Monday, January 14, 2013

What Do We Want?

In the weeks since the tragic Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, we as Americans have done a lot of hand-wringing about gun control and a lot of shopping for guns.  We’ve debated how to make each of our schools an armed fortress to protect our children, and accepted President Obama’s move to create a task force lead by the Vice President to determine the best way(s) to prevent any more such shootings.  The focus has been on guns and how to control access to them and the ammunition that kills.  And I wrote an earlier post about the school shooting. 

Since when have Americans become a society adept at finding ways to not accept responsibility for what our society has become?  We think that if we eliminate the availability of guns, the violence will stop.  Really?  When was the last time you saw a gun all by its lonesome self entering a school and shooting children and adults?  It’s not about the guns, it’s about the people – us, our society.  There are millions of guns already out there and their owners will not be giving them up unless we all make some changes in how we think of ourselves and our society.  What kind of society do we want?  What kind of people do we want to be?

Look at the images of American society that we produce and project out into the world.  On the political side, it’s been about power to protect freedom and the right to make an honest buck.  On the social side, we revel in images of beautiful people, the successful and rich, the young and the healthy.  On TV and in the movies, we glorify the power of violent behavior, the sexual allure of power and violence, and the entertainment value of bad behavior.  It’s not only in video games, folks.  We have a core belief in our society that violence gets the results we want.

We can say all we want that our heritage makes us this way.  Yes, when the Pilgrims landed and the Jamestown settlers landed, they faced all the dangers of the unknown and needed guns for protection and hunting.  Have we clung to that mindset down the centuries and use it now to justify a “right” to own a gun?  What unknown are we facing now?  Why do we need guns now? 

In central Minnesota at Thanksgiving last year, a man shot to death two unarmed teenagers who had entered his home.  Rather than defending his home by stopping one teen with a non-life threatening shot to a leg or arm, and then calling the police, this homeowner shot to kill because he thought he had the right.  He never called the police.  The next day, he told his neighbor what had happened, and the neighbor called the police who found the dead teens in the man’s basement.  The teens were not carrying any weapons.  Because the man shot each unarmed teen multiple times, far exceeding the threshold for self-defense, he’s been charged with murdering them.  This man had a problem – the teens entering his home – that he chose to solve with violence. 

We’ve made violence the easy solution.  Is that what we really want for ourselves?  To live in fear of violence?  Have an issue with your boss?  Use violence to solve it.  Angry about that guy who cut ahead of you on the freeway?  Use violence to teach him a lesson.  Is this really the way we want to live our lives?

Apparently, Adam Lanza was suffering from a mental illness when he shot his mother in her bed then went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 20 children, 6 adults, and finally, himself.  We have created a perfect storm of guns, glorified violence for solving problems, and making it difficult for the mentally ill to get appropriate and effective treatment.  That’s right, we are responsible.  Not the guns.  Not only the politicians and the gun lobbyists.  All of us.

If Adam Lanza had had the flu, his mom would have taken him to see a doctor immediately.  Why isn’t it the same for a mental illness?  We stigmatize the mentally ill, those who seek treatment, and to a certain extent, the science of psychology.  What we need in our society is the same kind of attitude toward mental illness that we have toward physical illness.  We need education about symptoms.  We need social support for both those who have the illness and their family members.  We need accessible treatment options for everyone, not only those who can pay out of pocket once insurance coverage ends, usually long before the treatment is done.  Finally, we need to educate our population about mental illness, its symptoms, and its treatment options.  We need to be a society that cares about people -- all the people, all the time, not when it's convenient for us or benefits us.

What if we as a society choose not to change our attitude and approaches to mental illness?  Then we are suffering from a society-wide mental illness ourselves, rooted in our history and the image of ourselves that comes from the past.  We’re not plugged into our present reality and the need for change.  We continue to do the same thing over and over, expecting different outcomes.  We are allowing our darker side, our violent side, to prevail and govern our society. 

Is that what we really want for ourselves and our children?  

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