Let’s start with the obvious. There’s no real way to quantify a school shooting; it’s horror. It doesn’t really matter if it’s 3 people shot, or 20 people shot; we tend to like the bigger numbers because we understand that says more horror, which means it’s OK to be glued to the television about it, it’s OK to waste time on the couch consuming as much information as possible. Normally we wouldn’t do this — this is what the shooter wanted, right? They needed to do this because they couldn’t get the attention we all seek in some other, socially-acceptable way? — but when the numbers are higher, we feel more gripped. But it doesn’t matter. You can’t quantify a school shooting. They’re all awful.
Newtown, though, was probably a little more awful. Insofar as anyone fleeing from a semi-automatic gun can defend themselves, the majority of victims at Sandy Hook were quite literally defenseless. Many of them probably didn’t even know exactly what death was at the time they had to experience it. That’s literally crippling to think about in some respects. I’m not a parent, but I would assume once you are, there’s a certain routine to your day/week, just as there would be otherwise; dropping your child off at school, or placing them on a bus, is not supposed to be the end. And if it was the end, it must have been an AM drunk driver, right? Or a kidnapping in a mostly-upscale town? But a school shooting? That makes absolutely no sense.
Here’s the other thing, probably ignored because it seems trivial compared to the scope of everything that happened: Newtown happened right before Christmas. Americans are trained that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is slower; it’s about family, friends, parties, gatherings, connections, discourses, promises of a new year. It is not whatsoever supposed to be about this kind of thing. Scott Pelley, on a given Dec. 14, should be reporting about some program putting homeless citizens to work in department stores, or on a tree farm run by Vietnam vets. He shouldn’t be doing live shots in front of an elementary school where 20+ were killed.
All this is a long way of saying that what happened last December is completely unfathomable on almost every level; so yesterday’s “final report” on what happened wasn’t ever going to offer a ton of closure. There are details of the report all over the Internet, including here, here, here, here, and here. There were some breathless headlines about “new details” including an obsession with mass murder (a detail that had been released before), his mother buying him guns (ditto), and a secluded, predominantly online existence (ditto).
The entire report is online here, and probably the best point-by-point rundown I found of it comes courtesy of The Slatest blog. In there, you can learn that Lanza regularly had some normal interactions with classmates, including discussions of being bullied, how chimp societies worked, and more. He also appeared to be a big fan of Dance Dance Revolution.
There’s no motive — given that Adam and Nancy Lanza are dead, and the father and brother (alive) seem fairly disconnected, we’re probably never going to know a motive — but maybe that doesn’t even matter.
As callous as this might sound, the situation at Sandy Hook Elementary — the horror there — has happened, and we cannot reverse it. It’s terrible for the people involved, and it’s terrible for anyone who had to watch it unfold (less terrible in the latter category, obviously). At one point, we thought (collectively) that it would lead to some kind of new focus on gun control; realistically, that was never going to happen. Gun control is a broader issue, and an issue deeply embedded in Americans’ beliefs about themselves, about their rights, and in how politics and money work together. One shooting, however horrific, won’t turn around that oil tanker.
If you go back to the day after the shooting, there was kind of a summary article on Lanza in The New York Times. There are lessons within the article, and those lessons are pretty important for us as a collective society. The problem is, we too often get tied down in really basic ways of looking at things — for example, not every kid who is withdrawn is going to kill others, and not every kid who plays certain video games or acts a certain way or listens to certain music is going to do that either. I was fat and unpopular and got bullied and listened to a lot of Metallica and played video games where I killed people in the game and spent most Friday/Saturday nights by myself around that age; I never even entertained the thought of killing another person. The simple model we follow doesn’t always work.
The problem is, the reason we follow that simple model is because we’re all too busy, and don’t have the real time, to think about the bigger issues. We need to get here or get there, go do this next thing, so we want a simple, 1-2 line thing we can say about a tragedy to process it and show appropriate consideration when in conversation. “Well, you know, it’s just terrible, but the warning signs were there.” The real issue here is actually compassion. To get to a level where you want to do something like what Lanza did, you have to be extremely detached from reality and the strands that tie us back to the world and our society. Those have to be completely broken, almost. Now, this starts with your parents — those are the people tasked with helping root you to some kind of guidelines, some kind of idea about how things fit together — but it’s also too simple to just blame the parents of shooters and murderers. Adam Lanza went to school and walked down streets and went to movies and went to stores. He had interactions.
This is going to sound simplistic too — anything does when you’re talking about this story — but we all know the warning signs by now. We’ve all seen reports like yesterday’s. We know the pieces that could potentially fit together for this type of horrible whole. So what can we do? Notice other people. Respond to them. If they’re not doing well, or you think they’re not, offer to help. The biggest problem we have as a society — again, sounds simplistic, but most things would — is that we tricked ourselves into believing that we’re all so busy and important that we can’t help out, and can’t notice things other than what’s on Instagram or Facebook or right in front of us. (Also please, don’t think I’m blaming social media for murders. Social media is a great connective tool for the modern era; it is a superficial connectedness for the most part — how hard is it to hit ‘like’ on something? — but it still does have benefits.)
Are there lessons from all this? Yes. It’s not really about guns, or certain profiles, or mothers who seem to not know what to do, or the value of life, or whatever — those are things you can say at dinner parties if Lanza and Newtown come up. This is honestly really about all of us. It’s about how we respond to what’s around us, how we deal with those who are struggling, and how we choose to connect. Adam Lanza was a crazy, insanely f’ed-up individual to do what he did. But he wasn’t born that way, and according to aspects of this report, he wasn’t even that way in mere months prior to the shooting. Just like everyone walking the Earth, his experiences drove his path in certain directions. For him and countless others in his wake, that was tragic. But it doesn’t have to end that way, and by giving up just a certain bit of your world here and there, you might be able to help.