In the typical reaction to such unfathomable tragedies, our society seems to follow the same formula every time and every time, we end up nowhere closer to a solution. If anything, we end up with more problems. This is not about just gun violence at schools, but a wide range of tragedy from terrorist attacks to domestic violence.
We always start with the media’s constant recap of events, showing footage of victims, interviews with survivors and victims’ families, and then maybe several days later, actually address how to help children deal with the knowledge of such tragedy. The media machine is in such a rush to be the first to report, that so much misinformation gets sent out into the world and at times, this misinformation gets perpetuated and morphs into justification for further violence and intolerance.
The next step comes to trying to understand the motives of the perpetrator or perpetrators and identifying what precise thing led to the violence. It is rarely this cut and dry. After Columbine, it was an attack on trench coats. After 9/11, it was Islam. After Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown, we see an attack on mental illness. All of this scapegoating does is increase fear and intolerance in our society. Hate crimes against anyone fitting the description of the latest scapegoat rises after these events, even against those who are not truly connected. Look at the tragedy in Oak Creek, WI at the Sikh temple. It highlights our fundamental misunderstanding of the core values of our society.
Our society thrives on a quick fix mentality. Need to lose weight? Take a pill or have surgery, don’t waste your time on diet and exercise even though that is the best and healthiest way to lose weight in the absence of other medical problems. Feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious? Take a pill, don’t spend time in therapy or in self-reflection to try to understand what in your life is making you feel the way you are feeling. Child won’t sit still in class? Diagnose the child with ADHD and give the child pills, rather than have a teacher alter their classroom management and lesson plan approach to accommodate the needs of the individual student. Ignoring the issues of gender in our society, it was the prescription of minor tranquilizers to middle class, white women in the 1950s and 1960s to deal with what Betty Friedan identified as The Problem that Has No Name as depicted in her book, “The Feminine Mystique” and found within the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song “Mommy’s Little Helper.”
In specific regards to the issues of mental illness, we need to tread very carefully. What constitutes your definition of mental illness? If you take mild tranquilizers for a week after you parent has died, does that mean you are mentally ill? It does in the eyes of health insurance companies which then use these prescriptions and diagnoses to deny coverage (but that is an issue for a different post). If you are a victim of rape and suffer from excessive fear and night terrors, does that mean you are mentally ill? What about those who get depressed during the winter months either due to the holidays or lack of sunlight? Are they mentally ill? Limiting a person’s civil rights due to a vague definition of what it means to be mentally ill is wrong. All of this coverage on mental illness and its links to violence further stigmatize members of society. We want people to seek help if they need it and understand that there is nothing wrong with needing some help. Because of the stigma of mental illness, so many people exposed to trauma including first responders and soldiers do not seek the help they need. Humans are social animals and we cannot bear everything on our own. No one is actually normal and if we want to talk about what is normal in society, violence is the normal of our society not a form of deviance. Its pervasiveness is evident.
So how do we respond to this tragedy? There are calls to arm teachers in our schools in the aftermath of Newtown. This is such a bad idea it is hard for me to fathom where to begin. Let me begin by saying that I am not opposed to gun ownership, rather I only support responsible gun ownership. The number one concern with arming our teachers is that we truly do not know how we would react to a situation until we are actually in that situation. We like to think that we would act heroically, but in the words of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “Heroes are rare in our society.” This has been documented in psychological research over time (see Zimbardo’s Prison Study and Milgram’s Obedience Study). If a child is laying on the sidewalk asking for help, would you stop? You want to say yes. But in reality, how many of you walk past the multitude of homeless of all ages and turn a blind eye? You say you support your veterans, but how many of you actually stop and thank them for their service and ask them how they are, not what they did? Even trained professionals such as police and soldiers may experience panic in response to the rush of adrenaline in a situation. How can we effectively train teachers to not panic, to not think of saving themselves above the lives of others? We cannot. This being said, I am not opposed to having trained, armed security at schools, perhaps even employing our veterans who struggle with finding work after their military service.
Furthermore, while most teachers are honorable, there are still a few that are not and molest or assault students. If armed, how could a child fight back or ever feel safe enough to confide in someone to get help? The bottom line is that by putting guns in the hands of teachers would be exacerbating the situation and ignoring the fundamental problem.
On the other hand, in some cases teachers are also attacked by students. While most would fear students in the upper middle school and high school ranges, it is not unheard of for one or more elementary aged children to attack an adult. If that teacher is armed and the child gets the weapon, what happens then?
Perhaps instead of arming our teachers with guns, we should look at having our teachers and children learn self-defense. Some may argue that engaging in martial arts is further violence but those who teach and study martial arts no differently. Martial arts have many benefits beyond self-defense including increasing self-esteem, self-control, self-confidence, and in the development of setting and achieving goals. It also teaches respect for oneself and others, reduces stress, and improves concentration. These are core values that should exist in every society.
This tragedy was not caused by mental illness or guns. It was caused by the fundamental lack of tolerance in our society as well as the pervasiveness and acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems. We live in a society where hazing is considered acceptable because the victim volunteered to participate and it serves as a rite of passage for entry into a social group, sports team, and workplace, bullying is the way to get ahead in this country, and it is considered better to turn a blind eye or imprison those less fortunate than take a critical look at our own behavior. We need to teach the fundamentals of tolerance and conflict resolution independent of violence beginning at birth and continue to hit home these issues throughout all school years, as is currently done with reading and writing. We want our children to learn to read and write so for their entire school career, reading and writing is included in all subjects for all years. The same MUST be done with tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. We need to engage in a path towards finding long-term solutions rather than scapegoating. Granted this will not solve our problems overnight but seldom do such complex problems have such a quick fix solution.