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Reflections on Newtown

No social problem is as universal as the oppression of the child. Historically, the oppressed – slaves, the servant class and finally the workers – were minority groups who sought their redemption through social change, often in open battle between the oppressed and their oppressors…

But the social problem of the child is not one of class, race or nation. The child who does not function socially is one who functions solely as an appendage of an adult. Those who oppress one part of humanity to the advantage of another succeed only in destroying social unity; to see this from the collective point of view, we need only glance down to see that among the suffering and oppressed there are also children. Almost all who care about children point out that it is the child who is the innocent victim of the wrongs that oppress that adult human being.

Dr. Maria Montessori

The Child in the Family, page 3

Once again a mad violence has swept its gaze across the most vulnerable among us. Once again the innocent young bear the brunt of a raging terror. Our inability to protect them rends our hearts, leaving it hard to breathe, hard to forgive ourselves. We must protect our children, and it is so painful when we cannot.

The horror at Sandy Hook Elementary may have resulted from an earlier failure to help Adam Lanza, a sick little boy who grew up to be a madman. We can pity the child he was, while making no excuses for the monster he became.

* * * * *

According to the FBI, in the US alone, every year, thousands of children are victims of violent crime. Globally, UNICEF estimates the number to be in the millions. Everyone agrees we must keep our children safe, and we wring our hands about how best to do just this.

Gun control is the topic of the day, and though it is a discussion worth having it is at once both complex and hardly a sufficient response. Proponents argue, correctly, that certain weapons might cause more harm, more rapidly, leaving less time to intercede and stop a horrifying event. Those against gun control note that in Britain and Australia, where legislation made obtaining a firearm legally quite difficult, violence and mass killings have not decreased much as we would like. And should we get rid of all guns, it is worth noting that recently British doctors have been calling for a ban on kitchen knives in order to prevent “impulse stabbings”. An opposing fact is that no children died in a Chinese attack less than 24 hours prior to the Newtown tragedy. The difference – the Chinese attacker used a knife rather than firearms.

But we cannot – must not – be happy in a world where success is measured by children stabbed rather than shot.

Because there have always been tragedies, it is difficult to know whether this particular one was inevitable. But the facts around the incident are striking. Adam Lanza was by many accounts a genius, but apparently no one was surprised when he was identified as the killer. His behavior had been disturbing since he was a very small child, yet no one acted to ensure that he was kept both safe and prevented from hurting others.

And this is the tragedy-within-a-tragedy. None of us can say whether Adam Lanza was destined to become a brutal murderer of small children. But it should be clear to all of us that for many years he was a person who needed help, and received none. A straight line may be drawn from the tragedy of his neglect to the larger tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary.

In many places around the world, social norms are dissolving, perhaps nowhere faster than in both the US and China. Communities, where once each neighbor watched over the other, are now simply collections of houses. The best neighbors quietly mind their own business.

In another time, Adam Lanza and his family might have received the support they needed to avoid the Newtown tragedy, or failing that, a concerned member of the community might have noticed and acted to protect the innocent. It is remarkable that while his neighbors knew him just well enough to see that he was “troubled”, in the weeks since the Sandy Hook massacre we have heard of no one who stepped up and took action. Even as a teenager, when Lanza perhaps could have most benefited from treatment and support, those who knew him saw a problem – and did nothing.

In the coming months our political leaders will almost certainly put forward proposals making it harder to obtain certain types of firearms and making it easier to treat and possibly hospitalize persons with mental illness. Perhaps these steps are good and necessary. But it is clear that they are not enough. We must each act to protect the innocent, and it begins by understanding and acknowledging those around us who need help.

This, to me, is the final coda of the Newtown massacre. It is not about weapons, and it is not about legislation. It is about a sick little boy and a society that forgot about him. And it is about the very real cost to our own children if we do not act.

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