Could Newtown Massacre be Latent Effect of Bullying?

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo is expressing embarrassment at just how much the press got wrong, yesterday, as they rushed to tell us anything they could about the terrible slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Perhaps he also feels mortified by the press tweets to families and friends of the victims looking for a story.

I mean, I’m not a member of the fourth estate, and I’m mortified by it.

But as we wonder what happened, why it happened and what motivated this terribly dark day, I am interested in this: Nancy Lanza was apparently not a teacher at the school.

So, the conjectures that the shooter was buzzed in by a principal who recognized him is out the window, and in fact it looks like he busted a window to gain access to the school.

And Charles Krauthammer’s suggestion last night that this was a psychologically-rooted event — that by shooting his mother in the face and then killing “everything she loved” in those teachers and students, there was evidence of deep hatred and anger — was half on track.

But if it turns out that Nancy Lanza had no connection to this school, which the shooter attended as a boy, then I really can’t help but wonder if the psychology behind this — which we may never know — was not a latent lashing out in response to being bullied by elementary school classmates?

Shooters go off, and they lash out, particularly if they have had a psychotic episode: it’s worth noting that schizophrenia often manifests in young males the shooter’s age. This shooter was described as “different” and socially awkward. When he broke, did he return to the place of his greatest pain, his first social rejection?

I was a bullied kid; I know the pain remains — you remember the name of every kid who pushed you down, pulled your hair, encouraged others to mockery, all of your life. If you can forgive and get past it, and begin to reclaim yourself (and even learn to love yourself) you’re ahead of the game. But it’s a lifetime’s work. Yes, work. Yes, a lifetime’s.

Now that the first fog of everything-the-press-got-wrong is lifting, and people are asking “why” I wonder about the time and the place, and if bullying from a decade ago, or longer, played into the creation of the evil and misery unleashed upon so many innocents, yesterday.

Everything matters. Everything ripples through time and our lives, like a pebble tossed to a pond, we cannot know what gets touched upon which shore.

“Each small meanness, each thoughtless expression of hatred, each envious and bitter act, regardless of how petty, can inspire others, and is therefore the seed that ultimately produces evil fruit, poisoning people whom you have never met and never will. All human lives are so profoundly and intricately entwined – those dead, those living, those generations yet to come – that the fate of all is the fate of each, and the hope of humanity rests in every heart and in every pair of hands.” — Dean Koontz

There are bullies all around us
— and of course, all over the internet. We’ve been teaching “tolerance” and “be nice” for a while, now. I don’t know if current efforts are more effective than they’ve been in the past. I hope so, but knowing the human heart, and how easily it turns toward the darkness, who knows?

Yesterday, (sadly and predictably) some Christians used social media and the horrific events of the day to make hay about prayer in schools: “this wouldn’t happen if our children were praying in school. God doesn’t go where he is not invited” Ugh. Aside from being terrible theology, such statements encourage the world to hate Christians and, more importantly, to misunderstand Christ, mercy and the life of faith.

God seeks invitation to the human heart (“behold, I stand at the door and knock”) because belief must be founded on an engagement of the free will — then it becomes the intimate relationship he seeks. I was bullied by children who were having daily classes in religion, so clearly the messages were not getting through, either because they had not reached the heart, or had been denied entrance.

Because it can’t be forced.

“Belief” cannot be compelled any more than “niceness” can be legislated, and simply going to church, or saying a group-prayer, or learning the verses or the rules will not do the thing. How many people do you know who go to church every week yet remain miserable bastards of tyranny and hate because their hearts have never been engaged, so they never have not evolved to love? How many preachers of “tolerance” and “be nice” have you encountered who deem who exactly is worthy of that tolerance and niceness and who deserves the back of the hand, derision and the shiv until they start acting right — behaving “correctly”.

The human heart doesn’t respond well to bullying. You can’t force it to be what you would have it be, no matter how much the pharisees of both sacred and secular opinion want to say otherwise.

I have been struck, these past 24 hours, by the people — earnest, hurting people — who go on to twitter pleading, “where was God in all of this.” But who, when told “God was here, in these first responders; God was here, in these heroic teachers,” simply scoff, “but why wasn’t he “there, in the classroom?”

Well, as Deacon Greg makes clear in his homily, God was there — in the middle of this terrible, great mystery. But what I realized is that the same people who sneer, “where was God” (and then reject the answer) want and expect the perfections of Paradise — no pain, no death, no sadness — but refuse to consider that we lost it, or how. They say believers live in a world of “myths,” but then demand the mythical world they deny.

They can’t have it both ways. Seeking Paradise means work, and yes, a lifetime of it, and it is interior work, not exterior. Every day it becomes clearer to me that we must each BE the change we wish to see in the world — fix ourselves and be gentle with others. It’s a waste of time to try to compel others to be what we think they should be.

The mystery of faith demands free engagement. Good citizenship demands it, too. But oddly enough, in both cases, for engagement to have positive effect requires making a conscious decision to love instead of hate, to work on one’s own soul instead of trying to correct someone else’s. Imagine a word of folks doing that.

