Thirty years of opinion polling taught me a lot of things, the most important ones of which have almost nothing to do with the particular business or political or cultural subject about which any given poll is taken. The important lessons are much broader and deeper, and reveal far more about us than what politician we like or don’t, or what product we buy or won’t, or any such relative trivia. Perhaps the most important thing I learned is how much it takes to move us … to stir us from our complacency and intransigence. I learned that for America to really change a thing takes a lot … a whole lot.
I am wondering, now aloud with each of you, if the inexplicable and indescribable horror of Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 will be one of those very rare causes, marked, as seems often the case, by a single event. This episode feels cataclysmic today, and I believe will feel the same for a long time. By definition, though, if this episode is indeed cataclysmic, it must bring great change. On Friday, in millions of our homes, America began the process of determining if this is that.
These victims of something which seems to be eating away at our country were 20 American babies, 6- and 7-years-old. We now know their names, and have seen many of their pictured faces and smiles, and some of their crying and devastated moms and dads and grandparents and friends. Taken along with them by the gunman’s hundred-plus bullets were 6 adults who are paid to teach and counsel and nurse them and administer their school. When his bullets finally flew no more, 20-year-old Adam Lanza had opened this demonstration of human evil with the killing of his mother, closed it with the killing of himself, and filled-in the middle with a time-freezing rampage as awful in its own way as any America has known.
It isn’t that children haven’t been killed before in such tragedies, because they have. Rather, this may prove to be our national wake-up call because this time, for the first time, very young children were the specific targets of the evil. If we fail to respond in some marked and provable way this time, what does that make us?
While many will quickly issue polemics about guns and their control, or individual rights and their violation, Newtown is far, far more than a stage set yet again for the same old same old political yammering. Young Mr. Lanza’s weapons were his mom’s, legally purchased and registered in an American state with “gun laws” about as tough as we have. Media reports mention that Ms. Lanza was fearful of life in today’s America, arming herself and practicing her shooting accordingly, unaware that the personification of her fear was a young man to whom she had given life, living under her very roof.
Short of instantly removing all handguns with the snap of our fingers, including from criminals, this cultural nightmare in America is now, many of us fear and believe, beyond that debate. What about, after all, a culture in which video games and music and movies condone, if not glorify, self-indulgence and violence and hate of every imaginable sort? Where do we find a place in our list of societal ills for our growing absence of respect for a basic work ethic? How much do we think it matters that a significant percentage of us believe it is the government’s job to care for us from birth to death? What about our children’s easy access to drugs, of all kinds, legal and illegal? What about all the ways we teach our children that “family” is a concept no longer worthy of particular attention, much less something to which we should resolutely commit? And, how much less time do parents spend with their children than in previous generations?
Living among the 315,000,000 of us in America are many deeply troubled young men who may be the next Adam Lanza. We don’t have to be mental health professionals to know their profile. These are smart, very withdrawn, young men. They have obvious psychological problems well-known to family and, usually, professional educators at their schools. They spend extraordinary amounts of time in their world of electronic devices, noticeably possessing relatively few social skills. They, in fact, hide in plain sight, recognizable in their discomfort. Though they almost always do, they should never have easy access to guns.
From what I hear, see and read, America is a nation aware that we are in unusual trouble. We care, yet we cannot find our way to solutions to our problems, some of which may be so corrosive as to prove existential. In such times throughout our history, our leaders have ultimately done what they are elected to do: they lead. The absence of that leadership is, I believe, the key. As President Obama visits Newtown on Sunday, most will listen to his words with an awareness that he is doing what Presidents nowadays do in such tragic circumstances: they show up and talk, with prime attention on schedule, make-up, dress, camera-angles and the like. What we need is for them to prove to us – clearly – that action follows such horror; that partisan warfare can at least cease long enough for the nation to come together to solve a problem as obvious and pressing as this one.
If we can put TSA and the rest of today’s airport security apparatus together as we did after 9-11, why can’t we find a way to identify and help the many Adam Lanzas among us? We can, of course, we just haven’t. That, too, is our fault. Just as it is our children and students and neighbors who are not appropriately identified as needing help before they kill, so is it the men and women we elect who so consistently fail to lead.
In this need, there is no external threat at which to patriotically wave American flags, and neither is there any obvious advantage or disadvantage to either political party. No one politician or another will be able to claim superiority in any aspect. This is different. This is using political power to take existing people and programs and work out a specific protocol to identify and help a clearly identifiable population of very troubled and dangerous people who are tomorrow’s tragedies waiting to befall us.
If we do this, it will always be remembered simply as “after Newtown.” It won’t bring these babies and their protectors back to their families or to us, but it will redefine their loss and absence as the price their families and we paid to prove America can still manage to be the America we love.
Elliott StonecipherElliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest. No compensation of any kind has been solicited or accepted for this work. This work is protected, and no other use of it is permitted without the written consent of Mr. Stonecipher.