Chattering Away the Evil
Our news media suffer from a terrible supply-side problem. The number of people paid to offer opinions greatly outstrips the number of things worth having an opinion about. Even now, several weeks after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I don’t think the slaughter was the kind of event toward which one can profitably form an interesting point of view. Leaving church one morning, so the story goes, the great Coolidge was asked the subject of his pastor’s sermon. “Sin,” Coolidge replied. And what did the pastor say about sin? “He said he was ag’in it.” Some things don’t require much elaboration.
In an important sense—in the literal sense—what happened at Sandy Hook was unspeakable, which is why, I suppose, the public disputations that followed it were a towering jumble of non sequitur and irrelevance, a rodeo of hobby horses ridden by straw men. The disputations began even before the authorities had released a final count of victims. Indeed, at the time, good information was hard to come by. For as much as 10 hours after the first reporters arrived on the scene, print and TV journalists were misreporting the killer’s name, his place of residence, his relationship to the elementary school, his mother’s line of work, the types and source of the guns he used, the reaction of school officials in the immediate aftermath of the crime—the long string of mistakes we have come to expect when the compulsion to get it first overwhelms the need to get it right.
The rash of incomplete or inaccurate detail failed to dismay or discourage our professional opinion-mongers, whose own compulsions were quickly placed on full display. Armchair headshrinkers, loudmouth politicians, retired cops, chin-pulling sociologists, grade-B pundits, and frothy political activists were summoned to the airwaves by producers who assumed, wrongly, that there was a demand for incessant commentary. The most generous view of the endless yakking is that it’s a kind of societal nervous tic: We compensate for our horror by explaining it, categorizing it, generalizing from it, and vowing, no matter how improbably, that it will never happen again. And so we use the half-digested language of psychiatry, sociology, cultural anthropology, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology to get a handle on it, render evil comprehensible.
There’s merit to this generous view, but in examining news flows we must never underestimate the pull of opportunism, not only commercial but ideological, too. The most relentless instance was the press’s monomania about the nation’s supposedly feckless regulation of guns. By lunchtime on the day of the shooting, the news reader on my local all-news radio station reported that “some are wondering whether it might be time for a national conversation about gun control.” Left unreported was that those nameless wonderers think any time is the time for a national conversation about gun control—no horrific tragedy required. Phone a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at any hour of any day or night and he’ll call for a national conversation before you can say hello. A few tough talkers went beyond calling for a conversation to call for an end to calls for a conversation. Mayor Bloomberg elbowed his way in front of the cameras to look angry and resolute but succeeded only in being grimly comical. “Calls for meaningful action are not enough,” he said. “We need immediate action.” If this meta-call for immediate action sounded self-cancelling to you, then you’re taking the man too seriously.
And what kind of action? Here the ideologues grew frustrated by facts. The Brady Campaign ranks Connecticut fourth among the states when it comes to stringent regulation of guns—a model of the gun-control regime any national conversation is supposed to lead to. Even so, the guns the murderer used were purchased legally in-state by his mother before he stole them from her home, so not even the fabled “gun show loophole” could be implicated in the crime. He had been trained in the use of guns at legal shooting ranges, and his own attempts to buy a weapon were stymied by a mandatory waiting period. Connecticut ranks first among the states in keeping guns out of public places, and of course the school itself was a “gun-free” zone. Until the shooter showed up.
Even the gun controllers acknowledged that an ongoing nationwide confiscation of guns—perhaps the only action that could retard gun violence over the span of a generation or two—was unthinkable in a country where 300 million weapons rest in the hands of owners who seem weirdly fond of them. At least this hint of realism made the anti-gun nuts appear more ingenuous than their pro-gun counterparts, who joined the national conversation with the intent of derailing it. The buffoonish leader of the National Rifle Association called for the federal government to install armed guards in every school; even he didn’t take the proposal seriously enough to make it more than once. A more common tactic was to exculpate guns by isolating the role our feckless “mental-health system” played in the crime. The infamous “deinstitutionalization” of the 1960s and 70s had loosed the mentally ill onto our streets or diverted them into prisons, where treatment was scarce.
The problem, in other words, wasn’t the lax regulation of guns but the lax regulation of people. This was a dodge, and an odd one for the conservatives who were making it, though it did have the admirable effect of swinging attention away from “guns” and the “gun culture” and back toward the killer himself, where it belonged. Yet it fit the facts of the case no better than the gun-control argument. No dragnet concocted by our “helping professions” would have ensnared the Sandy Hook murderer, who had never been diagnosed with anything scarier than a mild form of autism. As for the other culprit fingered by gun-control opponents—violent video games and Hollywood movies—social scientists have found no link between the games and anti-social behavior among the pimply dolts who play them.
“In fact,” wrote one researcher, Christopher J. Ferguson, in Time magazine, “during the years in which video games soared in popularity, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows.” The same is true of violent crime generally, and of school violence, too.
Ferguson saw in all the disputation something that went beyond political opportunism, beyond even the blathering of a nation in shock. In an interview with ABC News, Ferguson termed it “moral panic.” It’s surely a more accurate tag than “national conversation.” I think the panic lay in the vague if unexpressed understanding that, while the crime seemed to demand some practical response, every practical response had just been proved worthless by the crime itself.
The criminal and his crime had passed through every security gate constructed by modern American scrupulousness. The government tried to deny him guns, so he stole them. The school doors were locked against intruders, so he shot his way in. Since high school he had been flagged and attended to by professional helpers of all kinds; even his mother’s divorce had been laboriously negotiated to be sensitive to his social and emotional needs. He had other ideas.
The slaughter at Sandy Hook wasn’t merely a rebuke to politics or law enforcement or government regulation—it was a rebuke to our desperate hope that evil can be destroyed, or at least quarantined. Our chattering class kept talking anyway.