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Monday, January 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Schools

Public Memorials at Sandy Hook Elementary
    Americans are still struggling to come to grips with the recent massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  Nationally, the mood has gone from one of shock and mourning to one of blame and politics – a game that possibly threatens to injure even more innocents by depriving children with potential mental health issues and struggles from realizing full and equal civil rights and lifestyles commiserate with those of their peers.  This is a dangerous game.  Despite the confident advertising of the pharmaceutical psycho-therapeutical commercial industry, we really do not seem to understand very much at all about the inter-connectivity between personality, action and psychological states of mind.  In fact, we seem uncomfortably unable to answer basic questions as to what “normal” is, let alone how to define, treat and legislate the abnormal.  
    The world of psychological and emotional disorders is too complicated for untrained lawmakers, or even worse, lawyers, to try to fix in their well-meaning, amateurish, headline-grabbing sort of way.  Persons with real needs and disabilities might easily find themselves caught between hardline conservative Tea Party gun-slingers desperate to avert the disaster of gun control and the good intentions of the liberal left (often with an eye towards their own professional pocketbooks).  Blaming events such as Sandy Hook on the mentally ill not only conveniently deflects criticism and legislation aimed at non-sporting gun owners and sociologically suspect separatists, but seems to buttress age-old political slogans stating that guns don’t kill people, it is the “mentally ill” person behind the gun that kills people.
    On the other side, you have a juggernaut of compassionate, caring, professional liberals split between well-intentioned if too often ineffective efforts to aid and assist the mentally ill and disabled and the promise of increased budgets and funding into their programs, clinics and practices.  The decision to blame the mentally ill for social disasters is a dangerous path that must be trod most gingerly and with a humility that is not yet present in the debate.
    Indicating our confusion is our almost complete lack of consensus as to inter-connections between free will, disease, mental health and genetic predispositions.  Singling out the mentally ill for a focus on gun control is like depriving persons with a history of alcoholism in the family from obtaining a driver’s license and seizing the licenses and vehicles of those who voluntarily enroll in rehab or even Alcoholics Anonymous in order to prevent drunk driving.
    Another interesting debate stemming from Sandy Hook is whether or not to tear down the school as a memorial or to reopen it.   Understandably, many parents and relatives feel too shocked and grieved to allow their children to return to school in a building that still rings of horror and death.  
    On the other hand, many parents want the site cleaned up, rehabilitated and reopened so that their children can go back to the building they know of as their school and to resume their normal lives – similar to decisions made in the wake of the Columbine shootings.  
    Neil Steinberg, a Chicagoan whose view I have learned to trust, sums it up as, “In a way, [Sandy Hook is] playing out, on a large scale, what i­ndividuals who suffer tragedies go through. They are torn between focusing on the bad thing and forgetting about it, or trying to. To forget too quickly feels wrong. As does lingering too long.”
    Certainly, many of the parents in Connecticut are thinking back towards the quiet, confident wisdom of the Amish who, after a similar tragedy at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, quietly tore down the schoolhouse site and reopened classes elsewhere.
New Hope School replaced the former Nickel Mines building.
    Regardless of the reams of writings by non-Anabaptists from elsewhere, I, as a Mennonite, wonder as to the extent that the Amish removed the site and reminder of the massacre for their own mental health, recovery and ability to move on beyond the shooting, and how much the Amish choose this plan of action in order to help well-meaning, deeply impacted non-Amish Americans move on beyond the tragedy.  
    The Amish are a plain, simple, God-fearing folk.  The tragedy was horrific and yet, Amish culture is strong enough and evolved enough to fall back upon itself and to continue to move beyond the site of the crime or their anguish over lost loved ones.  It was rather, our anguish as outsiders perhaps that they needed to shield themselves from – from our well-intentioned intrusion into their private and personal lives, from the media attention, from gawking, voyeuristic tourists and from the temptation to be diverted by the actions and attitudes of outsiders away from the needs of their own community and private faith.
    The Amish of Nickel Mines made headlines by reaching out to the widow and family of the shooter in order to help them deal with a tragedy that impacted them also.  Noting this forgiveness, this moving beyond the crime-ness and this compassion should lead us to consider that the Nickel Mines Schoolhouse was removed for our good, not theirs.
    In contrast, Lionel Shriver of the London Guardian noted that Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Sandy Hook shooter, and his first victim, has been singled out for blame and recrimination, “With funerals of children and teachers standing-room-only, Nancy’s service last Thursday drew a sparse two dozen relatives. … According to the script in progress, Nancy Lanza doesn't deserve our tears. Implicitly or explicitly, we blame Adam's mother for his baffling rampage … one White House Twitter follower wrote of Nancy, "RIP, but she's culpable".
    Whether or not Sandy Hook is demolished or reopened is not the question, and as poetic as the Amish action and example at Nickel Mines was, parents and politicians need to look beyond that action in order to examine the motivation and intentions behind it – to help the public forgive and move on.
    As Steinberg notes, the decision to tear down and memorialize or to clean up and reopen will be more-or-less correct and more-or-less irrelevant, regardless of the decision.  
     On the other hand, legislating against the mentally ill – rather out of conservative fear, or from liberal ambition and compassion, singles out and scapegoats a minority population that already too often deals with a lack of resources, social prejudices, public stereotypes and fear.
    The debate over, and in my humble opinion, the necessity of, greater gun control legislation is important but it should not be based on the knee-jerk need to memorialize murdered innocents or the fear of such violence occurring elsewhere – it will recur regardless.  Decisions must not be made on the backs of a group unable to speak up for and defend itself.  
    When Christ encouraged his disciples to let the dead bury the dead, he was not being unkind, merely giving space for those who needed to mourn to do so while encouraging his disciples to not be sidetracked from their work and spiritual goals by such occurrences and concerns but to rather maintain their focus and energies on the larger tasks at hand.  
    Christ could speak these same words to American politicians today – let the families of Sandy Hook deal with their grief in private and without the media or the politicians.  Sandy Hook might be exploitable, but as tragic as it is, it does not change or even greatly inform public debate beyond adding to the statistics.  The best memorial and the best action is to move on with prudence and purpose while keeping an eye on the larger tasks at hand, including fitting more effective gun control into America’s legal, constitutional and cultural context – wisely, firmly and effectively, not slapped together out of fear.

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