The politicization of tragedy

AP Rain soaks parts of a memorial to the Newtown shooting victims in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., … Continued


Rain soaks parts of a memorial to the Newtown shooting victims in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.

In the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the nation is desperately searching for answers, solutions and a corrective path forward. While shock and immense sadness immediately set in, so did fierce debate over gun control and whether the U.S. needs more restrictive legislation. Within mere moments, one of the country’s most horrific massacres became political fodder, as intense emotion drove much of the discussion.

Both sides of the debate immediately hunkered down, spouting their traditional talking points and digging their heels in on expected policy stances. But by debating first and foremost about amending firearm laws, these individuals have been touting quick, yet haphazard, “fixes” to a very complex and multi-layered problem. More importantly, those embroiled in this mostly shrewd discussion have been completely overlooking the two larger causal issues at play – our increasingly devolving culture and the way in which society tackles mental illness.

Frankly, it is irresponsible to exclusively blame guns for the immense violence and horror that was observed last Friday and on many occasions preceding the tragic event. While firearms certainly deserve scrutiny and rational consideration, there are far more pertinent issues to contend with – subjects that call upon Americans to give themselves a serious gut check.

If one is truly attempting to understand the macro factors that contribute to horrific acts of violence, he or she must first look at the two key areas I’ve already highlighted: Culture and the way the mentally ill are treated. Then – after exploring these issues – the accessibility of guns is certainly worth speaking about. However, you can’t fix the issues associated with gun violence, at least comprehensively, without addressing the first two elements.

Clearly, the U.S. is facing a cultural crisis. Faith and religion are on the decline (i.e. the rise of the so-called “nones”) and secularism seems to be gaining traction, as morals and ethics are simultaneously disintegrating. Even if one rejects religious adherence and dismisses the existence of a higher power, there are other more universal issues to consider.

There’s no questioning that America has some troubling indicators surrounding morality and personal responsibility worth exploring. From the sexual nature of popular media to the prominence of violence in video games and entertainment, the content that is being force-fed to young people is anything but enriching. Kids and teens are increasingly self-medicating, using and abusing drugs and consuming negative music and entertainment.

Television shows and films trash traditional values, while simultaneously normalizing behaviors that, in the real world, hold very real consequences. Bullying has hit a fever pitch, with children and teens so unable to handle the torment that stories of youths taking their own lives have become commonplace. And these are only some of the issues worth noting.

There’s so much wrong with our culture that it’s practically impossible to summarize in short-form. When young people are exposed to sexualized music, violent video games and programs that irresponsibly show them how not to behave like responsible human beings (i.e. “Jersey Shore”) – and the themes within these forms of entertainment are incessantly reinforced – how can they then be expected to escape unscathed?

It’s easy to look past culture, especially when looking for an easy solution, but, unfortunately, it’s the main ingredient for a vibrant and cohesive society – and ours, in its current state, can only be described as dangerously anemic. Rather than leading exclusively with discussions about gun control, why are we not discussing the lack of compassion and empathy among many young people (and adults, for that matter) — and the overall desensitization that exists in our society?

After cultural considerations should come a very real conversation about the treatment of the mentally ill. All-too-often there are stigmas associated with mental health issues. Furthermore, families tend to struggle with obtaining diagnoses, affording care and managing the intense chaos that can come from caring for a sick loved one. As a society, America needs to have a more insightful debate about how to help these families, while also confronting the threats that can result in rare instances when individuals like Adam Lanza decide to act out.

Take, for instance, Liza Long, the mother of a mentally ill teenager who wrote a recent viral blog entry about her experience coping with the situation. While many critics felt that Long was exploiting the Sandy Hook shooting for person gain, others admired her courage in coming forward, describing her son’s terrifying and threatening behavior and advocating for a discussion on the matter.

Regardless of one’s views about Long, she has at least one valid point: It is time for the U.S. to brainstorm better ways to care for those facing mental incapacities, while also helping their family members in the process. How can people who are ill be offered the proper care? What does a solid mental health care system look like? These are just a few of the questions we need to be asking ourselves.

If culture and care for the mentally ill were kept in check, there would be limited need to monitor and amend gun policy. While we may never reach a utopia on these issues, there’s plenty that we can – and should — do to make an effort to improve in these areas and to turn back toward a more sane and just society.

As for guns, both sides would be wise to come together to have a rational discussion about the current regulatory structures and what can be done to continue affording Second Amendment rights, while simultaneously ensuring the safety of the American people in schools, movie theaters and beyond. Common ground is key. But before getting consumed by this issue, let’s take a look at what’s really wrong with our society.

Billy Hallowell

is a journalist and the faith editor at



Related content on On Faith:

* Dixon: Idolatry of the gun

* Quinn: Obama leans on faith in Newtown

* Quinn: Where was God? | Dolan praises Sandy Hook teacher

* Thistlethwaite:Obama gives voice to the new national determination on gun control

* National Cathedral dean: ‘… the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby’

* Chat transcript with Brad Hirschfield | Love more important than explanations

* Graham: Why the shock and awe?

