A hunt is on for a genetic mutation that might explain Adam Lanza’s rampage. But just as our science doesn’t have answers, the results would raise even more difficult questions.
Our attempt to comprehend the horror of the Newtown, Conn., elementary-school massacre took a new turn this week when the office of the Connecticut Medical Examiner announced it would work with experts to determine whether the assailant, Adam Lanza, had any discernible genetic defect that might have led to his inconceivable action. Their hope is that perhaps from the tragedy we can gain some new insight, a knowledge that might help to identify the next mass murderer in advance and stop him before it’s too late. Or something.
Members of the Rutter family embrace early Christmas morning as they stand by memorials near the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 25, 2012. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
Though met with a certain amount of surprise and concern, the planned DNA-ification of Lanza is the 21st-century version of an old pastime—scientists trying to understand insanity on a literal and physical level. In the 19th century, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., the first federally run psychiatric hospital and a (now-closed) place famous for housing Ezra Pound and John Hinckley among others, also went about collecting the brains of the insane (PDF). About 1,500 brains taken at autopsy have been preserved for examination both contemporaneously but also with an eye to the future, when perhaps smarter scientists with stronger microscopes and more discriminating stains might be able to unlock the key to insanity. Now called the Blackburn-Neumann Collection, the samples are part of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Just as once we had assumed that invention of the microscope and microbial basis of disease and elucidation of the atom and all the rest would place scientific pursuit onto a bedrock of truth and indivisible, unassailable reality, so too are we now seduced by the promise of DNA and the entire traveling circus of the double helix. Furthermore, genetic decoding has been presented with comic-book simplicity; here, the genes are nothing more than a series of off-on switches studding the twisting molecular strands, each unambiguously responsible for just one expression: red hair or seafood allergy or mass-murder inclination. It’s all just one big scavenger hunt, working and sifting through junk, inch by inch, to find the nugget that encodes for some physical or behavioral trait till—bingo, here’s the gene that makes you love Celine Dion.
Of course, this is all baloney—the genetic code gets more, not less, complex as we nibble our way along its outer edge of secrets and sneaky tricks. We have taken only the first baby steps of a long adventure, an inquiry likely to take not a semester or even a generation but a century or two. To hope that anyone anywhere for the next long stretch of time can and will make sense of anything in Lanza’s genetic makeup is akin to waiting for the Tooth Fairy or for Washington to function in the public interest. Perhaps one day we’ll learn something, just like the countless St. Elizabeth brains may someday be unlocked and show us the way to insanity and by reverse logic, to its converse—sparklingly normal mental health. But not now, not soon.
This faulty premise of a quick explanation is only part of the problem that the pursuit of a genetic understanding of the insane might produce. Let’s say next week a geneticist somewhere does find a big weird genetic defect that Lanza and Lanza alone has—what then? Does this mean that Lanza is not guilty but rather just operating under the influence of his oppressive genetic makeup? His genes made him do it? Perhaps we are all just playing out our genetic destiny, like programmed robots, free of free will, unencumbered by choice. Maybe this is The Matrix (the first one that was faintly intelligible) after all.
And what would such a discovery mean to the world of screening? We screen many fetuses for Down syndrome—would we want to add the screen for the mass-murder gene? Genetics as a field has struggled to keep up with the accompanying ethical quandaries its scientific pursuit has created: for example, whether to test for the Huntington’s disease gene or the BRCA gene that may predispose to cancer of the breast. Plus, what if insurance companies began to use the information to select good-risk genetic stock only, passing over those with too many scrambled genetic elements?
Geneticists have wrestled slowly and responsibly, if very painfully, with these complex and unprecedented issues. BRCA, Huntington’s, and many others though are worthy of pursuit because of the great promise of genetic screening for these clearly defined diseases. The field, however, would suffer greatly to have dropped into its midst a high-profile fishing expedition as is planned with Lanza, where the public wants an answer, damn it, and doesn’t care so much for the questions that follow. Yes scientists can and should preserve his DNA and that of anyone else in some master repository somewhere that awaits a day when the tools are available to investigate the material intelligently, productively, and dispassionately. But to embark on this particular wild-goose chase right now serves only to place onto a pseudoscientific scaffolding the deepest question of human existence, the nature of good and evil. With such shoddy materials, the inquiry is certain to fail, providing no novel understanding of the genetic code and no solace to the families of Newtown.
To look for abnormalities.
Was Adam Lanza’s murderous ambition built into his DNA? That’s what researchers at the University of Connecticut hope to find as they prepare to study the school shooter’s genetics for signs of a mutation or abnormality that could foretell a propensity toward violence. “I don’t think any one of these mutations would explain all of [the mass shooters], but some of them would have mutations that might be causing both schizophrenia and related schizophrenia violent behavior,” said Arthur Beaudet, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, who is unconnected to the research. The research area is controversial because it could lead to genetic discrimination against those with certain gene mutations.