Of course, that’s not a new idea. And it’s been expressed much more beautifully and directly.


Via Frank: “Prayer and even the smallest actions of love are powerful weapons in the battle against the evil still present in our world today.”

Calah Alexander: how not to respond.

Rebecca Hamilton quotes Corrie ten Boom.

The “horrible job”.

Brianna Heldt has humble reflections “Awful reactions.”

A Novena for healing

Image courtesy of

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • EBL
  • Omni

    Powerful commentary. Thank you. The quote from Dean Koontz is especially relevant. Bullying is more than a childhood or school-related problem. It pervades our political system and our culture.

    I am much more a lapsed than practicing Catholic but would like to see a nationwide observation of the feast of the Holy Innocents this December 28 to mourn all the victims in this tragedy. I would also like to see some movement toward intensive self-reflection, especially by the emotionally-arrested adults throughout our society, to remember that we are all impotent in the face of this incomprehensible evil.

  • Katherine

    Concerned for promoting an understanding that we don’t know to be accurate, makes me very hesitant to label it bullying. Maybe that was part of it, maybe not? Same with schizophrenic. I was picked on but mostly ignored as a kid and my grandmother was an institutionalized delusional schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is more common among females but does usually surface in the 20s. It isn’t something that would hit someone one day and drive them to plan a mass murder the next day. It would take time and there should have been other signs if schizophrenia was involved. I am just really concerned about speculation… there has been too much of that already. I’m still confused trying to sort out all the correct information from all the incorrect.

    That said, I like your point. It seems like too many people are way too eager to slap a slogan on the situation according to their own agenda (more gun control! There is no God! etc.) so they don’t have to take a closer look at what happened. One thing everyone should know is that human beings are complicated and nothing like this is going to be so simple to wipe away or sweep under a cause. From friends or lack thereof, to family at home, to school, to religion, to politics, to mental health… any and all of it could come into play in big ways and small and blaming everything on one thing simply doesn’t work.

    God calls all children to Him. God was in that classroom. He didn’t stop the evil, but that doesn’t mean He wasn’t there for those children in other ways, ways we might not even be able to imagine. God calls all children to Himself – the ones this world does want and the ones it doesn’t. And it seems to me if we want a better world for our children, we need to start giving them the high priority God does, both in the world we provide for them as well as in the models we provide them in ourselves.

  • Elissa

    Since my daughter started kindergarten this year, my prayer that I pray aloud on the way to school has included “bless M– and all her classmates and help them to listen and learn and be kind to one another.” I know that more hard work, as you say, needs to be done than just a simple prayer but now but I realize from your article that if God answers my prayer, the effects are much more far-reaching than just the type of day my daughter or her hard-working teachers experience.

  • Douglas Johnson

    I’m rather amazed that for all the talk of guns I’m hearing, which after all were even more readily available 100 years ago than they are today, no one on the networks is discussing the far more likely motivator for a psychotic killer these days: media coverage.

    The Chicago Tribune has a policy of not covering suicides. If they did cover suicides, they worry that the person contemplating the taking of his own life might do so in order to get Tribune coverage. So, the Tribune doesn’t cover it.

  • erikson

    As a person who, at the same age as the victims of this crime, was being pelted with rocks by the other children, I thank.

  • MMQC

    Very good read. I completely agree with you and appreciate your wording of what I could not verbalize!

  • bill bannon

    His victims though were overwhelmingly female…8 boys, 12 girls, 6 females adults plus the mom…..8 males/19 females. You still could be correct but with a surprising twist. Watch for coverage of the dad of one victim Emilie Parker…dad, Robbie Parker…splendid values.

  • Thomas R

    ” media coverage.”

    Yes, I’ve heard this mentioned on some discussions and I think it could be relevant. I don’t think it’s too unusual for people like this to “want to be remembered” and to make “others sorry.” Media hype I fear, in a way, says “If you have a personality disorder heinous acts will make you more memorable than anything else you can possibly do.” Personality disorders (Borderline personality, sociopathy, etc) are different than psychotic ones (schizophrenia et alia) in that I don’t think there is much to treat them. So if one could be “cured” that could be newsworthy, but even then the media would likely remember violent ones over one who was successfully treated and became a cancer researcher or something. It’s only been fairly recent that our image of schizophrenics has shifted. When I was a boy it wasn’t seen as “A Beautiful Mind” or troubled people worthy of our help so much as it was “crazy homeless guy who beats you up” or “Man who shoots post office because he thought his dog told him too.”

    Not that we know if this guy has either a personality disorder or schizophrenia. But talking about him, I’ll not name him though, potentially does unintentionally encourage the celebrity of murder.

  • Adam

    I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what drove this event. The reason why is that we–or our press, or both–have very short memories when it comes to these events. It’s been about a year since Gabby Giffords was shot in Arizona, and five months since the shooting in Aurora. Oh, and it’s been over three years since Major Hassan shot up Fort Hood, and he hasn’t even gone to trial yet.

    You think there’d be some systematic analysis of why these folks keep doing these things: fame, psychosis, revenge, something. It doesn’t help that the shooter is dead–he can’t be questioned or examined, so unless a diary turns up, his motives will be conjecture at best. The media tends to eventually move onto the next big thing. Just wait–some other event will occupy our minds in a few weeks, and we’ll unfortunately forget about this tragedy. (The cynic in me says it’ll be the Super Bowl.) The media and its followers will continue to lay the blame on guns or gun culture without really getting to the heart of the problem.

  • Hannah Smith

    What a tragic moment for the families, the community, for society in general. All the “whys” in the world cannot really give an answer because we dont really know the cause but from reading media reports it sounded to me like an explosion of inner rage in the young man, and I also wondered if the school and the age of those whom he went for were for him a retaliation for his own sufferings. It seems he went for specific group, this leads me to think that he himself was a victim when that same age. Something of recent times must have triggered his action. It seems also that to kill his mother, school principal, teachers, that he had an issue with “authority figures” These were protecting students but perhaps he felt he had been unprotected himself. RIP dear children and God have Mercy on the young man as ony He knows the real “Why”

  • Becky

    belief must be founded on an engagement of the free will… it can’t be forced.

    I agree, but I submit that Bible verses memorized at 5 or 10 years may not be pondered at 15 or 20 years, but remain beneath the surface to surface, perhaps at 25 or 30 years.

    Better to have them in place, than not. Feeding the holy imagination.

    Heaven and Hell are useful distinctions to guide behavior in this life in anticipation of the next life. To imagine the next life is critically important yet it has gone missing from all the scientific and materialist narratives that are meant to guide behavior in secular public schools.

  • Manny

    I’m skeptical on the bullying angle. Perhaps he was bullied, but every kid is bullied in some way. Schizophrenia is a pretty deep psychological problem.

  • Richard

    Unfortunately, getting the news has become a process of constant unlearning of what we learned. It is also terrible that are politicians run to the microphones with their hair on fire to press their agendas when what we really need is time to absorb the initial shock and horror of it all.

  • Richard

    Opps, make that “our” not “are,” but come to think of it they are not my politicians.

  • Tim Freeman

    I agree with your thoughts and they are helpful. I too am skeptical of this being the result of God being “shut out” of our culture, government, and classroom. It’s interesting that those to who hold to this stance, have a nostalgic, romantic view of the past. When we had prayer in the classroom we also had slavery, poverty, people barred from church/worship because of divorce, etc. And yet now that God is barred from public places, per these folks, we have this occur, and human trafficking, and 33% of US children who go to bed hungry, seems the situation is unchanged regardless of God’s presence/absence in the public square…

  • Maria

    So right on the way this tragedy should be taken. God will never take away our free will. God is always there to call in everyones heart.

  • Michael

    Speculating on the “why” of this act is beyond my knowledge and perhaps just an exercise in futility that actually can lead to true despair. Yes, it may be ” easy” to say God and prayer is not in our schools snd society, but you have correctly pointed out the fault with that. Maybe the better response is to look inward and toward our own immediate families. Never mind about prayer in school, do we have prayer in our house, in our own lives? We are in the season of waiting with joyful anticipation for Jesus to come. Yes, he comes to the ” world” but the only real world I know is my home, my children, my liittle space in this world. The only response that makes sense to me to this horrible event is to pray and better prepare our home and heart for the arrival of the only answer to pains and suffering of this world, the newborn King.

  • STOMP Out Bullying

    Please do not make the mistake of labeling this as bullying issue. This is clearly a mental health issue and should be considered nothing but. As a national bullying expert, we cannot and must not blame every tragedy on bullying. The young man who orchestrated the Newtown Massacre cleary had severe mental health challenges. Some of the media said he was autisitic. I don’t believe that autism played a part in this either. I find it very disturbing that no one who knew him — family or friends did not realize that he was very sick didn’t get him the help he needed. The fact that his mother was a gun collector makes it even more frightening because someone had to see that this young man needed psychiatric help.

    Ross Ellis
    Founder and Chief Executive Officer
    STOMP Out Bullying
    Love Our Children USA

    [I did not "make" this a bullying issue. I simply asked if being bullied can have been a factor in his mental illness. It's a legitimate question. -admin]

  • Skay

    This from the NY Post–

    * Adam tried to buy a rifle three days before the attack from a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Danbury, Conn., but was turned away, employees confirmed.

    The madman was rebuffed because he refused to follow the mandatory waiting period or undergo a background check, NBC News reported.

    * Officials were also investigating whether Adam had an “altercation” with four school employees the day before the killings, NBC reported.”

    If true there is a lot more to this story and why it happened. We now know that the guns he used belonged to his mother who bought them for protection after she and his father divorced.
    Unfortunately( and that is an understatement) she did not seem to recognize the extent of her son’s problems and what he was capable of.

  • Gerry


    Mental illness is not new in the United States. Boys who have been bullied are not new in the United States. Guns are not new in the United States. What is new is the wanton disregard for human life, which hides under the “pro choice” euphemism. Since “mentally healthy” Americans can regard mass murder as exercising “women’s rights”, why should anyone be shocked that this attitude influences those who decide that schoolchildren really aren’t human beings?