|No easy answers in tragic shooting|
|Local Content - Staff blogs|
|Written by Trevor Busch|
|Friday, 21 December 2012 18:03|
As news of the recent tragic mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn. spread across North America and the world, a myriad of emotions were experienced by people from all walks of life — shock, disgust, anger, sadness, sympathy — even President Barack Obama seemed to be fighting back tears in a speech hours after the full scope of the tragedy had been made clear to the American public.
As hours after the shooting turned into days, and now closing on a fortnight, much attention has inevitably shifted to the man at the centre of the tragedy — almost a boy, really — 20-year-old Adam Lanza. It is part of the human condition to try to seek some kind of explanation for senseless acts of violence. For some, it seeps into the consciousness as an almost morbid fascination to try to understand thoughts, motivations, reasonings — to offer some kind of explanation.
By all accounts, Lanza was certainly a troubled young man. A frenzy of news reports have painted a picture of a socially awkward introvert who may have had a history of mental illness, as well as a familiarity and fascination with weapons. But none of that really explains what people really want to know — why someone who was obviously suicidal chose to destroy the lives of so many before taking his own.
Unfortunately the answer to that question we will really never know for sure. Just what went through the mind of Lanza before he fatally shot his mother and then gathered up her own weapons and made his way to Sandy Hook Elementary School where he killed 20 students and six staff members — no one will ever really know the answer to that question except Lanza. Because after perpetrating this orgy of violence, Lanza turned the weapon on himself. So we will never know.
But we will be almost single-mindedly determined to try to come to the best possible explanation that we can. To do otherwise does not satisfy that curiosity that is almost a primary human quality. But it doesn’t offer much sense of closure, however limited, to parents of victims, to townspeople, and people around the world who desperately want to make sense.
Trying to come up with an explanation might be therapeutic for some, but it is also a practical activity. Without understanding, we invite the same kind of tragedy to occur again and again. Law enforcement and psychology may be inadequate to the task of thorough explanation, through no fault of their own — but it is important that they try to give us as comprehensive an explanation as possible.
They will ultimately fail, however, to really tell us why. They can give us the background — mental illness, troubled family life — and ask us to draw our own conclusions as to motivation. But they can’t with any real certainty tell us what was in the mind of Adam Lanza when he pulled the trigger.
In many meaningful ways, perhaps it really doesn’t matter. It won’t bring back the lives of 26 individuals killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, nor will it do much to assuage the almost inestimable grief of parents who lost their children there.
Trying to assign blame and determine motivations was the task of a tribunal of judges in Nuremberg, Germany after WWII. They attempted to explain that years of social indoctrination of youth and adults, mass propaganda, state-sanctioned hatred, and ready means, opportunity, and expediency could explain the wholesale slaughter of more than six million Jews at the hands of the Nazi state. They did an admirable job in proving the culpability of the Nazi leadership, of the military apparatus of officers who carried out the killings and of the engineers of factory-style murder on a mass scale in places with now-infamous names like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. When all was said and done, most of the remaining Nazi leadership was hung by the neck until dead. And for most, it was good riddance to bad company.
On the other hand, the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal was less successful in attempting to explain the motivations of those Nazi mass murderers further along the chain of command. Although the “I was only following orders” defence was dismissed at Nuremberg, it was more difficult for judges and prosecutors to prove why these individuals had chosen the paths they chose, or became convinced that murdering innocents, down to the last man, woman, child, and infant, was either their duty to the nation, or even their duty to all of humanity — if they believed fanatically enough in the twisted pantheon of Nazi ideology and mythology.
Observers, today as well as in 1946, were still left wanting to know why more than anything else, not unlike trying to determine the motivations of a mass killer like Adam Lanza. Perhaps more disturbing, in recent years intensive scholarship by historians studying the Holocaust has revealed mounting evidence that many atrocities against the Jews carried out by various units of the Nazi police apparatus and elements of the German military were not necessarily the fanatical supermen one might have expected.
That in many cases, the rank and file of these units that made up auxiliary police battalions and even elements of the Einsatzgruppen — the units which followed the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union in 1941, carrying out indiscriminate killings of Jews, Gypsies and Soviet officials — were ordinary German citizens, not heavily brainwashed Nazi elite.
Most of the these rank and file were not considered to be morally culpable for their actions. While their commanders, even NCOs, were often tried and convicted, with some being executed, most “soldiers” in these units were never given the Nuremberg treatment, so to speak. But in taking a closer look at some of these individuals, and their limited political training and indoctrination before being asked to carry out brutal “actions” in occupied territories, the question of why again arises. These individuals were often shooting civilians, women, even infants. There is a stark difference between gassing someone to death in a chamber or slowly working or starving them to death — and looking someone, perhaps a child, in the face before pulling a trigger. And yet there is almost no record of any refusal of duty, of insubordination, often even of psychological impact amongst these units, these so-called ordinary men who were called upon to commit horrific acts. Almost exclusively, they carried out their “duty” without question, calmly murdering on a mass scale.
Today we try to make sense of what happened then through psychology and the power of influence and propaganda, and of a diffusion of responsibility for actions taken under the direction of the state. There is some truth to all these explanations, and they help us to try to prevent the same thing from ever happening again.
But deep down, where it really matters, they will never really tell us what motivates seemingly ordinary people to commit mass murder. In that sense, we will never really understand Adam Lanza, either.
And while me may never understand Lanza, it is important that we give meaning to the lives of his victims. That “explanation” may not be an adequate one for the grieving parents of 20 school children in Connecticut, but it may help them to understand that no explanation will ever be completely adequate.