* Huckabee: Sandy Hook shooting not surprising after God ‘removed from our schools’

* Wintz: Quit using ‘loss’ when referring to death

* Pace: Comfort the grieving

* Stanley: In tragedy we grieve; in God, we hope

* Quinn: Where was God?

* Kaur: Journey from Oak Creek to Newtown

* Muhammad: When bad things happen to good people, maintain trust in God

* Thistlethwaite:God weeps: 27 children, staff killed in Conn. school shooting

* Md. pastors were searching for solutions even before mass shooting

* Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shocks a nation

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  • jsmith4

    This column is a bunch of evasion and claptrap.

    Japan, the home of violent video games, where 8% of people say they believe in God, has a gun death rate that is a small fraction of the US’s. The situation is mirrored in most other developed countries.

    It is politically impossible to get rid of guns in the US as they have done in Japan and the UK. But if it were possible, gun deaths would be a tiny fraction of what they are now.

  • sophiakatesivan

    Thanks for the sanity!

  • Rob29

    “Both sides of the debate immediately hunkered down, spouting their traditional talking points and digging their heels in on expected policy stances.”

    Actually, that’s not true. The only ones who “immediately” leapt at the opportunity to exploit this tragedy for political gain was the anti-gun side. You and the rest of the media in fact criticized the pro-gun side for not immediately making statements and instead allowing a few days to pass before making more considered remarks about how to address the issue of school safety. The anti-gun side, however was within seconds ghoulishly trumpeting this as a perfect opportunity to trot out their tired wish-lists of anti-gun legislation.

  • Rob29

    Japan also has a low rate of stabbings, a low rate of robberies, a low rate of non-armed assaults, and in fact even an extremely low rate of prison violence (unlike prisons in the US, where guns aren’t allowed either). So what does any of THAT have to do with their gun laws? They do, on the other hand, have a murder rate that is almost exactly the same as their robbery rate, unlike almost any other country in the world, where typically murder is 20-40 times lower than murder, and they also have a suicide rate that is more than double that of the US. Oh, and confessions tortured from suspects are admissible in their courts, despite laws against it and years of protest by human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

    So maybe, just MAYBE, Japan’s low violent crime rate is because of some fundamental cultural difference, in a country that was only just over 100 years ago still in its medieval feudal phase and falsely sees itself as completely racially homogenous, and has nothing at all to do with gun control. But no, of course an issue such as societal violence couldn’t possibly be anymore complicated than the passage of one single law.

  • Rob29

    Sorry, should read “where typically murder is 20-40 times lower than robbery”.

  • jsmith4

    OK Rob, if you don’t like the Japan comparison
    how about the 30 other European (largely) developed countries such as Great Britain, which have lots of cultural similarities, but have murder rates one tenth of the US’s.

    It is delusional not to see the correlation between the availability of guns and murder rates. And it is also delusional to deny that assault weapons can be much more tragic in mass killings.

  • ron9598

    You don’t have to have a badge to be a good guy with a gun.
    And NRA’s Lapierre was spot-on talking about all of the violent, trashy media that is being churned out. Something is ‘inspiring’ these mentally unstable people to commit these horrific killings.

  • jsmith4

    Trouble is, Ron, ALL the evidence is *against* you. (do you look at evidence?)
    In every other developed country (that’s about 30)
    ** NON-belief in God (“Godlessness”) is much higher than in the US
    ** Video games are roughly as prevalent (Japan invented them)

    and YET, their murder rates are about one-tenth of the US, and their murder rates from guns are non-existent.

    Wake up. Look at the world outside your bubble.

  • edbyronadams

    The aspect of the politics of this situation that interests me is the immediate polarization. Instead of some consensus on the gun issue or the mental health issue or the video game issue, the debate has immediately polarized around the gun issue only and politics being what it is, any legislation will just trim around the edges of a dangerous oversupply of firearms in this nation.

    Meanwhile, the other issues will not get any action and the primary problem, as I see it as well as the author, the demise of spiritual values in this country will continue unabated.


    Lanza didn’t use a videogame to shoot those little kids.

    A sexy movie didn’t send pieces of metal ripping through their bodies.

    A lack of “spiritual values” – whatever those are – didn’t tear into their internal organs.

    It was already politicized.


    Why don’t we ask Trayvon Martin about the “good guy with a gun” myth?

    Oh. We can’t. He’s dead, shot by a wannabe cop gun nut with that myth running wild in his head.

  • jarandeh

    Our world has gotten better because people have *worked* to make it better.

    Attempting to prevent more suffering by searching for rational solutions is how reasonable grown-ups respond to tragedy.

    Grief is natural. But grief alone is a useless and unacceptable strategy.

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