Commentary Magazine


The Impulse to Respond

The president said exactly what most Americans were thinking yesterday when he declared at the memorial for the victims of the Newtown massacre: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” In the aftermath of terrible events such as the horrifying murder of 20 children in Newtown, we demand that those in authority do something to ensure that it won’t happen again.

But what we don’t think about in these days of shock and grief is whether the proposals floated during such times have more to do with our need to feel in control of events than a rational plan of action. The “don’t just stand there, do something” impulse is natural in politicians who always wish to be seen as having the answers. But the notion that we can legislate or preach such insane acts out of existence may reflect our unwillingness to appear helpless in the face of evil or madness more than anything else.

For many this will mandate new gun control legislation that would make it harder for guns such as the one used by the murderer to be legally obtained even though, as I noted earlier, it is a popular model owned by so many Americans that a ban on their sale won’t make much of a difference.

Others have raised other issues with possible links to the crime. Senator Joe Lieberman is using Newtown to return to one of his concerns, the prevalence of violence in our entertainment, especially video games and movies. And still others, like former Arkansas governor and current TV talk show host Mike Huckabee, want us to return prayer to the schools which he thinks would help us create a more godly and perhaps less violent nation.

In the coming weeks it is likely we will have another full-scale debate about gun control in which groups like the National Rifle Association will be placed in the difficult position of defending guns that can kill lots of people quickly. Purveyors of violent movies and video games will be shamed as perhaps they should be. And maybe there will be more prayer.

We might be better off if America were an even more religious nation, whose popular culture eschewed violence and where automatic weapons were not easily obtained. But the idea that any of this would have stopped Adam Lanza or someone like him whose demons impelled them to such an unimaginable crime requires a leap of faith that might be too much even for Governor Huckabee.

The idea that we can’t do something about incidents such as Newtown makes us feel small and helpless and is rejected out of hand. At such times as these, those who preach sensible caution about legislation rather than knee-jerk action are dismissed as naysayers and defenders of an indefensible status quo. Americans are a people who like solutions, not philosophical discourses about terrible events. We crave leaders who will tell us they have answers.

Perhaps anger about Newtown and other incidents will be enough to help pass far-reaching restrictions on gun ownership or influence the entertainment industry to change its ways. But the only likely outcome is that schools will be transformed into fortresses even more than they already were. The rhetoric we hear after Newtown, as it is after all senseless crimes, will make many of us feel better and allow politicians to pretend that they are doing something. But the impulse to respond will be about our desire to have the illusion of control over uncontrollable events.