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Some Late Thoughts on Newtown

January 14, 2013
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In the wake of terrible crimes (I hesitate to use the term “tragedy” the term suggests an act of nature rather than of humanity) we are driven to understand the circumstances. In part, we try to convince ourselves that it can’t happen to us. In part, we attempt to distance it from ourselves as something alien to us. Listening to the radio today I was frustrated. Once again, we have people taking turns pointing at one another and blaming each other for it. “It’s gun nuts.” “It’s a culture of violence.” “It’s the mentally ill.” “It’s atheists.” “It’s people in big cities.” In the end, everyone finds a particular trait they can point to in the perpetrator that coincidentally they do not share. It is that trait, a foreign trait, that made it possible.

So, we do our best to not identify with the kind of person who would do something like this. Of course, this means taking somebody else and blaming them, or someone like them. Then, those persons take offense, get defensive and turn the blame on others. So, we have some people asking for a registry of all guns (and all gun owners). In reaction, those gun owners see this as an insult so they ask for a registry of all persons with mental illness.

The initial urge is to place blame, and to place it on someone different than “us”. Everyone is arguing this in terms of identity, that is, in terms of some immutable and necessary part of someone, as if there were good people and bad people and there is no crossover. A recent article I felt touched on this well, focusing on issues of race, but I think it misses a larger point. Fact is, all of us want to take these things and place them as far away from ourselves and those like us as possible. The reasons are many but come down to a desire to help us believe that 1. nothing like this will ever happen to us or those close to us and 2. we, those like us, and those close to us are incapable of these things therefore we are safe and essentially “good”. In fact, they are the result of people easily identified as different from us, and coincidentally are people we already don’t feel comfortable with. So, arguments from the left suggest gun nuts, religious fundamentalists or conservatives are to blame. Arguments from the right suggest secularists, atheists, liberal society, city dwellers or the mentally ill are at fault. In the end, people pick the persons they already don’t trust and (more importantly) see as different from themselves as the guilty parties. Resulting in no changes, but that in itself is comforting.

Problem is, of course that nothing changes.

The impulse is human. We draw convenient circles around ourselves that include us and those we love as worthy of life, freedom and care and those outside these circles are excluded. Some draw the line largely, including all persons (some even include animals) but excluding those of certain nationalities, religions or just those guilty of some crimes. These are impulses of tribalism or family (where the worst criminals are described sometimes as being kind to his/her family or friends). The result is we cordone off areas where people are no longer worthy of life and we can end their lives, or seriously restrict them and still be righteous persons. Sometimes this makes sense, as in times of war, or when dealing with serial killers or tyrants. Other times it does not, say when we decide on the necessity and righteousness of lobotomizing or stigmatizing the mentally ill or taking away firearms. Some persons draw the line very strictly and find only themselves to be worthy of life. We tend to call these persons sociopaths, but even they often find some persons, maybe family, maybe those loyal to them or under their control, as worthy of protection and mercy.

But, it is this impulse that is the ultimate problem. Freud, reeling from the inhumanity of the First World War and his own self destructive addictions called it “Thanatos“, the death drive, the urge to kill and die. He saw it as a necessary drive within all humans causing much of our turmoil, within ourselves and between one another. One of his acolytes, Carl Jung went further and saw a “shadow” full of the negative aspects of ourselves that we would see in others and use as a focus both of our self hatred and anger at the world. What frightens and angers us about persons who would use guns to hurt others is their capacity for evil, their ability to shut off empathy and care for those they see as different from themselves and do great harm. So, what do we do but the same thing, partitioning off a part of humanity that we see as similar to the perpetrators (gun nuts, the mentally ill, people who don’t pray enough or to the “right” God) and finding them deficient. Deficient enough to no longer be considered human and therefore not worthy of life or freedom. But, it is this exact impulse that causes these things in the first place and which we must deal with.

Jung believed that the only way to deal with the shadow self was to accept the darkness in it as a part of ourselves. We must accept this impulse in order to gain mastery of it. As long as we pretend it is alien and not a part of us we will be subject to its irrationality. I see it every time I hear someone place blame on someone else. It is not because people are obsessed with guns, or are paranoid, it is not because people are mentally ill, it is not because people are not praying adequately. It is because we are human that these things happen. It may be a necessary part of being human, and until we come to grips with that fact, we will be futilely arguing over which of us is to blame rather than clinging to one another when the darkness touches us again.

Fact is, I don’t have answers, but I know that in the wake of each of these crimes I find myself wanting to blame people not like me. I want to take control of those who are different, intimidating or scary and limit their freedoms. I have the urge to draw a tight line around myself, those close to me and those like us and say “We are good. You others are not.” Yet I know this impulse is destructive and ultimately the cause of these crimes. So, I will not. At least, I will try.

That does not mean I feel we should do nothing, but we need to be calm and rational about it. Directories of persons (whether gun owners or the mentally ill) are just categories of blamed “others” and an exercise in self-delusion. But something could be done. What that is, I am not sure, but it feels to me it must be tied to the idea that this is part of our human condition and the urge to kill and die will always be with us. We must either accept this as inevitable or attempt to lessen the potential harm that may be done. Probably both.

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