Following the tragic massacre in Aurora, Colorado, we await the protracted media cycle of experts and advocates speaking out about public policy, morality, gun control, mental illness, and whatever else might possibly stick to the wall of this unfathomable event that carries with it the full weight of human cruelty. Todd Essig, a New York psychologist and psychoanalyst, holds a bleak view of how this cycle will progress. I find it difficult to argue with his cynicism.
In the coming weeks, many people will claim to speak for the victims of Aurora and their families. Some will be gun lobbyists, some will be anti-gun legislators. Some will be politicians, some will be religious leaders. At least a few will be psychologists. Many will be opportunistic and callous, others will be well-intentioned. None will hold the answers.
This all begs the question of whether it is even possible to derive positive social change out of the grimmest of human events. Human beings are meaning-makers; we are driven to make sense of the senseless. Americans in particular tend to identify with the Judeo-Christian belief in a fair and just world. But the relentless pursuit of causal attribution leads to dark and twisting passageways.
Take, for instance, the Columbine school shootings. Public outrage and the demand for answers galvanized many psychological researchers to try to demonstrate that the shooters’ interest in violent videogames might have caused their actions. As I mentioned in a previous entry, they failed to find such connections — but this and other similar lines of inquiry served as adequate red herrings in the mainstream media to help suppress any legitimate state or federal gun control laws until the entire tragedy had drifted out of national consciousness. Little was dealt with or processed; we spun around, angrily kicking the ground, until we were dizzy and directionless and had forgotten what we were mad about. But these traumas remain, unmastered, and periodically resurface.
I do, in fact, agree with the sentiment of one thing gun-advocating Senator Ron Johnson said on “Fox News” (quoted in today’s Times): “…you simply can’t keep these weapons out of the hands of sick, demented individuals that want to do harm….” I may take some liberty in interpreting the Senator’s words as meaning, simply, that horrific things will happen. Certain individuals will travel to such dark places — for internal and external reasons that will always be difficult to reconstruct and understand — that they will erupt, seemingly out of nowhere, to cause mayhem and havoc within an organized society.
Senator Johnson and others like him use this concept as an argument to maintain the status quo, and this is where our thinkings diverge. Appreciating the inevitability of tragedy should be our impetus to critique longstanding societal laws and morays and try to construct a better future. Simply because we can’t keep weapons out of a disturbed individual’s hands doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Similarly, there is no need to establish causality, or hold it as our motivating criterion. The Democratic Governor of Colorado, John W. Hickenlooper, told CNN (also via The Times) that even with stricter gun control laws, the Aurora shooter might have constructed a bomb, or found another way to kill people. Perhaps. Is this justification for leaving things the way they are? What “caused” this event to happen was undoubtedly a complex conflagration of numerous personal, communal, and societal factors that will never be teased apart to anyone’s complete satisfaction.
In science, the ability to infer causality is a coveted right, earned by meticulously controlled study design, data collection, and analysis. In politics, however, the obsession with establishing a definitive cause acts as a conservative force tantamount to a national policy of “unless you’re 100% sure, do nothing.” The truth is, we will never be sure. No one holds the answers. But when a senseless tragedy passes through our collective view, we have a responsibility to do more than angrily kick the ground.