Responding to the Unspeakable Killings at Newtown, Connecticut

ANGLO AMERICA, 24 Dec 2012

Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

Once again, perhaps in the most anguishing manner ever, the deadly shooting of 20 children (and 8 adults) between the ages of 5 and 10 at the Newton, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School, has left America in a stunned posture of tragic bemusement. Why should such incidents be happening here, especially in such a peaceful and affluent town? The shock is accompanied by spontaneous outpourings of grief, bewilderment, empathy, communal espirit, and a sense of national tragedy. Such an unavoidably dark mood is officially confirmed by the well-crafted emotional message of the president, Barack Obama.

The template of response has become a national liturgy in light of the dismal pattern of public response: media sensationalism of a totalizing kind, at once enveloping, sentimental, and tasteless (endless interviewing of surviving children and teachers, and even family members of victims), but dutifully avoiding deeper questions relating to guns, violence, and cultural stimulants and conditioning. What are called ‘difficult issues’ in the media reduce to what some refer to as ‘reasonable gun control’ (that is, a ban on assault weapons, large magazine clips, and somewhat stiffer gun registration rules) and to improved procedures for identifying those suffering the kind of mental disorders that could erupt in violent sociopathic behavior. These are sensible steps to take, but so far below the level of credible diagnosis as to promote collective denial rather than constituting a responsible effort to restore a semblance of security to our most cherished institutions (schools, churches, family dwellings). It is ironically relevant that almost simultaneous with the massacre at Newtown there occurred an attack on children in an elementary school in the Chinese city of Xinyang in the province of Henan, approximately 300 miles south of Beijing. The attacker slashed 22 children with a knife, and significantly there were no fatalities, suggesting the important differences in outcome that reflect the weapons deployed by an assailant. Although this is an anecdotal bit of evidence, it is suggestive that strict gun control is the least that should be done in light of recent experience, with seven instances of mass violence reported in the United States during 2012. It should be noted that Connecticut was one of the few states in the country that had enacted ‘reasonable’ gun control laws, but clearly without a sufficient impact.

If what is being proposed by politicians and pundits is so far below what seems prudent there is fostered a societal illusion of problem-solving while sidestepping the deeper causes, and the truly ‘difficult issues.’ It would be a mistake to attribute the overall concerns entirely to the violent texture of the American public imagination, but surely inquiry must address this atrocity-inducing cultural environment. America leads the world in per capita gun possession, violent crime, and prison population, and is among the few developed countries that continues to impose capital punishment. Beyond this, America vindicates torture and glamorizes violence in films, video games, and popular culture. Political leaders support ‘enhanced interrogation’ of terror suspects, and claim an authority to order the execution of alleged terrorist advocates in foreign countries by drone strikes oblivious to the sovereign rights of foreign states, a practice that if attempted against American targets would produce a massive retaliatory response preceded by an outburst of self-righteous outrage. At work, here, is American exceptionalism when it comes to lethal violence, with a claimed right to do unto others what others are forbidden to do unto us, a defiance of that most fundamental norm of civilized peoples an inversion of ‘the golden rule’ and basic biblical commandments.

There are other features of American political culture that are disturbing, including the uncritical celebration of American soldiers as ‘the finest young Americans,’ ‘true heroes,’ and the like. Or of America as the greatest country that ever existed, such a claim especially in light of recent history, is a rather pure form of hubris long understood as the fallibility that comes with excessive individual or collective inability to recognize and correct one’s own faults. It is certainly true that the government is asking American servicemen to risk their lives and mental health in ambiguous circumstances that produce aberrant behavior. To undertake counterinsurgency missions in distant countries at a lesser stage of development and much different cultural standards invites deep confusion, incites national resistance and hatred in the combat zones, and prompts responses driven by fear and rage. Recall such incidents in Afghanistan as American servicemen urinating on dead Afghan corpses, burning the Koran, and random shootings of Afghan unarmed villagers. In effect, this ethos of violence against others, constrained by the most minimal standards of accountability has to be part of the violence inducing behavior that is these days haunting civic life here in America.

In effect, until we as Americans look in the mirror with a critical eye we will not begin to comprehend the violence of Newtown, Portland, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Columbine, Virginia Tech. No amount of tears, however genuine, can make our children and citizens safer in the future, and even gestures of gun control seem likely, if treated as solutions rather than palliatives, are likely to be no more than a spit in a national ocean of sanctioned violence. What may be most depressing is that it seems ‘utopian,’ that is, beyond the horizon of possibility, to advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment on the right to bear arms or to renounce the kill doctrines associated with drone warfare or counterinsurgency rules of engagement.  Only moves of such magnitude would exhibit the political will to take measures commensurate with this disruptive and horrifying pattern of violence that has been an increasing source of national torment.

