This blog is obviously primarily about science, science reporting, skepticism and related topics. However, being a resident of the southeastern portion of Connecticut, it would be impossible to continue on without mentioning the tragic shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown. Connecticut is a small state to begin with, and Newtown, as it happens is only about twenty minutes drive from my home. I’ve been to and passed through Newtown many times and I know several people who live in the town.
I did not know any of the victims, but in the past few days I have come to discover just how close I am to this tragedy. The manager of my congressional campaign has worked for the state as a child advocate. During a divorce and custody dispute, he was appointed to represent the interests of a young girl. As is often the case, he became well acquainted with her and her family. She was one of the victims who was killed on Friday. My former nextdoor neighbors, who are also good friends of my parents, have a granddaughter in kindergarden at the school where the shooting occurred. As it turns out, she was absent the day it happened, but no doubt the trauma of losing friends will be difficult for her and the family to deal with. I have other acquaintances who have children who attend the school or who have lost friends or neighbors. At my place of work, which, amongst other things, sells flowers, a number of orders were placed for sympathy arrangements for the families of the dead.
While there have been other shootings and tragic events, and indeed, human tragedies happen every day, nothing of this scope has hit quite so close to home and affected so many in my life before.
Of course, there is really no way to respond to such an event that will ever do much to change things. None the less, some of the responses in the wake of the tragic events have been extremely disheartening.
It is altogether appropriate that after such a tragic event, he circumstances will be investigated and various measures will be proposed and considered to prevent this from reoccurring. However, investigations take time and so does considering and drafting the legislation that might help reduce the likelihood of this tragedy. Right now, the most important consideration should be addressing the pain of those who have lost loved ones, honoring the memory of the dead and rebuilding the shattered lives of so many in the community.
Unfortunately, predictably, the first response of many has been to seize this as an opertunity for political gain. For gun-control advocates, this is an excellent chance to gain some media attention and exploit the shock and grief of a nation for publicity. Others, of course, have seized upon this to call for greater provisions for concealed-carry laws, arguing that the only way to deter this is to allow citizens to defend themselves when attacks occur. Some have argued to arm all teachers with handguns, others have said we need greater monitoring of community threats or improved mental health care. A variety of media whores, such as Michael Moore, have patted themselves on the back for predicting this kind of tragedy with such smugness it’s amazing they manage to keep a straight face.
I say shame on all of them. I am purposely not taking a position on these issues, because I find that to be in poor taste. All of the proposals and sides should be considered, and there is certainly nothing wrong with having some debates about whether gun control is effective, whether arming the public will actually make a difference and whether changes in policy are warranted. However, the faces of the children who died on that terrible day should not be placed on placards or protest signs until they have at least been buried for a few days. If nothing else, it should be noted that the information that is being used to justify many of these political points is not even confirmed. We’ve been told that the shooter, Adam Lanza, acted alone, used his mother’s firearms and had a history of mental and emotional problems. However, those are not confirmed facts, they are just the available information the media has been providing.
If only out of basic human descency, those who seek to advance their political agenda should really wait until at least the media circus has died down and the grass has begun to grow on the graves of the dead before latching onto this event.
On a more positive note, I’ve been heartened to see that the press has handled this incident about as well as can be expected. There are many reporters, satellite trucks and TV cameras in the area. That is a given, and is the result of a perfectly reasonable desire of the world and the country to be informed about this tragedy. However, they have managed to avoid hounding the families of the victims (at least for the most part) and only interviewing those who came forward looking to speak. Most (but not all) media reports have been reasonably well presented. Although speculation about the things like the number of victims was presented, it was generally provided with explicit disclaimers that the information was not fully confirmed. It has, for the most part, been accurate. The worst piece of inaccurate information thus far has been the brief miss-identification of the shooter as Ryan Lanza, the brother of Adam Lanza. This appears to be based on an ID that police found on the shooter.
That said, the press has not been perfect either. There has been quite a bit of banter and speculation that the shooter was autistic. This has not been confirmed, and could be used to imply that autistic persons are prone to violence, which is simply not the case.
I had mixed feelings about the visit of President Obama. On one hand, it is appropriate for the leader of a country to offer condolences and show that the sense of loss is national and worthy of his time. However, a presidential visit can easily provoke an even larger media circus and politicize the event further. Thankfully, and to his credit, the president made only a brief visit and did not use it as an opertunity to make stump speeches or advance an agenda. His actions were not overtly political and were very tactful.
The Connecticut State Police, Medical Examiner and the local city governments also deserve to be noted for their professional handling of the situation. Police have provided all the information they can, while being as thorough as possible and assuring it is accurate. Local towns have been quick to offer their school buildings for the use of Newtown students displaced and there has been no bickering over things like compensation.
Finally, there is one thing that I find especially unsettling about the process of grieving and consoling, as it exists in American society. Without exception, the centers where the community has gathered for support and mourning have been religious institutions, churches or synagogs, and the support and reassurances given are, almost always, based on the presumption that those lost are in a better place or that their death was part of some greater plan by a benevolent god.
Of course, those who believe should be given every opertunity to mourn their losses in the traditions of their faith, and the validity of those beliefs should not be questioned, at least not at a time like this. Religion certainly does offer comfort and a way of dealing with loss to many, and ministers, priests and rabbis can bring great comfort to those experiencing loss. Those who believe that their loved ones live on in the afterlife have every right to that opinion and, if it allows them to move forward with their lives, then nobody should take that away from them.
However, it is worth considering that not everyone believes in such things, and for those of us who do not, hearing a constant bombardment of messages of how the dead are in a better place rings especially empty and does not help and only serves to alienate them from a community which bases their mourning on such beliefs. When I have experienced loss, I have found it especially painful to be told, repeatedly, by well meaning persons that “they are in a better place” or “you will see them again.” I believed this was not true and it only drove home how tragic the situation was. Moreover, it set me apart from the others and made me want to yell back at them “NO, THEY ARE NOT,” but, of course, I bit my lip and pretended to agree with them.
I therefore suggest that, when consoling those experiencing loss, unless you are well aware of their beliefs or are responding to their religious statements, it is better to simply use a neutral, secular statement of condolences. Simply saying “he will be missed,” or “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “If there is anything I can do to help you through this hard time” is a prefectly acceptable way of offering support to someone, regardless of their beliefs and without presuming to impose your religion on them without knowledge of their own feelings.
Furthermore, it should really become more acceptable to offer memorial gatherings and support to those who have lost without invoking religion in every case. The lack of non-religious support for loss can make it extremely difficult on those who do not share those beleifs.
Worst of all, stigmatizing and outright hatred of those who reject religion seems to know no bounds. Even in times of loss and pain, simply aknowledging that you are a non-believer may well result in a cold shoulder and a back-handed insult.
This entry was posted on Monday, December 17th, 2012 at 7:12 pm and is filed under Culture, Events, Misc, Politics, media, personal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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