A Strange New World

It was perhaps fitting that on the day the Danbury state’s attorney released his report on last year’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, New Haven was under siege. It’s a sign of the times, isn’t it? Random acts of violence, amorphous terror and, always, armed men on the move, peering around corners, banging on doors, rushing grimly through the streets?

Welcome to the 21st century.

I was in Bridgeport the day the report came out. My phone erupted with calls from friends in New Haven. There were helicopters in the sky, police everywhere, businesses were locked down. All this as lawmen looked for a suspected gunmen on the campus of Yale University. It turns out, there was no gunman, at least no gunman that anyone is talking about. The incident has been chalked up as a hoax, someone’s twisted idea of just what, exactly?

That evening, I read the 40-odd page report on the elementary school shooting with an urgency all my own. When I had finished, I sat back, wondering at the time wasted looking for answers. What did I expect to find in the dry, bureaucratic prose? An answer? Some explanation for why a 20-something kid armed himself for the end of the world and then stormed an elementary school, killing 20 children and six adults before putting a bullet in his own head?

What I learned is that the shooter, as he is referred to in the report, was a 20-year-old kid living at home with his mother. Adam Lanza had become a recluse in the months leading up the shooting, holing himself up in a bedroom and computer room with windows covered by black plastic garbage bags, the better to keep out the light. He would only communicate with his mother, who lived in the same house and slept in a room adjacent to his, by way of a computer. She prepared him special meals, did his laundry, ran interference for him. Why, she even planned to purchase another gun for him at Christmas.

In hindsight, it was a perfect storm waiting to happen, wasn’t it? All the signs were there. We missed them, just as we missed the warning signs when al-Qaida struck the Twin Towers in New York. Just like we missed Lee Harvey Oswald. Hindsight is perfect.

Everyone has an answer about how to prevent the next Newtown. Throw away all the guns. (A move I favor, but for reasons having more to do with the silent race war in the inner cities, the war in which gunmakers profit by flooding the streets with guns, and we let young men of color off one another, with the survivors going to another profit center, prison.) Get treatment for the mentally ill. Make parents accountable.

“Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” Translated into American idiom: hindsight is 20/20.

Psycho-dramatists call the urge to do something in the wake of some horrible event “act hunger.” Something primal is stirred with in us. We must respond, to keep fear in check, to bind anxiety to some project, to transform rage into some constructive force. It matters less what we do than that we do something.

“What can we do to stop these kind of things from happening?” a radio host asked the morning after the Yale siege and the release of the Newtown report.

“Not much,” I said. “What’s important is that we keep our wits and not over-react.”

“Over-react?” he said, incredulously.

“Well, what would you like us to do as a society? Shall we put a video camera and audio recorder on every corner, equip them with voice- and face-recognition software, and wire them up to some central office somewhere so that the moment someone is out of line we can send a SWAT team to get them? Would that make you feel safe enough?”

The conversation ended quickly, another friendship strained.

Adam Lanza had mental-health issues. But that didn’t make him a killer. To suggest that mental illness yields murder would be to create a world in which millions of Americans who suffer are regarded as incipient killers. We know better.

And what of the prankster who called in the report of a gunman at Yale? Was he, too, ill? Or was he just angry? I like to think he was a satirist, who looked at the great urgency we express in the face of the ineffable and wanted to see us all get dressed up with no place to go. There’s a manhunt on for the caller, I suspect: I can almost hear federal prosecutors typing grand jury subpoenas for phone records far and wide. Some poor schmuck will be arrested and held out for public view, all in the name of that mysterious quality we call “justice.”

Crimes of violence are decreasing, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, yet there seem to be more reports of mass shootings than ever. Gun sales are on the rise. We entertain ourselves with visions of zombies and talk of the apocalypse. There’s a worm twisting in all of us, a worm we serve without naming it. Once, we looked to the future with confidence; we look forward now in fear, preparing, perhaps hoping, for an end.

I am tempted sometimes to believe in meaningful general trends.

Opposing immigration reform, hating a government that provides a helping hand to those in need, arming to the teeth, preparing for the end of the world, regarding others as flesh-eating zombies? Why, that’s the white man choking as he faces the inevitable loss of the privilege that comes of being a majority in this country. We white guys will be a minority in the United States in a few short decades; better to destroy a world one can no longer master.

Begone dread paranoia. Be reasonable. Hold your ground as the world swirls.

The center no longer holds. Indeed, there is no center. We all stumble along, hunkering down between disasters we call tragedies long after having loss confidence in any sense of the good. Welcome to the 21st century, I say. Something is happening here, what it is, well, that’s not exactly clear.

Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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