President Obama has called, as he has on prior occasions, for “meaningful action,” which is too vague to be of much encouragement. Almost certainly the main effort in American public space will be to explore the individuality of this shocking crime by way of mental disorder or tensions at home rather than to address its systemic character, which remains a taboo inquiry.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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2 Responses to “Responding to the Unspeakable Killings at Newtown, Connecticut”

  1. Poka Laenui says:

    I make this post with apologies for doing so as a repeat of a comment to an earlier article on the same topic – After Newton: Shifting the Structure and Culture of Violence to Peace by Marianne Perez de Fransius

    One of the dangers of the way we deal with violence is to individualize it, i.e., to treat it as an individual occurrence and to focus on an individual perpetrator. The more people killed or maimed, the more horrendous the event, we again separate it from the rest of the society and individualize responsibility or liability to the principle actor. Having done so, we than begin to pick and choose one or another differentiating characteristic between the perpetrator and the rest of “us.” This becomes the salve we use to sooth us into believing that we are not like “them.” We’ve done that separation and differentiating with race, with religion, with political systems, with economic status, and with mental illness. It’s all part of the game of stigmatizing. The underlying game is one of denial and avoidance of the reality that the culture of violence is pervasive, and that we have all engaged in it.

    As a result, the society begins the discussion of how do we treat “them” more appropriately so that we can overcome such incidents of violence. We should have better ways of identifying such individuals, and either treat, separate, or discriminate against them. In the 2nd World War, it was to round up the Japanese and concentrate them in camps where we can keep our eyes on them. In an earlier time of colonization, it was to change the indigenous peoples into Christians and if that fails, kill them off or take away their sources of survival, as we have seen across the Americas, Australia, Scandinavia, Hawaii, etc. It was part of the same mentality with Joseph McCarthy and that era of hunting Communist and sympathizers, (today substitute Muslim terrorists and their sympathizers). Yet another basis of such discrimination is when we demean and blame the homeless for ruining our tourist economy, for all the crimes on the streets, for the drug dealings and violence. (“If only they would get a job” is the suggested panacea.)
    The current school shooting is yet another example of short sighted approaches to society’s violence by focusing on the difference between the shooter (his mental health) and the larger society, essentially asking how do we cast a large enough net to catch more people like the shooter and treat and/or separate them from the rest of us. By this differentiation, we successfully separate and absolve ourselves from that act of violence.

    This is like passengers arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic as it sinks into the sea.
    We are being swallowed up by a deep culture which praises Domination, Individualism, and Exclusion, establishing these three fundamental values as the pillars of our modern society. We do so in our leisure, in our work, in education, in social interaction, in financial relations, in political affairs, in medical and mental health practice, in family relations, and even in law. This D.I.E. culture is so pervasive and yet so subtle that we fail to realize its presences until it rears its head, and when it does, we try to excuse ourselves by declaring that this is normal and natural for a society! Such a declaration is not based on evidence or reason, but merely a lazy and defensive approach to excuse the society for its behavior.
    We have many cultures, and deep behaviors even within our own society which follow an alternate culture, which runs just as deep in the way people conduct their lives. In Hawaii, we express that deep culture as reflecting the values of `Olu`olu (compatible, non-conflictive, mellow, comfortable), Lokahi (as compared with the individualistic/separateness value) and Aloha as opposed to exclusion. This O.L.A. culture persists not only in Hawaii or only among the Hawaiians. Many societies around the world, including the American society, have exhibited pockets of this O.L.A. deep culture. Many families still practice this form of life. So do some churches, schools, etc. Unfortunately, this deep culture stops at the borders of families, churches, . . .

    In short, (sorry for the long diatribe to introduce my conclusion) we need to be far more broadly focused than only looking at a more effective treatment for Asberger’s or anything on the Autism spectrum, or even for more intensive treatment of the mentally ill. We need to see that the paradigm of D.I.E. itself must be left behind and that a shift to O.L.A. (or however one chooses to express it) needs to replace D.I.E., in all of the areas of society’s life. We need to be just as strident in the advocacy for an O.L.A. approach to international relations as we advocate for peace on the school grounds, we need to be raising such contrasts in our studies of economics, in our treatment of the environment, and in our family counseling sessions. We need to see that the D.I.E. culture of violence, of supremacy, of separation is the very root of violence in our society which provides for fertile conditions of shootings in our schools or country attacking other countries.
    It’s a “tall order” and none of us can do it alone, but by understanding the broader framework of the issue, as we work within our individual areas of “specialty”, we can have a better common appreciation and the depth of the changes which needs to come about, and we will not feel so isolated in our work, knowing that others are trying to bring about changes in their areas of work themselves.

  2. […] 2012). How indeed are fruitful possibilities to emerge, as variously discussed (Richard Falk, Responding to the Unspeakable Killings at Newtown, Connecticut, Transcend Media Service, 24 December 2012; Marianne Perez de Fransius, After Newtown: shifting the […]