Newtown: “Something’s Happening Here”
December 20, 2012
Well, true to form and all too understandably, we Americans have begun running away from Newtown, trying to make it disappear, as it were. I am reminded, as I often am, of Tim O’Brien’s book, In the Lake of the Woods. The main story is relatively simple: John Wade, “the sorcerer” as he was known to his troopers in Vietnam, has his political career killed when it becomes known that he had participated in a massacre in Vietnam of women, children, and old men and that he tried to “cover it up,” that is, make it disappear. Later, his wife, Kathy, disappears while they “vacation” near the Lake of the Woods and the question is, Did John make Kathy disappear? The narrator, a researcher, says he cannot solve this mystery and presents several possibilities, leaving it to the reader to decide which is most plausible. A good mystery. Read it.
I believe what O’Brien was trying to get across was that we Americans made Vietnam disappear or at least tried to make it disappear. We did this by calling that war “unfathomable,” or a “quagmire,” or a “mistake.” By making it disappear, of course, we would not have to take responsibility for our actions there. More generally, it is implied that this is what our politicians try to do, make stuff, make phenomena disappear, phenomena like poverty, crime, drugs, or unwanted or “undesirable” pregnancies. [In fact, John and Kathy have an abortion because the pregnancy did not fit into their or rather John’s schedule.]
How are we trying to make Newtown disappear? Well, one way is to categorize or catalog Adam Lanza as mentally deranged. Now, I have no doubt that Adam Lanza was mentally deranged but this categorization is comfortable because insofar as he was deranged, he is not “one of us.” He is apart from, not a part of us. His brain must have been defective and we all know that such defects can only be cured by medical treatment, if they can be “cured” at all. In any case, “we” are not responsible for the massacre that occurred in Newtown, an idyllic town as reported by all who have been there. And, of course, there are no dark secrets in idyllic towns, at least none for which such a town [or nation] is responsible.
Or how about we blame our laws for what happened in Newtown? “Oh, if only we had kept the federal ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, all of this would not have happened.” And how did this ban get overturned? Well, that is the work of the National Rifle Association and other private interest groups [or what I like to call “PIGs”]. In any case, “we” are not responsible in anyway for what happened in Newtown. Of that, we can be sure.
Another book I thought of was No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. And I have in mind one particular passage where Sheriff Bell, the main protagonist, is talking with another sheriff about our drug problem. The other sheriff says something like:
“It is really bad. We have people selling drugs near schools to school kids.”
And Sheriff Bell responds: “It is worse than that.”
“How’s that?” the other sheriff asks.
“School kids are buying them,” says Bell.
Indeed. And maybe we do need stronger gun laws, especially with regard to assault weapons and high capacity magazines. But even absent such laws, we don’t have to buy such guns and such magazines. So the question becomes: Why are we buying such things, just as Sheriff Bell’s question is, why are school kids buying drugs? Recently, this question was brought home to me forcefully as I sat, in Arizona near Phoenix, conversing with some people I had just met and the woman sitting next to me, about my age or even older, indicated that generally speaking she was “packing.” That is, she generally carried a concealed weapon – and this is a woman who lives in what has to be described as an upscale community near Phoenix. What struck me was how she said it, as if this were simply the normal thing to do and she would have been surprised were anyone to question her behavior. In the circumstances, as it would not have been appropriate to ask about this, I did not. But think about it: An old woman in an upscale community “packing!” If this is the case, if such behavior is now normal, pass all the gun laws you wish, nothing much is going to change.
The point is: We can sense our responsibility when we ask, “Why are school kids buying drugs?” just as we sense responsibility when we ask, “Why are old ladies carrying concealed weapons?” Or more generally when we ask: “Why have we embraced violence as we have, to the point of massacres, and massacres not only here but abroad as well?” Is Newtown another example of “the chickens coming home to roost,” as Malcolm X said after JFK’s assassination? We will do most anything not to raise this question. And so we need to make Newtown disappear, just as we had to make Vietnam disappear, just as we have to turn away from the possibility that JFK brought on his assassination by assassinating or trying to assassinate others. Obviously, such “conspiracy theories” are unacceptable among “responsible” people. But then………and we wonder.