What to say this morning after yesterday’s horror? I have already been asked, “Where was God?” Last night at services, we hugged our children, we hugged each other, and today we continue to mourn with the people of Newtown and comfort our children.
For parents, this is too close to home. We send our children off to school or sports and we expect them to come home to us safely. There are no words to comfort the families in Newtown, the 20 families whose children did not come home safely yesterday.
Wisely, Jewish tradition teaches that when we approach a mourner, we do not speak to them: we take our cues from them. There is rarely anything we can say beyond, “I’m sorry” or “I love you”.
Last Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke about whether God’s test to Abraham was whether he would eschew violence, especially violence against his family, even if the call came from God. I spoke about the many episodes of mass murder in the past year, and the ways in which we, as a culture or society, had become desensitized to taking another’s life.
Yesterday, it seemed like we as a nation have not become inured to the loss of children’s lives. We seem shaken to the core. But will we as a nation use this to address the violence in our culture, the ready access to assault weapons that do not seem to belong in the hands of anyone except well-trained military personnel. Japan, which cut its murder rate to a fraction, instituted a strict licensing process: people have to take a course, pass a test, pass physical and mental health tests, register with their local police, retake the test every three years, before they can buy a rifle or air gun only. These seem so reasonable to me: before we can drive a car, we have to do many of these things, and a car’s main purpose is not to put a bullet through someone or something. Whether such a regulation could be passed here is a different matter.
In some of my reading and watching and listening since yesterday, I have learned that mass murderers come in three basic varieties: severely mentally ill, amoral sociopaths who don’t care about the violence they inflict, and people with severe depression and suicidal ideation. The last are the most common. Two of the three are clearly a result of the stigma of mental illness and the barriers to seeking care. The third one might be as well.
But the mass murders, like yesterday, are only a small part of our murder rate, and gun violence. Most still remain suicides and homicides. The Atlantic ran an article about the geography of gun violence analyzing CDC data. Poverty and gender and race and education are all associated to homicide. Interestingly, the data for gun violence overall did NOT find a young male predominance. And it “found no association between mental illness, stress, or illegal drug use and gun deaths at the state level.”
Access to guns, to assault weapons, to large piles of ammunition, are all concerns. I am baffled by the idea that another person, however well-intentioned, unless they are a trained sniper, would help a situation like yesterday, rather than add to the chaos and death.
To bring down the level of violence in our nation would require an approach that comes from several directions: education, mental health screening and licensing, gun license processes at least as strict as those for drivers licenses, active programs to alleviate economic and life stress, and a return to values that honor life in general and the life of each individual.
Our ancient rabbis taught that to save a life is to save a whole world and to destroy a life is to destroy a whole world (B. Sanhedrin 37a). They taught that we are—each of us—unique, and each of us is a world unique to itself, with many people who are connected to us, and therefore many lives that will be harmed by our death, especially an early death.
Who knows but that one of the children murdered yesterday would have cured cancer, or become the next Shakespeare, or figured out how to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels? What will be the effect of post traumatic stress on yet another entire community—and their children and their children’s children? How do the children and parents and staff even walk back into the building on Monday, or whenever they decide to reopen school?
To the question of where was God yesterday: God was with the nurse who went to the school to offer her services. God was with the first responders who took the children and staff to safe places in as humane a way as they could. God was with every person who reached out to help, who hugged their own child, called their kids who aren’t at home or called their parents, and reminded them how important they are, how loved they are.
If you are so inclined, you can join me in making a donation to the United Way of Western Connecticut’s fund to help the families of Newtown. If you are so inclined, get involved in your community on a local and state level to start the discussion about how to decrease the violence and the death from violence in our communities. May you find peace in action.