Next, of course, comes the empty ritual of pretending that we must make sure something like this never happens again. How? By some forensic inquiry into the psychology of the shooter, Mr. Lanza... his comings, goings, email musings, Netflix rentals, chemical composition of his fingernail clippings?
I suspect that we indulge in such tiresome parsings of each killer's particulars because we want to avoid facing their much more widely damning societal, which is to say political, context. Five long months ago, just after James Holmes killed twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I wrote an article with the provocative title "The Colorado Killer Is Not a Muslim". On the Huffington Post version of my article, reader Robert Arredondo objected:
This is not a point to be made. Those with political agendas who commit acts to perpetuate their social, religious, political goals by organize[d] means are considered terrorist. A lone gunman overcome by madness or anger is not.
Arredondo's point is, strictly speaking, true enough. But we indulge ourselves and each other when we insist that incidents like Aurora and Newtown are not political. If such an incident doesn't have a political context -- a context, that is, that challenges us as a society to articulate and enforce our collective priorities -- then what does? For starters, we need to face the fact that we're all too eager to parse a perpetrator's psychology when he's a white guy, but when he's brown and/or Muslim that's all we allow him to be. But Timothy McVeigh was a terrorist and, because Gabrielle Giffords was an elected official, Jared Loughner's attempted killing of her had the effect, if perhaps not the intention, of terrorism. Furthermore, if Loughner, Holmes, Dylan Klebold thirteen years ago at Columbine High School, now Lanza, and others whose names escape our memory were troubled young men, so was the Pakistan-born U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up Times Square in May 2010.
What do troubled young white Americans here at home have to do with troubled young Muslims, whether here or overseas? Adam Lankford offers one thoughtful answer in a December 18 New York Times op-ed titled "What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers":
It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what's wrong with America -- our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers -- including suicide terrorists -- in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy.
Another insight comes from the authoritative Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his recent book Pakistan on the Brink:
One-third of Pakistanis today lack drinking water, another 77 million have unreliable food sources, and half the school-age children do not go to school. The literacy rate is 57 percent, the lowest in South Asia and not much better than the 52 percent that prevailed at the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Half the population are not even looking for jobs, since they know they won't be able to find them. The country needs at least a 9 percent annual growth rate to employ its under-twenties, who make up 60 percent of the population. The 37 percent of Pakistanis who are under the age of fifteen give Pakistan one of the world's largest youth bulges.
"The Newtown Massacre to me is largely about the failure of men in America," writes Kunstler,
and in particular the failure of men to raise up male children into men. ... What matters now is that an epochal undertow of events is dragging this enormous nation into an economic convulsion that will inevitably turn political. I don't think that our society can be redeemed in its current form. It has to pass through a tribulation that demands the reemergence of adult male humans who know how to be men in more than one dimension.
Children in Pakistan have in common with children in America in that both are God's children. In both countries, the urgent challenge is to provide young men with productive work to do and dignified, adult roles to play in their families and society. I specify young men in particular because it's usually young men, not women, who shoot people and blow things up. Thus Newtown is a lot like many villages in Pakistan. What the children and adult citizens of Newtown suffered on December 14 is what children and adults fear, and all too often suffer, every week in Pakistan at the hands of the Taliban and other extremists on one hand, and of the American operators of unmanned drone aircraft on the other.
So if, as I argue, mass killings in America are unavoidably political, what of it? The "meaningful" gun control legislation President Obama is urging, and on which public opinion seems to be insisting, would be a good start and would signal our seriousness. And there's no need to be timid or apologetic. Since, as Newtown all too brutally illustrated, none of us has any real physical security anyway, there's no reason not to push back hard against the gun culture and the gun lobby. Better late than never. The alternative is to allow our society to be ruled by bullies.
ETHAN CASEY's next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, will be published next year and is available for pre-purchase. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans. Join his email list here.