Twisting the Knife

A young man with a gun walks into a school. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

***

Something terrible happened on Friday. It's been unavoidable ever since. For my part, I disconnected from the internet -- from all news and social media -- over the weekend as a defense mechanism, hoping that I could protect myself from all of the horrible about to unfold, and regarding which I could do nothing.

But here I am on Monday, and the news engine is still fueling itself on personal tragedy gradually shading into politics; private grief made a spectacle for... I don't even know what purpose.

And so I have thoughts. Rambling and disconnected, maybe incoherent. Maybe by writing them down, I can exorcise them. Forgive me.

***

First I think: Newtown, Connecticut is not so far from here. Google Maps says it's an hour thirty-eight minutes by car, and that includes driving through Manhattan.

I think about my own children. My little one is six years old. She's a first grader, but on the younger side. In a school district with a different cutoff, she might have been in kindergarten this year. She's so small and warm. Just a baby, really.

***

We try to make sense of things. We try to imagine a world where such a horror is not possible. So we talk about gun control, about how there is no need for personal gun ownership, and how self-defense is a mere red herring.

The Second Amendment was intended for citizens to be able to defend themselves from an oppressive government. The world has changed since then. Now there is a cell phone and ergo 911 in every room to call the police; there are unmanned drones and bunker busters that no mere personal munition could hope to oppose. Perhaps this Constitutional feature has outlived its function.

But then, but then: My mother lives in rural Michigan. The state has been devastated by poverty, its social support systems cut until they've bled dry. There are families, her neighbors, for whom the venison brought in by subsistence hunting, and yes, with guns, is what makes the difference between living through the winter and... maybe not.

It's complicated.

***

The news told me, before I shut my eyes and refused to hear any more, that his mother worked for the school. And just like that, it's too late for me to escape the perils of a vivid imagination. The writer's brain has begun to unpick the tangle of motivations and consequences that led to this moment. 

I wonder: Was he jealous of the children his mother spent time with her students? Did he feel that she loved them more, and himself less? I wonder: How much has that poor boy suffered, living in a brain where this act was the only path he could see to make it better, to make it stop?

***

We talk about mental illness, its causes, its solutions. Perhaps we could identify those likely to become violent and give them treatment before violence has been done.

This would require a social will and buckets of money America has not been able to muster for a generation. Longer than a generation.

In the 1980s, the Federal government under President Reagan defunded swaths of the social welfare system, including the institutions that once served the mentally ill. This was meant as a cost-saving measure clothed in the language of compassion: that the mentally ill would be more comfortable, feel safer, treated more humanely, in the bosom of their families and communities. 

An estimated 250,000 of America's homeless have a serious mental illness. Our prisons hold another 750,000. As with the lack of maintenance on Long Island's electrical grid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those short-term cost savings have been catastrophically eclipsed by long-term consequences, and the human costs they have incurred. 

***

Friday night is the seventh night of Chanukah. We light our candles and give gifts to our children. The writer's brain strikes again: characterizing, humanizing, trying to feel what it would be like if this were me.

The children at Sandy Hook, too, would have had gifts waiting for them. What does a parent do with those ungiven gifts? Do you finish Chanukah? Do you have Christmas this year? Do you ever have it again?

What about your surviving children? All of the other children. How do you explain what happened? How do you help a six-year-old comes to terms with the fact that the world is cold and cruel, and that there are evils nobody can protect you from?

How many will never again feel comfortable in a classroom? How many will never overcome PTSD, never graduate high school? Will the costs of that day end in a year, in a decade, in a lifetime?

***

I pull away from media for a weekend, but of course it isn't enough. On Monday morning, NPR is telling me about a church helping with funeral arrangements for the children. I turn it off again.

And here is another piece of the puzzle, or perhaps another thread in this knot we just can't untie. Grief turned into spectacle. A nation mourning, as though our grief were anything but a pale shadow of the real thing, an imagination game we play at as we hold our own children tight and thank divinity and fortune that they are here when others are not.

News showing little faces, interviewing classmates, as though there were a higher purpose to be served here than ratings and ad revenue. But this is a problem that can't be solved with fundraisers or exposure. All of the empathy in the world cannot make this better, not now. Maybe not ever.

This is a problem that has to be solved. But how can there be a solution, when we cannot even agree as a nation upon the nature of the problem, or even that a problem might exist? 

And yet how can we keep ignoring it, while those small faces flash by on the news, and then are ever gone?