December 21, 2012
By Aaron Belz
Twenty haunts us now. The words between the ages of six and seven haunt us. The place-name Newtown, unknown to most Americans before last Friday, has become a lightning rod for grief we didn’t even know we had. This week, for hundreds of thousands of parents and teachers, weeping has become a factor of simply turning on CNN or opening a newspaper. As investigation continues, details emerge and reports pour out, our biggest question is Why?
It’s been revealed that Adam Lanza was a loner, an introvert—that his parents’ divorce left him emotionally scarred, that he had spent years carrying a briefcase to school, that he lived with his mother who’d made it known that she wanted to have him institutionalized. It’s said that he played Call of Duty in his basement, that he’d memorized historical military weapons by name, date and country of origin—that his mother had taken him to a shooting range just days before last Friday. It’s been concluded, tentatively, that Lanza’s unique combination of mental illness, family brokenness and immersion in gun culture led him to plot—to carefully scheme over a period of time, say FBI investigators—one of the most shocking killing sprees in American history.
But sating our legitimate appetite for facts and reasons, forming a forensic theory, listening as psychologists and pundits weigh in, isn’t enough. It never has been. It wasn’t enough after Columbine (1999, 12 high schoolers, one teacher), the Amish school shooting (2006, five little girls), or even the Virginia Tech shooting (2007, 32 college students), the deadliest such spree in U.S. history. Knowing facts and reasons and putting them into historical context relieves immediate pressure but doesn’t even begin to solve the problem of the Newtown parents’ anguish. Or ours. Our deepest why isn’t answered by the identification of temporal causes or the passing of legislative solutions.
It isn’t even enough to declare, as many Christians have, that God’s ways are mysterious—that he’s in control, has a plan and is working everything together for our good. It isn’t enough to say, as some Newtown parents have been saying so beautifully, that the children and their teachers are in heaven now. It’s something, but it isn’t enough, because it doesn’t wipe away last Friday. And it can’t be enough for those of us who sympathize with the parents of Newtown. Our task, even as Christians who know that God is sovereign, is to grieve with them and to be their companions.
This practice of grieving with, or walking alongside, is practically impossible for a nation of more than 300 million people occupying 3.7 million square miles of land, especially when the object of our sympathy is 20 families in a small Connecticut village. We really can’t do anything to help. We can watch, say we’re praying, but we will move on when the next disaster strikes. Our attention span is as long as our news media allow it to be.
But we can grow. We can learn that evil isn’t somewhere else. It isn’t just terrorists, nor is it confined to our blighted cities. It’s here, in our idyllic American hometowns. Nor is it nameless or abstract. It’s the people we grew up with, the children we are raising, the Americans we are: Susan Smith, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Carl Roberts IV, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—Adam Lanza.
The alternative is to remain in a “this kind of thing never happens here” state of mind—and that may be a more pervasive, subtly devastating sort of delusion. The alternative is to act the way we did during the summer of 1994, when, as 800,000 Tutsis were being systematically killed in Rwanda, our eyes were fixed on O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco. We were lamenting Kurt Cobain’s suicide. We were, honestly, on some other planet.
Evil suffuses our planet. The author Spalding Gray, in his powerful film Swimming to Cambodia (1987), attributes the millions killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime to “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia—America.” In early 2004, Gray, a good old New Englander, stepped off the back of the Staten Island Ferry into the East River. His body was discovered days later.
Evil also suffuses us, and humbly recognizing that becomes ground for sympathetic action. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote so memorably in Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through every human heart.” Newtown ought to wake us up to our own problems.
In early 2008, in my own quaint hometown of Kirkwood, Missouri, a frustrated resident named Charles Thornton walked into City Hall and shot seven people, killing five. If we can admit that the enemy is ourselves, we stand a chance at becoming more sympathetic, focused on the immediate task of helping people in need who are geographically close to us: angry, depressed, mentally ill, divorced, stranded, suicidal, materially and morally bankrupt Americans. Yes, there were multiple causes. Yes, policy change is in order, and on multiple fronts. But we ought to know by now that the bad guys aren’t “out there.” They’re right here. They’re us.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).