Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, I have heard many references to “evil.”
I am in Arizona as I write this, and Governor Jan Brewer, who has signed some of the most ridiculously lax gun legislation in the country—anyone can carry a concealed weapon without so much as a background check or training—said:
There are evil, evil people in our country, unfortunately, and in the world. And I don’t know how we get our arms around it.
In his remarks during Sunday’s prayer vigil, President Obama said,
As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.
When one uses evil in this context, in the context of “indescribable violence,” it is ultimately meant to describe some kind of unseen diabolical force, a force that can be contrasted to an unseen good force: “love” operating under “God’s grace.” I understand the term evil used this way. It’s how people talk about what they perceive as incomprehensible acts by fellow human beings against other fellow human beings. It is sort of shorthand for our ignorance of why bad things happen, especially why bad things happen to six- and seven-year old kids in a school classroom.
But look at this picture:
Is this the picture of evil?
That, of course, is the picture of mass-murderer Adam Lanza. The boy in that picture, some eight or nine years after it was taken, would kill his mother, twenty little kids and six adults trying to protect them, then ultimately himself. Look at that picture and tell me where the evil is.
Adam Lanza was not evil then, nor was he evil when he mercilessly gunned down helpless children. He was a seriously disturbed human being who lived in a culture that has yet to figure out how to handle seriously disturbed human beings, nor how to keep them away from dangerous weapons, some of which shouldn’t even be available to people who are not disturbed.
We can talk about common sense gun regulations, as we should, but let’s don’t pretend that we can seriously address the problem, a problem that Adam Lanza has so bloodily forced us to face, without addressing the social problems related to mental illness, and the problem of helping those who care for people with mental illnesses on a daily basis, whether it be family or institutions.
Listen to Aaron E. Carroll, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at Indiana University’s School of Medicine and the director of its Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research:
We should be careful not to blame the mentally ill for all crimes. But we should also be prepared to accept that we might be able to prevent some tragedies if we did a better job of caring for them.
I’ve seen mental health illness in children, and our system is ill-equipped to handle it. I’ve seen families struggle with it. One of my greatest frustrations with clinical practice is that there are far too many times when I lack the tools necessary to care for children who need help. It’s relatively easy to cure an infection or an acute physical ailment. It’s so much harder to take a mental health issue. There are rarely pills that will do the job. Even when they are, they almost never work perfectly to eradicate the problem.
I strongly urge you to read Dr. Carroll’s entire article. It will tell you more about how to start to better deal with the Adam Lanzas than perhaps anything you will read in one short piece. You’ll learn things like this:
If a child is actively suicidal or homicidal, an emergency room can spring into action and admit him or her for inpatient care. But that’s often all inpatient care will do. Once a child is no longer actively threatening harm to himself or others, he or she will be released. That’s what the hospital system does. It cares for the acute problem, leaving the long term, and often much harder, work to a system ill-equipped to handle it.
And, most startling for me, I learned this:
One of the things I do as a pediatrician is “anticipatory guidance.” We ask questions about issues that have not yet occurred but might occur in the future. A lot of anticipatory guidance focuses on injury prevention. We might ask about bike helmets, or swimming, or fire alarms in the house. I even ask about guns in the home.
I don’t ask this question because I’m eager to lecture patients or parents on the morality of owning guns, or the rights of individuals under the Second Amendment. I’m asking because I’m trying to prevent injury or death. The No. 3 killer of children age 10-14 is suicide; the fourth is homicide. The No. 2 killer of children age 15-19 is homicide; No. 3 is suicide.
I have been trained to ask parents if they have a gun in the home. If they do, I ask how it’s stored. I strongly recommend that they keep it unloaded, locked up, and that they store the bullets separately. I do this because guns are part of almost 85% of homicides and more than 45% of suicides in kids 5 to 19 years old. This doesn’t even account for injuries not resulting in death.
Yet recent laws have attempted to stop pediatricians from doing even this.
If you follow the “recent laws” link above, you will find an article written by a primary care physician, who explained that during his medical interviews with patients he often asks them personal questions, some involving alcohol and drugs and sex, as well as a question that the gun lobby in his state found offensive:
In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law barring Florida doctors from routinely asking patients if they own a gun. The law also authorizes patients to report doctors for “unnecessarily harassing” them about gun ownership and makes it illegal to routinely document firearm ownership information in a patient’s medical record. Other state legislatures have considered similar proposals, but Florida is the first to enact such a law.
Now you can begin to see what damage the gun lobby in America is doing to the country, besides ensuring that millions of dangerous weapons are rather easily available to anyone who wants one. If we can’t even tolerate physicians asking their patients relevant questions about a potentially dangerous situation, especially one involving children, then we are a long, long way from solving the social problem of mass killings by sick people.
And calling those sick people or their acts ”evil” will not help us progress toward any practical solution. And as much as I am tempted to label as evil the National Rifle Association and other groups of gun zealots, I know that doing so will accomplish nothing in terms of defeating them in the political arena.
We, those of us who believe that the NRA and other related organizations represent an eighteenth-century philosophy that is unacceptable here in the twenty-first, must stop letting them rule the day and have their way. We can’t call ourselves an advanced civilization when we still use Iron Age terms like “evil” to describe behavior that we have dramatically failed to address.