December is the month in which some Christians celebrate the Feat of the Holy Innocents in commemoration of the biblical massacre of the children of Bethlehem. This year Americans had little need of such remembrances, as the horrors of biblical Bethlehem came to us.
There has been much said on gun control and mental health care after the massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Newton, Conn. Some of it has been valuable and full of insight. Much of it has not. I cannot explain why this happened or propose a solution that could keep such a tragedy from ever happening again. Here is the thing about that: no one really knows yet.
There was a curious and entirely understandable impulse that started circulating after the massacre. The idea was that we should remember the victims and banish Adam Lanza, the shooter, from our collective national memory, so as not to “reward” Lanza with posthumous fame for what he did, like so many other mass murderers in recent history.
It is unfortunate that this solution is, as Mencken once quipped, neat, plausible and wrong. What we should be doing is actually the exact opposite.
Remembering the dead children, as right as it may feel, will not save more children in the future. What made Sandy Hook so uniquely tragic is that it was just like so many other American communities in every way except one: it had Adam Lanza. That is the variable in this tragic equation and that is where we need to be focusing.
Consider the tragedy that ushered in the modern era of school shootings: Columbine. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are household names, famous enough that I was able to find a painting in an art gallery in Magdeburg, Germany titled simply “Dylan and Eric.”
From these two we constructed our collective picture of a school shooter: an angry loner, dressed in black, ceaselessly bullied, filled with hatred of more popular kids, obsessed with violent video games and movies, who just can’t take it anymore one day and snaps.
Yet almost none of it was true. Harris was a sociopath whose major problem was not bullying but rather his utter contempt for human life. Klebold was an unstable depressive manipulated into joining him. Both loved violent movies and video games to be sure (making them just like most other teenage males), but Harris in particular also had an affinity for Euripides and Shakespeare, making the question of media influences considerably more complicated than it was popularly assumed to be.
This image never took root in the public imagination because by the time it was put together, the public had long since moved on to other things and our neat little boxes were too well organized to be switched around again. Liberals decided that easy access to guns were really the problem. Conservatives took aim at a decadent and bloody media culture. Everyone of whatever political affiliation uttered generic platitudes about the cruelty of high school.
To their credit, specialists did change how they approached school shootings because of Columbine. Changes in police tactics away from establishing perimeters, for example, saved lives at Virginia Tech years later. A new FBI profile on school shooters foiled plots nationwide. But for most Americans, a lesson that should have been seared into us all, that evil often fails to package itself in a way convenient to us, was left unlearned.
It’s possible that poor gun control laws are responsible for what happened. It’s possible that gaps in the mental health care net in this country are responsible for what happened. What we can be sure of is that Adam Lanza is responsible for what happened beyond a doubt, yet it seems no one really wants to talk about him anymore. If we don’t understand what made him do it, then we have not learned the lessons of Sandy Hook.
Let’s keep the memories of those children alive by all means. But as terrible as I feel saying it, Adam Lanza is the one name we cannot afford to forget.