On the Sandy Hook shooting: Emptiness at the core


As we digest the news from the Newtown, Connecticut shooting there is not a parent who is not ravaged deep in their soul at the horror of this event. The reaction so far tells us that this one is different – that this rampage will be the one that finally changes things. I have thought of many things that I want to say to add to the discussion, but all of them feel inadequate.

Let me try to find just a little to add.

The first thought on the minds of many is that we have far too many guns in this nation. I agree with this sentiment, but the guns themselves seem like only a symptom of a much deeper disease. Many people in our nation feel genuinely afraid and find comfort in the ability to project power at some distance. It is also common to believe that violence actually solves problems, that somehow the destruction of another’s body can satisfy the needs of our own minds. Desire for guns seems much closer to the core problem than the guns themselves.

There may be some appropriate laws that come out of this. I don’t want to debate those at this time, but I do ask my liberal friends to understand weapons better and if there is needed legislation to be precise, focused, and to keep their eyes firmly on the prize. Anger lashing out at events is something I want to leave to the Tea Party – Progressives must work to get something done and make real progress.

The need for better mental health resources has also become obvious, given that only someone completely disconnected from reality could possibly do what was done in Newtown. Like any gun issue, correcting this shortcoming in our world will require a lot of thought and understanding of the problem on a very practical level in order to be effective. I hope there is something very positive that can be done.

But these still feel like symptoms. They don’t confront the fear, the anger, and disconnection that defines far too many lives in our world.

When confronting his own reaction to the horrible violence he witnessed in WWII, the great Kurt Vonnegut set out to write a memoir. He soon found that the events that propelled his personality demanded at the very least a deeper understanding. The memories fictionalized into “Slaughterhouse 5”, the tale of being “unstuck in time” as the horrors bubbled up to defined an entire life in uncontrollable ways. At the same time, another work “Separated like oil and water” as he tried to understand how people could come to believe that violence was somehow acceptable. The result was “Breakfast of Champions”, a greatly profound work sometimes buried under its own clowning and ruthless disconnect.

In this novel, Dwayne Hoover is a man successful by any definition of the word – leader in the community, famous, and wealthy. But he is slowly driven insane by the disconnect of his life. What finally puts him over the edge is a piece of pulp SciFi which explains that he is the only actual being in the universe, and that everyone else is an unfeeling robot put here entirely for his amusement.

This ultimate expression of selfishness is nothing more than a reaching Existentialism, the belief that all reality is perceived by the individual from their own perspective. It doesn’t sound like mind poison but it can be in the hands of a culture dedicated to self, gradually sunk in to the point where empathy and compassion are not described as anything other than a weakness or abnormality. Such an empty and narcissistic philosophy now defines who we are as a people, to the extent that there is any way to define us beyond our selves.

It’s worth noting that “Breakfast of Champions” was written 40 years ago. We have seen this coming.

In a world defined this way, violence can solve problems and vulnerable strangers who are struggling are simply not our personal concern. Disconnection is the natural order of things, and those who fall into the spaces inbetween have to find the strength within themselves to pick up and be as selfish as anyone else. Those who cannot, for whatever reason, are left to their own devices.

Some of them “snap”. Their anger and selfishness become even more acute. The power that fits into a fist is the final poison of this world, culminating in an event of pure horror.

Why is there so much fear and anger? Why is there so little compassion and empathy? These questions seem far more compelling than the guns themselves. They are what propel the desire for guns and, on a few horrible days, the slaughter they can cause.

I’d like to know what you think.