Newtown: Family drama as national tragedy

December 14, 2012

We may never come to understand exactly what was on the crazed mind of Adam Lanza, the man identified as the Connecticut gunman who set out from his home with murder in his heart. All we know, based on reports, is that this troubled young man had an issue with his mother, a schoolteacher in Newtown, Connecticut, that so enraged him he drove with a .223-caliber assault rifle and at least two other guns to attack in cold blood  an elementary school where she taught.

By mid-morning break at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, a reported 20 children and six adults were also dead,* pointlessly killed as they went about their peaceful business of teaching and being taught. As a nation, all we are left with are chilling pictures of frightened schoolchildren clutching each other in a crocodile line, weeping in fear and in horror at what they have just witnessed.

We are left wondering, what was Lanza thinking? Why should so many suffer for his agitated state? Why does a possible family quarrel end in a massacre of unrelated innocents? What price must we continue to pay in human lives to protect the Constitution’s apparent guarantee for us to bear arms?

In America, we rightly elevate the place of the individual in society. We are repeatedly told we are all created equal and that each of us is important. It is this belief, that each of us matters, and what we think and feel is worthwhile and significant, that has drawn millions of people from around the world to live in America. Compared to the Old World, where individual rights have so often been routinely trammeled, America offers every one of us a special consideration that puts our singular personalities above communal demands.

That individualism is essential to who we are as a nation. It is non-negotiable.

As Ayn Rand starkly said in her typically uncompromising homage to heroic individualism, The Virtue of Selfishness, “For every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive — of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, un-coerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.”

In the case of the Newtown shooter, “his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, un-coerced choice” over-rode the essential corollary, “to abstain from violating” the right of 20 children and six adults to continue living their lives.

The America of the Founding Fathers was a wide open place where individuals could forge their own futures in a virgin continent. Today, however, we are interdependent like never before. You can almost hear the world shrinking as we connect wirelessly with each other while walking alone down the street.

The borders of our individual freedoms have become more permeable than they were more than two centuries ago. Social media and cell phones bind us ever closer together. Technology has magnified our presence and extended our influence. That is all to the good – except when individuals lose the plot and start spreading their anger around.

Modern life allowed Lanza to draw thousands of bystanders into his private grief. A young man, he had had little chance to leave his mark on the world. Likely frustrated and angry, he appears to have been intent on ending his mother’s and his own young life in a blood-bath that would grab the headlines. In that he succeeded.

It is our uncompromising right to unfettered individualism that has tarnished what was once an enviable paradise on earth. It is why the Norman Rockwell innocence of Sandy Hook Elementary was long ago besmirched by the need to put a buzzer on the front door and a security camera in the hall.

“If our office staff does not recognize you, you will be required to show identification with a picture ID,” read the mundane letter the school’s principal sent to parents. She might have added, “Crazy people do crazy things in this country. We are locking you out in case you mean us harm.”

In this media-obsessed world, where becoming famous seems far more important than achieving real goals or finding genuine happiness, to go out in a welter of bullets and blood, like Bonnie and Clyde, has somehow become an acceptable second best. Thanks to high technology, a family drama can quickly turn into a national tragedy and a psychological upset can trigger a murder spree.

Just as troubling, mass murder in places of education has become so commonplace that the news cycle quickly moves on.

Finding a solution to the slaughter of children in a kindergarten is not a priority for those who put themselves forward as legislators. A presidential election can take place with three televised debates, and gun control does not warrant a single question.

We may soon have forgotten the name Adam Lanza, but we should never forget his victims who had so little time to express themselves in life.

And we should never forgive those who shrug their shoulders and hide behind vague words by long-dead men to excuse their cowardly inaction.

PHOTO: A child reacts to police and fireman staged nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School where a gunman opened fire on school children and staff in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

*Note: The piece was updated to reflected news reports.




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Good sensible words, but we need action, like right now.
Is anybody is this greatest country of ours able to come up with any effective solutions?

I don’t think the gun industry with the NRA & WalMart will offer anything, they’ve got everything to loose, like our big bucks going into their pockets & to China.

As a civilized society we have been declining very fast. That is just too bad.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

There is nothing positive in the writings of Ayn Rand. She is a discredited sociopath as are her followers.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

This tragedy exemplifies what America is and always was.
The rest is nonsense.

