and contradictory experience every person goes through cycles of fracture and re-composition, and everyone is something of a stranger to him- or herself. We are not just one thing, or even two, but many. What it means for this complex variety of citizens to share the same world is that every person is something of a stranger to others as well. This plurality is the first feature of social reality.

Why focus on this? Because however important individuality may be, it is a fleeting part of the human experience. Our social existence is more fundamental. Without a clear understanding of that elementary fact, it is difficult to see, no less to accept our connection to someone like Adam Lanza. If we cannot accept this connection, it is nearly impossible to understand what he did, or to respond to the problem he poses for us.

How we seek to "understand what he did" depends on our expectations. Many of them are misguided, too. Americans crave and monger pretentious speculation. Everywhere you turn someone is declaring this or that is what "caused" Adam Lanza to kill twenty children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Or what "caused" William Spengler, just one week later, to shoot citizen volunteers who were called and responded as firefighters in Webster, New York.

The truth is that there is no such "cause." What Lanza and those like him do is not governed by a chemical reaction or a single force, some imagined human gravity.

Is this because pre-meditating killers seeking publicity present a special sort of mystery? Not really. The difficulty is that the search for a "cause" places human action -- all of it, including yours and mine -- in the wrong frame.

It is likewise a gross error to believe that because action does not have a narrow "cause" we cannot understand it. Every day every human being spends a lot of time sorting through the actions of others. Only by tracing and reapplying a grammar of motives can we match our own actions to a social environment itself composed of action.

This is not a task for engineers. We increasingly and to our detriment turn to biology for guidance. Although law must impute intentions, this only works for the narrow purposes of punishment.

Rather, general inquiry into action is the province of citizens like us. Our task is to let ourselves be guided by the public search for meaning. On this basis, day in and day out, we make judgments -- sometimes effective, sometimes misplaced -- concerning the conditions of our lives together.

In other words, understanding and action are as complex as the human beings who undertake to understand and to act. If we ignore the fact that Adam Lanza and his action remained woven into the everyday fabric of social relationship, his violence appears, and will always appear, "meaningless." It is with a serious challenge to this particular ignorance that a civic response to Newtown begins. It begins with the obvious.

What sense does it make to picture someone who lives with his mother as a perfectly solipsistic individual removed from society? He is nothing like the Robinson Crusoe of modern imagination. Who among us cannot recall cohabitation of parent and child? Who, even under the most mundane circumstances, does not identify with the complex interaction it involves? Indeed, it is just that familiarity the killer had with his first victim that is itself a source of horror.

Likewise, notice that the final victim did not descend from the scene of matricide to his personal lair in the basement of their home. He did not slither off to a dark spot in the woods to end his life. Suicide can involve various degrees of publicity, but rarely more than this. Can anyone living in America attribute the desire for grotesque spectacle to madness alone? If, as Spengler said, what he "liked doing best was killing people," why not just point the Bushmaster .223 at any passer-by? Why call for and target the good guys? Why set the neighbors alight?

In the instance of the school shooter, that spectacle, that it is such an intense spectacle for us, arises from something else we share with him: a clear understanding of childhood as a time of security, of schools as a site of safety and as society's organ for its own reproduction. Citizens watch after and care for the school, so this is where one goes to inflict the deepest and most visible wound.

Adam Lanza got his guns from his mother's collection and she taught him to shoot them. Whatever her motives, the world of guns inhabited by Nancy Lanza borrowed ritualized elements from the "survivalist" and the apocalyptic "prepper." These are identities built within social networks. They are saturated with shared fantasies ignited in the Cold War. Even the end of the world -- in this case figured as economic collapse and reversion to a brutal state of nature -- is an image that depends upon an experience of social order that one can then imagine negated. No Robinson Crusoe ever "feigned the world to be annihilated." The model for the "survivalist" is as much a pre-packaged commodity as a "Barbie" doll -- another icon of the "civil defense society" of the Cold War.

Mesmerized by the word virtual we neglect the obvious reality. That hypnotic there-is-only-me-against-the-adversary sensation of an amazing video game rests on coordinated efforts of innumerable people. And the game itself is not an isolation chamber. Play occurs in the real world, which is to say the world of the human body. The video game is a simulator, a training or practice device. Its effects should be measured as such.

Have you ever heard a person using a flight simulator ask, "Are the wings realistic?" Even if the trainee never boards a 747 his question before the video screen is, "Can I learn to fly?" I have no doubt this was Mohamed Atta's question.

