It’s a fact that we learn more from our failures and tragedies than we do from our victories.
When something goes right, we usually high-five each other and then sit around the proverbial campfire rehashing our brilliance and everything we did right. What we don’t do is learn anything. We’re too happy with the way things went.
But when something goes wrong; when we lose, when tragedy strikes, we go into paroxysms of self-analysis as we struggle to learn what went wrong and how we can fix it. This impulse to think tragedy through to ideas for avoiding another tragedy in the future is intelligent and useful. It’s the basis for things like painfully reconstructing crashed airliners to try to learn what broke or what happened to bring the bird down. It’s the reason for medical review boards. It’s why police go over and over an officer’s death.
Done this way, the self-analysis that comes after our painful flops and falters is good, productive and wise.
But there is another side. The aftermath of tragedy, the first quick take of emotion, is usually a blur of pain and confusion. Especially with something like the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there is a desire to avoid and blur both the questions and the answers to the omnipresent “Why?” that haunts us. We don’t want to face any part of it. So, we are tempted to go out searching for someone or something else to take the load of responsibility for facing up to what it all means. We want a scapegoat.
In truth, there are potential scapegoats aplenty in the aftermath of a mass murder, especially one so incomprehensible as these mass shootings and bombings by anti-social young men. But we have to be careful how we chose these scapegoats. We don’t want to pick something that would require us to change. We don’t want to point our fingers at ourselves.
No, we are looking for something or someone easy, outside our normal activities and unable to defend themselves. That’s the impetus behind the outrage of much of the pundit class against Mike Huckabee’s hapless comment. While most people are shocked into silence by these horrors, some people talk uncontrollably. They react to their own internal confusion in the face of tragedy beyond comprehension with cravings for a quick fix of faux outrage. If it hadn’t been Mike Huckabee, it would have been someone else. Every time we have a tragedy, the faux outrage crowd latches onto something some person says. They need a quickie scapegoat.
Of course, faux outrage at accidental verbal missteps wears thin after a time. It is about such a nothing and it is so completely devoid of significance that it simply uses up its own oxygen and goes out like a match.
This leaves the rest of us with the question of what slot we can fit these dysfunctional young men with murder in their hearts into. In truth, they are such bizarre little monsters that we find it difficult to identify with them enough to really have a good go at scapegoating them. Where’s the “out” for the rest of us in looking at people who are so emotionally ugly that they are flat and one-dimensional to the point of incomprehensibility?
We tend to exalt our mass murderers in this country. Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, the BTK Killer and Ted Bundy get more television coverage than any legitimate celebrity I know of. We hype serial killers into evil gods in our entertainment, making them not only glamorous, but in many ways better — more talented, intelligent and purposeful — than the rest of us.
But somehow, these one-off killers who go to our schools, our movies, our workplaces and just start killing don’t seem so interesting. Killing little Amish girls, blowing up day care centers and murdering first graders just doesn’t seem so much the effort of an evil god as it does the work of plain, unvarnished evil in all its ugliness and banality. More to the point, when someone goes into a movie theater and shoots people, it could have been us they killed.
Still, we do need our scapegoats. Otherwise, we might have to take an honest look at our whole suicidal society and acknowledge that we have become a people that raises up sociopaths in abundance. We would have to admit that there’s more wrong here than gun laws that are over 200 years old and never produced this mayhem before. We might have to see that our many excesses on numerous levels are so dysfunctional that they’ve turned our homes and our society into monster factories.
This lends an especially frantic quality to the search for scapegoats. We need someone to blame; someone who isn’t us.
Unfortunately for us, these young men often come from backgrounds and situations that we’ve been taught to admire and seek for ourselves. These aren’t ghetto kids. They aren’t minorities. They aren’t poor, uneducated or stupid. They aren’t even physically ugly.
Are we supposed to scapegoat the upper middle class? Are we expected to decry family life in our best neighborhoods, our wealthiest school districts and among our most well-educated and successful citizenry?
This is what we all want to be: Rich, successful, going to the best schools, regarded as brilliant.
No wonder we look at young men who kill and blame the guns they are holding. If we don’t, we’re going to have to take a look at something that not only comes from the abyss, but that defies all our well-oiled aspirations.
Blame is our game and we need something to hook that blame onto. We need an object, an idea, a reason that will answer the why of these killings without confronting us with ourselves. The problem with this approach is that it is the antithesis of the painstaking reconstruction that happens after an airliner crashes. It has nothing to do with the honesty and learning process of medical and police review boards.
Rather than helping us come to a true understanding of what is wrong so that we can begin the process of fixing it, the blame game and its hurry-up urgency to do something simple, makes sure we will never understand. If we can affix blame on inanimate objects and then rush, rush, rush to do something about them, then we will be able to avoid doing the painful self-analysis of a legitimate search for answers.
Until it happens again.
Which it will.
Because we didn’t do anything useful with our blame-game and quick fix.
Here’s a for instance. It is a fact that people with red hair are more likely to get skin cancer. So, in the blame-game way of thinking, we would blame the red hair. Ergo, what we should do to avoid skin cancer is to dye our hair black.
That’s the kind of thinking we are trying to employ in our dealings with these mass murdering young men. Maybe we should take away assault rifles. That may be one of the things we need to do. But if that’s all we do, I can promise you, it won’t stop these mass murderers from mass murdering.
Since I will have to vote on at least some of these issues, those are more than words, much more than a political pose to me. How to save lives and preserve freedom, how to convert a culture that finds offense in the idea that it needs conversion; those are the questions. I don’t believe that the answers lie entirely in political battles and legislation. Neither do I believe that the people of this nation are ready to hear that.
I’m not so sure that a nation of people who are addicted to pointing fingers at other people and who refuse to give even one inch in any of their personal opinions and shibboleths can deal with these murderers among us. I question whether we have the honesty and the will to save ourselves from ourselves.
I do know that these young men did not spring fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. They were made over long periods of time, partly by their heredity, partly by their homes, but mostly by our society. We are teaching them to kill.
Until we face that, we will never “do something” that will end this long nightmare of violence.