Posted by Biscayne | Report as abusive

American society is built on violence: Implicit at home, as the very brisk business in assault weapons makes evident; explicit abroad via a perpetual series of trumped-up wars.

The first man of the land, the President, is an avowed assassin.

How did Americans feel when Bill Clinton and his reptilian Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, killed off 500,000 Iraqi children with their embargo?

Indifferent, is the answer.

As you sow, so shall you reap.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Wapshott repeats this distorted view of America’s frontier past as well as this falacy that individual rights are respected in this country. For example: “America offers every one of us a special consideration that puts our singular personalities above communal demands.” This statement is completely bogus. Look at the lack of property rights that individuals face when oil/gas pipelines come through their property, or pollute their drinking water. Even in Conn. a use of eminent domain went all the way to the Supreme Court when a local town teamed up with a developer to throw out power residents.

We are no more interdependent today than we were 100 or 200 years ago. Not a single pioneering family made it on their own. They needed seeds, tools, livestock, etc. to start a homestead, and very few made it through the first winter. And without law enforcement and courts in the frontiers, these individuals were often at the mercy of the powerful elite (ranch wars of Colorado for example).

Articles like this give a false sense to Americans that once in our frontier past we didn’t face lunatic massacres. Our Native Americans today, or what’s left of them, can prove how false that premise is.

The reality is that America has not given up on its frontier mentality that with a gun you can settle disputes and make your own “justice”. That is what the NRA, the far right and other gun toting idiots in this country insist is a “right” – no it is just barbarism.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

Bottom line is this: Guns do not kill people. People kill people. Every time something like this happens with an obviously mentally ill person doing something horrific (using what appears to be guns legally purchased and owned by his mother) that everyone starts pointing fingers at people who are legal and responsible gun owners. We don’t hear anything about the weekly massacres in Chicago due to gun violence, but these horrific events have people pointing their fingers at anything attached to the NRA and responsible people. Mentally ill people are committing these crimes. Can’t remember the last time a responsible gun owner did this? Also, enough of classifying any long rifle as an “assault rifle”. Nicholas Wapshott is yet another irresponsible journalist provoking people with that use of terms.

Posted by MitchS | Report as abusive

Ironically (given the author’s atomistic tone) it is the breakdown of social cohesion that leads to the devastation that took place at the Sandy Hook school, not ‘mommy issues’. Mom and son were operating within a larger cohort that framed their attitudes and understandings, proclivities for guns, and approaches to conflict resolution.

If only the society in which they lived had mechanisms for social/psychological intervention, 26 others might still be alive.

Posted by wilhelm | Report as abusive

I was recently on a flight from Chicago to Phoenix, and the passenger next to me in first class looked to be a normal white business man in his late 30’s, held his IPad viewing a shooting rampage for 2 hours straight. I could hear it through his headphones, and when he noticed I was glancing at his screen, he held the IPad closer to his face. I also have a friend with a 9 year old, with a handheld device that is all about shooting, and when his device is taken away he throws an unbelievable tantrum. It is not just about guns, it is the gleam and glamour of cool gun shoot outs. On the other side of the shooting is the bad guy. When one who becomes so desensitize, the shooting and killing is grossly alluring, and for the impaired individual it becomes a fantasy almost with an impulsive nature to act out.

Posted by mmcg | Report as abusive

There is nothing quite like a knee jerk reaction to highlight the bad decisions that occur after a tragedy. Now we have politicians trying to fix the wrong problem and using tragedy to push a political agenda. I don’t understand why people want to blame horrific acts on the tools used to perpetrate the horror, instead of the sick individual who performed the murders. Let’s stop talking about the evil handguns that this 20 year old couldn’t legally possess. Let’s instead talk about the fact that he stole them from his mother after he killed her in her home and then drove to the job she loved to slaughter the innocents she taught every day.

Laws are for the law abiding, not the criminals who care for nothing beyond the terror they can instill. No number of gun laws can prevent this type of tragedy. Not even a month ago, halfway around the world 20 children and one adult were assaulted in a knife attack at a school in China. Think about that – a mass assault in China, a communist country where firearms have been completely outlawed and unavailable to the public for generations. Such attacks at schools were responsible for the deaths of over 20 students in China in 2010 alone. Think about the fact that children were killed by evil men and not a single shot was fired.

