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Between the Lines

Kim Anderson, MSW, LCSW, ATR-BC

Visions of Violence: Making Sense of the Senseless

Like so many Americans, Helpers, and Educators, I was confounded by the events in Newtown, Connecticut. In addition to being horrified by the senseless violence, I have been appalled by the unmeasured and ill concievevd responses. I share some thoughts and theories below.

A version of this blog was also posted on Leadscape, Equity Alliance, Arizona State University.

On December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut came under siege. Not unlike the Columbine, Colorado shooters some thirteen years earlier, the only definitive truths we seem to know about Adam Lanza are that he was young, computer knowledgeable, and dressed in dissident fashion as he used automatic weapons to kill innocent and seemingly random children and adults. Like the school assassins who preceded him, Lanza was immediately labeled an outsider, mentally ill, and antisocial. His mother, also dead from bullets allegedly propelled by her own son, likewise was vilified. These are horrible, graphic images and hideous notions with which we are left.

My diverse vocations and avocations (mental health professional, educational consultant, artist, writer, and life-long learner) prompt me to view this event holistically. Our minds, bodies, psyches and spirits have all been assaulted by this historic trauma. My desire to write this piece comes from my inclination for cultural consideration and collective problem-solving, yet I recognize that we are trying to solve this particular problem when, collectively, we cannot think very clearly. Our bodies shudder in empathy for the victims. Our psyches attempt to integrate how we feel and what we know by our fervent attempt to understand. Our spirits are depleted and we ask the age-old existential question, what is the meaning of life, inevitably leading us to the real question: why do the good die young?

The victims of Sandy Hook break our hearts because they symbolize the best of our hopes and the most actualized of our dreams. There is no time in a child’s life more perfect or ripe with hope than first grade. It is an age of innocence, curiosity, discovery and clarity about the existence of good and bad. There is no more honorable a profession than education. The teachers, administrators and auxiliary professionals to whom we entrust our children hold an honored place within our communities.

In the grim face of this tragedy, we seek answers because grief overwhelms us. We want there to be solutions and assurances that this will never happen again, that we can protect our children, that we are not at risk ourselves. Grief strips us of control and agency and when in its throes, our judgment is compromised, our problem-solving capabilities are clouded, and our decisions are poor. We look for reasons because the killing of twenty first graders and six caring adults is unreasonable to us. It should be.

James Halpern, c0-author of Disaster Mental Health: Theory and Practice (Halpern & Tramontin, 2007) notes that people grieve in different ways, on different timetables. There are cultural and gender differences, some that may manifest only after time. He says, “It used to be that people believed that grief follows a certain path . . . I would hope that all of us would be thinking a little more flexibly. We need to think about what we can do to change, not what the other guy can do to change” (Horrigan, 2012). Halpern went to Newtown as part of an elite tem of Red Cross disaster response volunteers. He noted that what happened at Newtown is an example of a “national trauma,” similar to 9/11. In discussing this type of trauma, he defined it as “a kind of shaking or shattering of our basic assumptions” and stated, “You can see it existentially, spiritually, how we conduct ourselves in this world, our feelings about ourselves and the world.” Like 9/11, Halpern says “this was not supposed to happen” (Horrigan, 2012).

In preparation for writing this piece, I scoured media sources and academic articles in search of innovative, scholarly, or even sensible responses to this unnatural disaster. Initially I found few resources that help to synthesize this event or its aftermath in a clear and rational manner. The focus of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut has primarily been on grief, guns, gossip and conjecture.

In the same cyber search, I came across a new book to “help teachers across the curriculum guide their students to become not only skilled readers and writers but also more empathetic human beings” and, paradoxically, an article on a student in California who was suspended and facing expulsion for writing a poem about the Newtown shootings in her personal journal. Courtni Webb wrote that she “understood” how Adam Lanza might have felt. As an expressive arts therapist, I encourage such expression in poem, art, and music. Sometimes this is an alternative to bottling up emotions that erode a child’s internal self-image; sometimes it is a signal that we must intervene before tragedy occurs. It is imperative we are discerning and thoughtful in our assessments.

