Adam Lanza entered a grade school in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday morning, December 14, with multiple weapons where he killed 20 young students, and six adults and then himself just as first responders were about to arrive. Lanza was described as quiet, reclusive, and painfully shy. He apparently had easy access to both hunting weapons as well as assault weapons that were built to discharge multiple rounds within seconds. He chose the latter that morning before proceeding to the school. We will learn more about Adam Lanza in days to come. Nevertheless, we are in the beginning phases of an inevitable search for answers.
Since the Columbine school killings there have been about 30 such events, but not all have involved schools. Some occurred in malls, churches or other public places. Many, but not all, involved young men in “a deeply dark place.” We don’t always know what bothered them, or even if we would easily understand what their concerns were. Lanza, for example, may have left no record, and we’re not in a position to question him.
Young men are obviously troubled by many issues as they mature. They want to make a mark in the world, but may initially be blocked from doing so for many reasons. They may abuse alcohol or readily available hard drugs. They are affected by a difficult social and economic situation, our state of near constant war, a culture pervasive in guns and violence readily accessible in first run movies that not often properly rated, and often quickly make their way to television.
Young people are increasingly facing an uncertain path into the work world out of families where one or both parents may also work less or not at all. This comes after a period when both parents worked, and the family in some cases now struggles to maintain unity and direction. Many have lost social context and orientation. Indeed, because we are now in a time when much more free time is available to the members of families, they are reorganizing the work they do for pay around the work they may have to do for themselves–sometimes these are tasks they might have previously paid someone else to do. Children and young adults have more time on their hands. The change is great and there may be a need for family members to recapitalize themselves socially as we go from over working to perhaps under working. Many have made useful adjustments–many are still working at it.
With stresses on the economy or perhaps even without it, the national dialogue has become very harsh. Politicians need to stop modeling inappropriate behavior both from the extreme right and the extreme left. Discussions focused on cutting social programs make it clear to the young that they will pay more entering their world to both support the elderly and to provide for themselves when they reach that stage of life. Yet at the same time opportunities for the young are declining. Many believe they are “being thrown under the bus.” Whether politicians are talking about significantly decreasing entitlements or self-deportation of immigrants, while protecting maximum tax rates for the very rich–many of whom are building 100 million dollar IRA with their extra money–we see little agreement at the political extremes. These kinds of discussions drive us apart and push upward more stressful feelings among our young . Clearly, we have many problems to solve, but it seems as though we will never get there if we continue to stand on harsh and uncompromising positions.
Where do we go from here? Is it true that we are dealing with an extremely small number of people who are mentally ill or at least on the edge of being very disturbed. Stress contributes to mental illness as we know, and clearly we are living at a stressful time. Difficult socioeconomic conditions in recent years as well as an increasing focus on drugs and violence in the culture may drive some over the edge.
In a country with a population of a bit over 300 million, we know that a small percentage of these individuals will have extremely difficult psychological trauma at some stage of life. Let’s say, just for the purpose of argument that 0.1 percent have the feeling of doing violence to another individual or to a group. If the percentage is that high, that’s 300,000 of the 300 million. Many of these individuals will work through their anger, but some will not and may even deteriorate even further. If they are examined by a mental health care professional, they would likely be recognized as mentally ill and a potential danger to themselves and others. Let’s say for the purpose of argument that this group represents about 0.1 percent of the 300,000 noted above, or about 300. Not all of them will turn into mass murderers, but this is the group from which a future Adam Lanza will come. We don’t really know if that group is 300, less or considerably more. I’m just making what I consider to be a reasonable initial estimate for purposes of discussion.
In the past, when we had many mentally ill people institutionalized many more than those identified above were under lock and key often in state run mental hospitals. Many were not actually a danger to themselves or others. They were just seriously malfunctioning, and were thought not to able to organize their affairs on the outside. The potentially criminally insane (those I mostly noted above) occasionally did harm to others and were put into a prison for the criminally insane. Some may have killed more than one or two, but were generally not involved in the kind of high profile mass murder that we have seen at Newtown, Virginia Tech and Columbine.
What we will do and when in regard to stopping or lowering the incidence of this form of mass murder I cannot say. I seems that those who have talked and written about the issue in the wake of the events at Newtown believe that everything should be “on the table.” This will mean consideration of some kind of re-instituted ban on assault weapons. It may mean armed guards in or in the vicinity of schools. It may also mean some kind of new effort to identify the extremely small number of mentally deranged individuals capable of perpetrating such crimes. I hope it will mean that we can return in some way to communicating with each other more cordially, especially in connection with our political discussions and in talking about economic policies.