"Evil visited this community today," the governor of Connecticut said, though he might have been more accurate if he had quoted Pogo:
"We have met the enemy and he is us."
This may be the hardest truth of all to swallow. But the point-blank murders of 27 people, including 20 small children as they sat in their classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- in Newtown, Conn., as safe and secure as any community in the country -- shattered, at least for some people, the illusion that all our troubles are out there, beyond our borders and our exceptionalism, and that safety requires heavily armed protection from an incomprehensible "other."
In one of the safest communities in America, we couldn't protect our 6-year-olds and our 7-year-olds, despite the fact that we have been waging a "war on evil" for the past decade-plus. Indeed, the semiautomatic weapon Adam Lanza used in the killings -- taken from his mother, the first victim -- was not only similar to the weapon James Holmes used to kill a dozen people last July in Aurora, Colo., but to weapons used by American troops in Afghanistan. The war comes home. Could anything illustrate this more graphically?
The killings, writes Ken Butigan at Waging Nonviolence, "penetrated the elaborate defenses that we as individuals and as a culture have erected to live with the internal contradictions of the bargain we have made to both oppose and embrace violence. Occasionally reality exposes and trumps the cognitive dissonance of this uneasy but deeply embedded arrangement."
Something's wrong with the world we've built. The children might as well have been gathering firewood in Afghanistan. Mass slayings by apparently disturbed young men with access to assault weaponry just keep happening. It's not a problem we can isolate and correct -- it's system-wide. We live in a society permeated with paradox and darkness.
Maybe the Newtown killings have cut more deeply into the national psyche than the others. Maybe they won't simply fade from the news cycle and from memory, to be reawakened only when the next mass slaughter of innocents occurs. There's evidence of a shift in awareness.
Wary Democrats, for instance, may be ready to risk the wrath of the NRA and reopen debate on the expired assault weapons ban. "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" President Obama said in his speech in Newtown on Dec. 16 -- seemingly challenging, as George Lakoff pointed out, the concept that guns equal freedom.
And pro-gun-rights Democrat Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, "the senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that 'everything should be on the table' as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months," the New York Times reported.
"I don't know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting," Manchin said when he appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "I mean, these are things that need to be talked about."
Maybe such statements represent an opening in the national impasse on gun control that solidified in the wake of the Columbine shootings in 1999. While firearm regulations are necessary -- and a ban on assault weapons is reasonable -- what matters far more than any actual bill that might result from the Newtown massacre is the awareness shift itself, the dawning realization among a sector of the population that guns, or at any rate semiautomatic rifles, are . . . well, complicated. Even in the hands of "law-abiding citizens" like Nancy Lanza, they can lead (who could have imagined?) to terrible harm.
Countering this possible awareness shift is the gun-buying frenzy the shootings have sparked from sea to shining sea. Nate C. Hindman writes at Huffington Post that "firearms flew off his shelves over the weekend" at a gun shop not far from the Sandy Hook Elementary School, "with multiple requests for AR-15 style rifles, a weapon Adam Lanza used in the Newtown massacre."
The phenomenon is replicated everywhere. Business was brisk anyway (Christmas season, you know), "But this tragedy is pushing sales through the roof," a North Carolina gun dealer told Hindman. "It's like putting gasoline on a fire."
Fear, panic, manhood, whatever. Most of the gun-buying public isn't thinking it through more deeply than: Get your semiautomatics now, before Congress makes 'em illegal again.
Combine such an excitable fear with so much else, including a violent entertainment culture and -- lest anyone forget -- an insane national commitment to war and a military-industrial consensus that dominates foreign policy, and the American Paradox starts to become visible. We love our children but we also love to play war. Theologian Walter Wink called it the myth of redemptive violence.
"How do we turn things around?" Butigan asks. "How do we reorient our culture from one that assumes that violence saves us to one where nonviolent solutions are the default? How do we build a nonviolent culture?"
The only way to honor the 6- and 7-year-olds of Newtown is to begin taking these questions seriously. New laws won't fix matters. The paradox of violence and fear is far too elusive. Only by plunging into our own darkness and making a commitment to learn -- and relearn -- how to heal ourselves can we begin to build lasting peace.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
© 2012 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.