Raised in a culture where gun ownership was normative and gun safety was engrained, I don’t experience guns as the specific cause of violence unless assault weapons are accessible to the general public or educators are armed for duty in the classroom. Thirty years as a mental health professional tells me that indeed our mental health system is in need of repair, yet the vast majority of those with a psychiatric diagnosis are not violent and not everyone who commits mass murder is mentally ill.

Kathleen Nadar writes that, “No single factor or trait explains violence, and the traits identified in (school) shooters can be found in those who do not commit aggression. Along with factors such as cognitive capacity, emotional development, learning styles and traumatic adversities, empathy and moral development are critical factors in self-regulation. Empathy encompasses cognitive as well as emotional dimensions. Those who perpetrate social cruelty tend to lack empathy, compassion, and accurate perception of social cuing. Nadar asserts that addressing these issues is necessary to abate the risk of these events of rampage. She cites family, school, community, and national environments as influences of outcomes (Nadar, 2012).

A variety of crisis response models and training manuals have been developed to help guide school-based crisis response teams. These models provide a conceptual framework and while helpful in providing a structure for developing teams and plans, most provide very general information and little empirical evidence of their usefulness exists (Creapeau-Hobson, Sievering, Armstrong, & Stonis, 2012). They state that the “one size fits all” model is not efficacious. Although some things may apply across most situations, responders must be flexible and adjust to the unique needs of any school tragedy or crisis.

When discussing averted school shootings, Nadar (2012) states that “Threat assessment methods have received greater endorsement” than “zero tolerance” policies. Potential aggressors may communicate their plans for targeted acts of violence with high level threats being specific and detailed with some steps of the plan already carried out. Creating a safe environment in which a young person feels free to tell what they have been told or overheard is likewise important. Responding immediately to any reports of potential rampages is essential (Nadar, pg. 18).

From Columbine to Newtown, I have never understood the dispassionate Othering of the young people who kill. In the case of Aurora, Colorado or that of Tucson, Arizona, the young men who amassed weapons to commit mass destruction, a clear psychiatric diagnosis could be found. In Newtown, no evidence has yet been shown that Adam Lanza was anything but “quiet” or “weird.” Even suggestions that he had Asperger-like symptoms or was Autistic do not mean that he was mentally ill or prone to violence. Both are regarded as Pervasive Developmental Disorders of childhood rather than mental illnesses – that is to say they signify developmental delays and impairments instead of psychiatric disorders.

None of the media reports, official statements issued, or expert opinions expressed concerning the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School have stated the obvious: this was a violent act. Even those of us who work in the field of equity and social justice shy away from naming violence. We call it racism, classism, sexism, gay-bashing, or bullying but we are reluctant to confront simple violence. Somehow that is a different thing.

As a clinical educator as well as an equity and social justice advocate, I stress the importance of eliminating “them and us” thinking. We seem resistant to the idea that perhaps there is little we can actually do to prevent horrible acts of violence from occurring – or worse, that we may actually be part of the society that incubates such violence through our denial, our othering, our belief that arming ourselves will somehow teach that weapons will not be tolerated.

Kids should be building forts out of imagination, not learning within the walls of a fortress out of fear. I support appropriate security, especially in areas where crime is high or surrounding properties are abandoned and dangerous materials are accessible. To lock doors, bullet-proof windows, and arm teachers will not keep students safer. These measures only increase the risk of accidental harm or becoming trapped in the wake of a natural or unnatural disaster.

Conversely, when overt atrocities take place, children cannot be shielded and needn’t be consoled with pizza parties or “treated to field trips, toy giveaways and some organized play time” as reported by the Huffington Post, December 27, 2012 (Eaton-Robb, 2012). This may seem harsh or cold-hearted, but these sorts of activities not only lead to denial and confusion for children, but give an unintended message that when bad things happen, we are rewarded. This message is not that far from the misguided message that mass murder gives notoriety – the exact grandiose fantasies of many psychopaths or passive wishes of invisible Others.

When interviewed about the poem she wrote, Courtni Webb stated, “The meaning of the poem is just talking about society and how I understand why things like that incident happened. So it's not like I'm agreeing with it . . .”

My personal wish is that Adam Lanza might have been able to write or draw his venomous visions rather than spewing them across a first grade classroom. Now we are all left to deal with our own visions of his violence.

For a copy of the works cited within this post, please visit the resource pages of my website.

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