In the partnership of human being and machine, it is the former, not the latter, that counts. The social reality of the first person shooter game like Counter-Strike resides in the reflexes, habits, and expectations of the player. This is true even when, especially when, the game is turned off and player becomes killer with Bushmaster .223 in hand.

The point is that almost nothing about someone like Adam Lanza can be counted as individualist. Every detail of his deed is geared to communicate a message. The paradox of that message is what makes it so effective: social conditions are brought forward to paint an image of isolation; tapping deep into shared and traditional symbols makes his act appear as "meaningless" violence.

An astonishing conformism is displayed not just in the choice and location of the victims or the adoption of common fantasy elements. Every detail tells the same way. Does the killer trained on games select his own wardrobe? Did he give to military attire or the black of mourning its symbolic charge? Who makes and markets those clothes to civilians? Should we suppose that comfort rather than symbolism prompted Adam Lanza to don a bulletproof vest? Should we believe that only by chance he carried the most popular weapons in America?

You can be sure that the killer attached some private significance to each of these facts. That is not our concern. The civic meaning of Newtown is a very public puzzle and we had better treat it that way. The killer's act is a composition of commonplace stories and signs -- from the classic matricide of Greek tragedy to the bling-effect of the superfluous thirty-round clip. The killer worked with a coordinated repertoire of symbols and we recognize them all. In this absence of this recognition he would have done something else.

That the killer set a scene for us, carefully coding each of its elements, does not mean that he controlled the meaning of his act. He did, however, achieve one of his primary purposes. He asserted his connection with us. He did this through a social reality larger than himself.

It is a widely held view, as expressed here by an estimable Dr. Daniel Geschwind from UCLA, that "the only way somebody could do something like this is if they totally lost touch with reality."

The point that I want you to consider -- painful and frightening as it may be to face it -- is that this is nearly completely false. It is certainly misleading.

The reality of social life, that formative space of interdependence, that multitude of circulating symbolic conditions for action, is precisely what we share with the entrepeneurs of evil. Just as we share it with all our fellow citizens.

I propose to you that this recognition calls for unprecedented types of public discussion. What we will want to discover is this: How did Adam Lanza come to conceive of his project in this way and not another? Why did these and not some other symbols became his vehicles or constraints? Why did he believe that this act would not only be meaningful for him, but -- and this is the most difficult question -- meaningful for us?

Any plausible answer to this last question would have two parts. Adam Lanza made his disorder, guns, and violence a problem for us, his fellow citizens, by killing our children; he did this by relying on certain symbols, symbols that we live with and by every day, to conduct the act of mass murder in a particular way.

Any plausible answer would start by countering what so many keep repeating, that the mass murderer is the apotheosis of individuality, a man utterly cut off from the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, his act, and any such action, is a vertiginous failure of individuality and its civic promise. What it displays is an astonishing intensity of conformism.

Let me be clear. We share some things with Adam Lanza but not everything. He is at once a citizen and a stranger in our midst. Indeed, the modern city is filled with strangers and it does us proud to treat every one of them as citizens. Unless, that is, in this one way they cast themselves out.

It is not only human beings that create a kind of social reality. What makes us different is just a little twist. Our social reality includes some reflexive recognition of itself. In countless ways human beings learn this elementary practice. Because our own actions depend on the lives of other people more or less like ourselves, in order to undertake and achieve our own acts we must be attentive to the conditions of those other lives.

This civic perspective on the human condition does not require communitarian conclusions and only the cynical or the naive would suggest that fellow-feeling is the primary topic for civic debate after Newtown. Human attention to the lives of others is typically not direct and often not very nice. The reflexivity of reality tends to be little more than the sheer fact that it -- which is to say, other people, their projects and needs, their limitations, and the world at large -- gets in our way.

Nonetheless, modern life is a monument built on this slender reed. Day in and day out, the whole fabric of our social relationships, together with the attention we are forced to give that fabric to make it work for us, constitutes a practical constraint on what we can and cannot do. Beliefs, institutions, practices, laws, and the like serve as social memory and practical framework to keep that force working.

It is just this aspect of social reality, the constraint on which freedom is built, that the mass murderer must deny in order to follow his path. He aims to disprove the hypothesis of civic life.

Out of, it seems, nowhere, we are having right now a new national discussion about guns, mental health, and violence because through a terrible act Adam Lanza brought his denial of reality back into our reality with a vengeance. He must have come very close to have touched us in this way.