It is difficult for us to process the fact that one person would intentionally kill almost thirty people at one time, twenty of the victims grade-school children. But that is exactly what happened a week ago in Newtown, Connecticut.
While death surrounds us on a daily basis, mass-murder and large-scale disaster are especially troubling for us for many reasons, not the least of which is the mere fact that the body count is high, and readily observable. We are somewhat capable of understanding when one man kills another in the heat of passion, but when one man kills dozens of people who don’t even know him, we find it much more difficult to comprehend. We are somewhat capable of handling one man drowning in the surf, but when a tsunami kills thousands, we find the carnage shocking.
There is nothing wrong with that. Death of fellow humans on a mass scale is difficult enough in wartime, when death is expected, but when it is unexpected — as in the case of school murders or tsunami casualties — the scale of death makes it even harder to find, or even desire, satisfactory explanation.
Which is why we tend to avoid understanding and opt instead for action. Frequently, though, our action or decisions occur during the midst of tragedy and the grief that surrounds it. There are several reasons that we should avoid making certain decisions while we are too close to tragedy.
1. Tragedy Affects Our Perspective
Because the immediacy and immanence of death and other tragedy loom so large, it is natural for them to take on a significance that for a time displaces other concerns. For those suffering the death of a loved family member, for instance, prior concerns about career or finances are momentarily of no concern.
But the immanence of tragedy does not only displace concerns of other types. It also tends to displace the same type of tragedy suffered by others. Twenty children and six adults died at the hands of the murdered in Newtown, Connecticut. Many more die each day in car accidents, may more are aborted each day, and many more children die each month by drowning. The carnage of automobile death on an annual basis is no less grievous because it distributed throughout the year; it’s simply less visible.
Because of this distortion in our perspective, we should avoid making decisions about policy while suffering the effects of grief or emergency. For example, if I observe looters approaching my home, I hide the valuables and bar the door; I don’t call my congressman to discuss the crowd control and assembly laws.
2. Tragedy Offers Easy Targets
In the midst of tragedy the temptation will be to do something, anything, to ensure that this sort of thing “never happens again.” But with a perspective distorted by grief, we might fall victim to one of two errors. First, we might wrongly conclude that this sort of thing can be prevented. Second, we might wrongly determine what would actually prevent it.
This particular danger becomes more pronounced when politicians seek to gain mileage for their causes. Recently government officials have expressed their opinion that politicians should not let crisis “go to waste,” and that the Newtown, Connecticut massacre particularly be “exploited” by the current administration for political purposes.
In the midst of tragedy, we should resist hastily casting about for boogeymen to target, such as violent video games, deficient mental health services, and scary-looking firearms. Instead, the better course is to protect lives and bind wounds in the present before seeking to solve all problems in the future.
3. Tragedy Obscures Real Problems
In addition to offering easy, false targets, tragedy tends to obscure the real problems from our field of vision. Should we decide that the number of annual automobile deaths is unacceptable, the real problem is not likely the car. Or, if it is, we will decide that it is not the problem that we want to solve out of the equation. Instead, given that we want to keep the car, we look to other safety matters such as road conditions, driver ability and sobriety, and crash-worthiness.
In the case of mass murder, the easy target is the tool used by the killer or the mental health services provided him. The real problem, however, might lie completely elsewhere. As we have seen in recent events, tragedy tends to prevent us from considering other factors: mass shootings tend to occur at “soft targets” — movie theaters and schools where there is not likely to be much resistance; this lack of resistance is advertised to the bad guys with signs such as “This school is a gun-free zone”; those given responsibility over “soft targets” are not themselves allowed to carry firearms; “mental health” services offered to troubled people typically don’t include the notion of personal responsibility for sin; the eviction of religious orthodoxy from public schools leaves troubled students with no concept of God’s command, “thou shalt not murder.”
I do not offer a solution to the problem of the mass murder in Newtown. One primary reason is the glaring fact that the “solutions” offered by the “experts” and politicians — including the assault-weapons ban in effect at the time the Connecticut massacre occurred — did not prevent this one.
What I do offer is the orthodox belief of the Christian church that the death, disease and disaster that currently plague the world are the result of original sin and the individual wickedness that are in the hearts of all of us. We should remember, too, that it is not only those who commit mass murder who are effected by sin, but also those who would propose grand solutions to prevent their offenses.