Suffer the Children

Unknown-1Are there any new words for the grief and fear we feel for those Connecticut school children and their families? I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I have nothing to offer those desperate parents whose lives have been permanently altered, mutilated, shattered. Ancient, biblical words come to mind: abomination.

Sometimes I lapse into magical thinking and my intrusive, unbounded thoughts are like spreading weeds. Right now I feel such an overpowering desire to stop the clock, go back in time to this morning, and gather up all those children in my motherly, teacherly arms and start the day again. Can we imagine a different clear winter morning in a different New England town? Take them on a field trip, have a basement pipe burst at the exact right moment. Just get them out of there. The whole damned school. It’s too beautiful a day to remain indoors. Too beautiful a day to be murdered in cold blood.

I don’t know anything about the dead shooter but CNN’s reporting that he was 20 years-old. Somebody’s child, of course. I’d want to stop the clock for him too: Go back in time, much farther back, and gather him up. Get him help. Set him straight. Call the ‘authorities’ before it’s too late.

I replay what-ifs in my mind over and over again, like a nervous tic. What if the shooter had a brain aneurysm on his way to the school and could just drop dead instead? I would trade an epic tragedy for a differently scaled one, wouldn’t you? What if we lived in a world where all kids got the parenting and resources they deserved? And since we’re dreaming, what if  our polarized nation could put aside its fucking firearm fissures for a moment and work collectively to figure out why on earth people commit mass homicide. What are the risk factors? The triggers? It goes so far beyond the question of how much this murder was or was not enabled by that law. (Though I do indeed believe that “this” murder could be enabled by “that” law.) We have to uproot the problem of mass murder and treat it like the scourge that it is. A pestilence. A deadly sickness that is killing innocent victims, with many known and many still-unknown risk factors.

Here’s my TIME.com mass homicide piece from the summer and associated commentary. I got tons of hate mail about it but I remain resolute:  Mass murder (murder of more than one person at a time) is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a male phenomenon. Depressed young men are much more likely than depressed young women to channel their mental distress into violence, directed at themselves or at others. Why is this so? What the hell are we going to do about it?

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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7 Responses to Suffer the Children

  1. Becky McB says:

    Erika,
    I honor your ability to articulate the message that we – I and you, all of us – must proactively engage in an investigation and solution to the root problems of the mass killings our society has cultivated by it’s laws and individual/societal omissions. All homicides and suicides, are useless violent acts, they mutate the fabric of our communities and destroy human potential – let America come together to seek a just response to this unnecessary and base response individuals partake in because of illness, emotion, brokenness, and unknowable reasons.

  2. Harvard undergrad says:

    Erika,
    Once again, I think you hit upon one of the more essential parts of the issue–why hasn’t there been any response by looking into what the risk factors are, looking at the roots of the problem? This is beyond a simple issue of gun control, which most of the time just ends up at political posturing. We need to look into what brings these on, what we can do to fix/alleviate whatever conditions are at play.
    All of today, I was plagued with was this sense of deep, gut-wrenching sadness over what happened. Not just for the victims and their families, but for the fact that this happens so often and no action is taken afterwards. I wish I could cry and yell at someone, shout at the legislators to do something. But this is also a phenomenon that is beyond politics. We need to understand the sociological and psychological impetuses for mass homicide.
    Its obviously easy to spot the warning signs in hindsight, to point at the broken families, the history of violence, the evidence of despair…and yet, these things continue to happen. What motivates people to reach this point? Is there a social trend of mass shootings because such tragedies are occurring so often (thinking of the knifing sprees in China a year or so back that continue to crop up)? — in which case, these shootings are only fueling future instability….
    So many questions and not enough answers.

  3. Peter M. says:

    Erika,
    Your piece this summer made me think about this subject a lot. From my research and personal experience, it appears that isolation is another big factor. That isolation may result from mental illness, or not.

    The fact that it’s men, as opposed to women, may be due to the higher levels of testosterone men produce (I guess 10-20 times that of women?). Testosterone promotes aggressiveness, and decreases our ability to empathize with others.

    Brené Brown, a researcher on vulnerability and shame, may help us connect the dots on this issue. I emailed her regarding her thoughts of the situation. Her TED talks and her book, Daring Greatly, are required viewing and reading. From my reading, a lot of men who snap are those who are ashamed by their status in life, or have reason to be ashamed. They’re men, often young men, who are unemployed, have lost their jobs, flunked out of school, and so on. They have failed in our society.

    I don’t have answers, but we need to keep this discussion going.

    For the other commenters, well said!

  4. Ellie says:

    I just read your TIME article and commentary for the first time. Both are great, and I really appreciate what you wrote. The one thing that I would like more clarification on is the race issue. You mention America’s worst mass murders on the one hand, but then you also mention (separately) the black homicide rate, which–as we know–is much higher than the white homicide rate. My problem here is that I think homicide statistics are actually a different beast, altogether, from incidents like Aurora, Oregon, and now Newtown. The mass murders (the ones where an individual opens fire on group of innocent people, in a public space) appear to be primarily committed by white males. (I say “appear” because I’m just going off what I’ve heard and read in the news in recent years–I haven’t looked through the statistics, so hopefully you can let me know if/where I’m wrong.)

    Anyways: the high black homicide rate comes from our nation’s high-crime urban ghettos. In these areas, young black males are getting involved in different kinds of crime (often drug/gang related) that entail violence. I don’t mean to suggest that violence in the ghetto is any less horrible than violence elsewhere… what I mean to say is that violence in the ghetto is (I think) usually committed for different reasons–reasons that involve social incentives/gangs/opportunity structures, rather than individual mental disability/depression/disturbance.

    I bring this up just because I think your point about mental health–about treating violence as a public health problem–is extremely important and insightful. But I think there may be a need to look at ghetto-related homicide separately from mass murder… because there may be different processes at play behind each case.

    (In other words: I agree with you that the issue at hand is a male issue — but I’m not so sure that it’s primarily a black male issue.)

    Thanks again for bringing much-needed attention to this topic.

    –Ellie Hylton ’13

  5. Maria Rock says:

    Devastation is felt worldwide by atrosities that seem without cause. Will we look at this senseless loss of 20 beautiful children and adults as a single incident and move on? Or will we take a proactive role as a society to make change? I think if we look closer at our society the thread that seems broken is that of compassion. Are we born with it or is it taught? Do we have it…then lose compassion along the way? I agree with your assessment studies need to be generated that concern mass killings but how far back do we need to go to mend a society that needs the NOW to be in function? Lanza snapped, he was crazy, history of depression, etc. all excuses without answers for prevention that worked for him and those he killed. He fought with teachers the day before so in a rage he kills 3 of them and 20 innocent children??? Go back further was he bullied? Maybe. How did he, his classmates or surrounding adults respond? What does it matter? Understanding the human mind and the choices it makes is the core to this tragedy. How do we as a society fix what is wrong? My belief is there is a basic lack of compassion missing in society that can be seen at home, at work and at play. Mental illness is no doubt an issue but compassionate legislators, business people, educators, families etc. need to soul search to bring about a compassionate global change in our society. We need intervention for a substancial change in our society to teach and learn compassion.

  6. I could never write about this event; you do so so eloquently. Thank you.

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