12/20/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

What About Newtown?

We will likely not ever know what drove Adam Lanza to commit the horrific acts of Dec. 14. However, we can and must respond to them, and as a result the assault rifle ban will probably be re-imposed. That will be a good thing.

But stark against the backdrop of Newtown is another reality harder to change. A well-landscaped, nicely appointed house does not cover the chasm between what appears to be healthy and what in fact was a terrible void in the Lanza family.

We have not heard from Adam's father or his brother. We do not need to hear. We know his mother spent a few nights each week in a local tavern. We know she was afraid and having guns may have given her comfort. Her neighbors seem not to have known her well and the emptiness of her life may well be the reality for many Americans.

Gun reform is needed but a larger conversation is called for. We may begin with guns and what can be bought and sold, where and by whom. More importantly we need to be talking about the dimensions of our communities and the daily toll violence takes in America.

Here in the university we work hard at community building. How do we talk to one another? How do we care for one another? When do we intercede in someone else's business? When do we ask: "Are you all right?" "Can I help you out?"

Sandy Hook Elementary School paid attention to such details and lives were saved because of what they did. We commend their preparation and bravery. Can we be as brave when we carry these issues to the next level? How do we do that in our neighborhoods? In our small towns? On our blocks? In our cities? In our housing projects?

The religious communities in Newtown and the surrounding towns seem to have things together. Maybe the conversation begins there? Our chaplaincy here at MIT carries on conversations about well being in the community across boundaries of faith and privacy. Sometimes folks get offended and charge that such concerns are violations of personal space. They are, but sometimes we have to ask and answer hard questions about the well being of one another. I don't think anyone did that for Nancy Lanza.

Today for many Americans a basic value seems to be the desire to be left alone. I have seldom heard so much talk about freedoms lost or threatened. I do not think the status quo can be allowed to continue. Being left alone is not enough. The measures of success in our culture betray us. The large white house with the manicured landscape cries out.