Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Sandy Hook and Violence Prediction

Photo courtesy
In the aftermath of the dreadful Sandy Hook tragedy, much of my Facebook wall is the arena of political debates about gun control and about national mental health care. But what of the human factor? Can we predict such horrific violence?

A recent story in the New York Daily News provides a profile of mass murderer Adam Lanza as described by former classmates and neighbors. He's described as having either Asperger's syndrome or some other disorder, and there are abundant details about his parents' amicable divorce and generous alimony arrangement. What is interesting to me is that many of the commentators on the piece express lack of surprise at the identity of the murderer.

 . . . 

 A “longtime” family friend said Lanza had a condition “where he couldn’t feel pain.” “A few years ago when he was on the baseball team, everyone had to be careful that he didn’t fall because he could get hurt and not feel it,” said the friend. “Adam had a lot of mental problems.” 

 . . . 

 Lanza walked the halls of his middle school carrying a black briefcase while most students lugged their belongings in backpacks. “That stuck out,” said Tim Lalli, 20, who graduated with Lanza in 2010. “It was different.” Lalli said Lanza wasn’t a total outcast, but he didn’t speak much. “Everyone just assumed he was a smart kid and that’s why he didn’t like talking to people all the time,” he said. “He hung out with the smart crowd.” 

 . . . 

 One family friend described Adam Lanza as a gamer who “rarely spoke.” “He was weird,” said the friend, who asked to remain anonymous. “He was quiet.” 

 . . . 

 Do these remind you of anything? In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, the media and the public were quick to blame and label Goth youth who wore trench coats to school. Dave Cullen's 2009 book Columbine debunked these stories. The killers' personal journals reveal that Eric Harris was a sophisticated psychopath, while Dylan Klebold was deeply depressed and captivated by Eric. But it was much easier to look for external signs of not fitting in than for the killers' personal psyche.

And so, after every senseless tragedy that claims the lives of innocent people, we are subjected to these generalizations. The price we pay is much more intangible and less noticed. And that is the stigmatization of entire populations of youth who may not fit in at school, who carry a briefcase in lieu of a backpack, whose hobbies involve gaming. Fortunately, the vast majority of these people will never kill. And this is true for the many harmless, kind, nonviolent people many readers probably know who have Asperger's or other personality disorders.

So how can we tell who might do this? The answer may be more situational than anything, really. As Gavin de Becker reminds us in The Gift of Fear, watching a situation attentively and paying attention to our feelings is important, and it is equally important not to let fear paralyze us so much that we stop paying attention in the situations in which it is there as a friend, to warn and alert us. If we now fear and loathe all our fellow human beings who behave eccentrically and suffer from mental illness, we will lose our valuable, precious instinct for predicting a violent situation near us. Because we will start stereotyping and hating, and we'll stop watching and paying attention.

And after all that is said and done, the only thing left to do is cry for the many lives that were lost, for the potential squandered, for friendships and toys and notebooks and story time, for fish fingers and peas and coloring books, for a love of learning and a love of teaching. And maybe to remind ourselves that these incidents are horrific, but uncommon. And that love wins over fear. Most of the time.

1 comment:

Yael Rubinstein said...