Just over 11 years ago, four passenger jets were hijacked and used as missiles to perpetrate terror on a mind-blowing scale. How hard are those jets to procure? The point here is that we are not going to legislate jumbo jets or knives out of existence, and even if we had, we would be addressing a tool, and not the problem. The problem is that sick individuals like the pathetic excuse for a man I refuse to even name went on a rampage at a school knowing that the media would blast his name across TV sets around the country. That the media would keep the story alive for weeks and months, and that we would tie his name to this tragedy so his sorry excuse for a life could be tied to something in infamy.

We are a society without responsibility. We thrive on infotainment and immediate satisfaction, and we have lost the sense of community and human decency that prevented this type of behavior 30 years ago. It’s not the guns that kill, it’s the people – and until we can sort out that dilemma you can pass every law on the book and ban every tool in the tool chest but it won’t fix the problem.

Posted by Titos2Cents | Report as abusive

“…the Constitution’s apparent guarantee for us to bear arms?” This guarantee is not apparent at all! It is the result of fundamentally wrong judgments by the Supreme Court. Somebody above wrote that the American society is built on violence. This is sadly true, and as long as there is no consensus that at least assault weapons should be banned from use by citizens nobody should wonder if mass shootings and murders like this occur time and again.

Posted by flyingdutch18 | Report as abusive

Wapshott, why is it suddenly alright to use unsubstantiated “facts” to describe the killer?

“A young man, he had had little chance to leave his mark on the world. Likely frustrated and angry, he appears to have been intent on ending his mother’s and his own young life in a blood-bath that would grab the headlines.”

How are those statements anything but irresponsible speculation written for the sole purpose of framing your aimless and pathos-driven argument?

I understand these events are tragic. Just like Anton Breivik’s actions were tragic, and just like Min Yingjun’s actions struck a chord. Yes, the murder of 26 white, upper-class Americans is quite a chore to stomach especially when there is no apparent motive, and most of the victims had yet to celebrate a birthday with two numbers on the cake. Nobody is going to argue that it’s a sad state of affairs, but I have an idea for you (if you want to seem sympathetic). Instead of rattling off some Ayn Rand quotes and expressing your disillusionment with social media (which, by the way, has NOTHING to do with shooting); instead of making feeble attempts at humanism with a bunch of faux-utilitarian rhetoric; instead of disparaging a family that you know virtually nothing about (as only ONE photo of the killer and his mother are currently available to the public), maybe you should try to access a human emotion. In the face of violent anger, to respond with violent anger is to catalyze combat. Perhaps one should feel sorrow for the circumstances that led Adam Lanza to murder 20 children. Maybe the most depressing angle here is the angle from inside the Lanza household. I am not condoning his actions, but I am advocating taking a deep look into the circumstances that drove him to such horrific lengths.

I liked your article a lot, besides the desperate plea for gun control and the irresponsible speculation about Lanza’s private life. Before ANYONE can say ANYTHING about the causes, we should first allow the authorities to conduct a thorough investigation, and base our opinions on the FACTS they unearth. To respond with such emotion and vitriol is only fueling an already well-stoked fire. Take a second to breathe, to reflect, to mourn and allow the smoke to clear before making these huge political assertions and undoubtedly imbuing many of your trusting readers with MORE SENSELESS ANGER.

Yes, this is a terrible thing, but can’t we let at least 72 hours pass before turning it into another proving ground for political ideology?

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

“… the Constitution’s apparent guarantee for us to bear arms?” It is rather the fundamentally flawed jurisdiction by the Supreme Court. As long as this jurisdiction is upheld and assault weapons – supposed to be used in wars – are not banned by Congress nobody should wonder if these atrocities occur time and again.

Posted by flyingdutch18 | Report as abusive

“And we should never forgive those who shrug their shoulders and hide behind vague words by long-dead men to excuse their cowardly inaction”


It’s ridiculous to say that a family squabble or a desire for publicity caused this. It was untreated mental illness and lack of gun control that were the culprits. Ayn Rand is a loon. We need more community, not her inflated idea of the individual.

Posted by meherc | Report as abusive

In 1986, the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment achieved new legal authority with the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens . . . to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.” … In an interview, former Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the new interpretation of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

The above is from “Battleground America – One nation, under the gun” by Jill Lepore, in The New Yorker, April 23, 2012.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive