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The need to find a lasting good

The nation needs to pursue the facts behind the school shooting. Then find redemption for the massacre of innocents.

December 18, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • A Newtown police officer prepares to leave flowers at a memorial for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
A Newtown police officer prepares to leave flowers at a memorial for victims… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

It's four days in and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what happened inside that elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last week.

Like people all over the country, I spent much of the weekend glued to the news on TV, absorbing each painful revelation as if that were my responsibility. As if the power of our collective grief could help that wounded community heal.

There is no way to make sense of Friday's massacre of innocents. But that hasn't stopped the commentators from trying. Or kept us from gobbling up whatever tidbits we think may help explain what turned a quiet, awkward 20-year-old into a mass murderer.

People who hadn't spoken to Adam Lanza in years are being asked to speculate about what led the young man to shoot his mother to death, mow down two classrooms of first-graders and kill a half-dozen school employees.

Was it mental illness, a personality disorder, his parents' divorce?

"You knew this character," CNN's Piers Morgan said, prodding a college student who had known Lanza as a child. "Is this something you could have predicted — he would one day flip and do something as monstrous as this?"

No one, of course, could see this coming.

Everyone could see that Adam was odd: awkward, fidgety, withdrawn, unpredictable, almost always alone.

But you don't slaughter 6-year-olds because you don't fit in. Or because your parents' marriage fails. Or because you're struggling with autism.

We fixate on reports that Lanza suffered from Asperger's, a mild form of autism. But so do more than a million other American youths. That's akin to presuming the guy in the hoodie must be up to no good.

Still, we fumble for an explanation that makes this tragedy less scary and more concrete. We need something beyond unpredictable evil to restore our equilibrium.

But the craft of psychology may be inadequate to this. And our rush to judgment only illuminates how clueless we are and how complicated the problem is.

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After the victims are buried and the memorials come down, a painstaking reconstruction of Adam Lanza's life ought to be done. We need to try to figure out whether something went wrong with our mental health system, or something went wrong in that home.

We know that Nancy Lanza was a woman who really liked guns. The three weapons her son armed himself with on Friday — two pistols and a semiautomatic assault rifle — were among several that she owned. She spent hours at the target range, with her son at her side.

We've heard her described as a devoted and protective mother, who built her life around her son. When he was little, she set up play dates so he might make friends. When he had meltdowns in high school, she'd rush to campus to calm him down.

But what kind of mother encourages her emotionally unbalanced son to share her hobby of shooting powerful guns? And what does that say about our nation's irrational love affair with guns?

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Maybe there's nothing the system could have done to keep Adam Lanza out of that school and guns out of his hands.

But I can't look at the photos of those dead children without seeing angels — and martyrs.

We need to puzzle through whatever we find, and take the search wherever it leads.

We owe it to their families to try to wring some lasting good from this. We owe it to our country to fashion some redemptive legacy.

Our national conversation has already reduced its causes to two things: Mental illness. Guns. And there's a sense that we ought to be able fix that with new policies and laws.

We've begun to close gaps in mental health care. Obamacare requires that emotional problems be treated like any other medical disorder. The bigger and more difficult issue is helping families learn to deal with problems and get the treatment their loved ones deserve.

The gun issue will be harder to resolve — and not just because of National Rifle Assn. bullies and the gutless politicians who serve them.

Almost half of Americans say they own guns. The weapons Lanza took on his killing rampage were legally purchased and registered.

More than half of Americans surveyed last year — 53% — say they are against making it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess assault weapons, like the rapid-fire rifle Lanza used. And only 44% say they support stricter laws on gun ownership.

For all the outrage expressed by grieving parents, in online forums, through commentators and politicians, this is a country that has grown more pro-gun with every passing year.

We're demanding that our politicians do something now that surveys show we don't support.

Wrap your mind around that. Ask what that requires of us.

This is a problem bigger even than untreated mental illness or easy access to guns. We have to come to grips with the fact that we live in a country that glorifies violence, in an era that values faux sociability over real emotional ties.

We're looking for a quick explanation to tidy it up, a plan of action to make us feel that we're in control and can keep this from happening again.

But maybe it's good that we're suspended for a while in the 'Why?' That we just have to live with our fear, our confusion, our outrage. That we don't have the luxury to move on, to deflect.

There are 28 people to bury. Let's focus on that for a while. Then let's find a way to channel our grief into something that honors those senseless deaths.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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