Claimed to be victim’s aunt.
Just hours after the news of the Newtown, Conn., shooting was announced, Nouel Alba had an idea. The 37-year-old Bronx resident took to Facebook, claiming to be the aunt of Noah Pozner, one of the students killed in the shooting, and solicited money via a PayPal account to help pay for his funeral. Alba corresponded with donors, telling one that she was in Newtown at the same time as the president but couldn’t watch his speech in person because “Emotionally I cant (sic) deal.” Alba is not in any way related to Pozner, and after her Facebook post was featured in an NBC report on donation scams, she was arrested Thursday by the FBI for exploiting the tragedy.
The government was behind the school massacre. Wait, it was Obama, in a ruse to take our guns away. No, it was Iran! Israel! Batman! Michael Moynihan on the paranoid wing’s ‘real truth’ about Sandy Hook.
In the mid-1990s, during the infancy of the World Wide Web, a visit to my local university library demonstrated that the Internet would be both a great tool of liberation and a megaphone for the fantastically mad. That small bank of Internet-connected computer terminals was reliably occupied by a few student researchers and an army of honking, snorting, flaky-skinned cranks, furiously posting to Internet bulletin boards. (I frequently traded pleasantries with one twitchy local who wore homemade body armor, claiming that it shielded his organs from computer smog while browsing the Internet.)
People gather at the scene of a mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (Mario Tama/Getty)
Almost 20 years later, behold how Tim Berners-Lee liberated the crackpot from his world of Manichean newsletters, how he freed the basement-dwelling “researcher” to hawk bad ideas to the undereducated and paranoid (think of the 9/11 “truth” movement). Indeed, the Internet allows us curious observers to view the creation of conspiracy theories in real time. For instance, while initial news reports of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., were plagued with dubious and false information—as is frequently the case with major tragedies—such “inconsistencies” precipitated a hunt for the real truth.
While ignoring the generic rantings that circulate via email and Facebook, I spent the past week browsing the websites and YouTube channels of the Internet’s most popular fear peddlers—those who almost, but not quite, trespass upon the mainstream—to witness the paranoid mind create an “alternative” explanation of the Newtown massacre.
It started with this story on BET.com. Def Jam rapper Gunplay, who currently is under house arrest on charges relating to an armed robbery, informed his 100,000 Twitter followers that the “Government killed dem [sic] kids to take our guns away. Another 9/11. Dont [sic] get it twisted.” It’s a surprisingly common belief among conspiracy theorists, I discovered, who claim not that the president seized upon the tragedy to push through onerous gun legislation—too simple—but that he engineered the tragedy.
Cui bono, ad absurdum.
Gunplay’s semi-literate tweet was later deleted, only to be replaced by a vague warning that President Obama had perpetrated a “gun hoax”—with a link to a febrile rant by talk-radio host Alex Jones. Jones, proprietor of the website Infowars.com and host of a wildly popular syndicated radio program, has acted as a clearing house for Sandy Hook conspiracies.
A king toad in the “New World Order” fever swamps, Jones has become wealthy and influential on the loopy fringe, while occasionally poking his head into the mainstream media conversation: in 2011, New York magazine reported that Jones’s radio show boasts “upwards of 3 million listeners” a day; his website is frequently linked to on the Drudge Report, ensuring that he’s read by millions; he recently was a guest on The Joy Behar Show; his radio show features well-known guests like actor Charlie Sheen, Congressman Ron Paul, Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano, and rapper KRS-One. In 2009, the vacuous celebrity duo Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt revealed themselves to be Jones apostles, appearing on his program to “discuss their awakening to the New World Order.” For reasons that elude me, Jones is one of those trolls the media doesn’t mind feeding.
In unhesitant willingness to sacrifice one’s life so that others might live, teachers and first responders have honored the true spirit of the holiday, writes Michael Daly.
As Christmas Eve neared, word came Monday morning that four volunteer firefighters had been shot, two of them fatally, as they responded to a call near Rochester, N.Y.
Firefighters salute as a hearse passes for the funeral procession to the burial of 7-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (David Goldman/AP)
Perhaps in the new year, the NRA will call for an armed guard at every fire, as well as at every school.
At the close of the vigil after the Newtown massacre, where 20 school children were murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the stunned townspeople sang "Silent Night," hard as it must have been for them to imagine that a savior of any kind had been born.
The murderers, in Sandy Hook and in New York today, both shot themselves. The guiding principle seems to have been to take the lives of others before taking your own life, a sick inversion of the courage shown by the noble souls who made the ultimate sacrifice.
In Newtown, teacher Victoria Soto died shielding her students from the gunfire. Teacher Anne Marie Murphy’s last act was to wrap her arms around a student in a vain effort to save him. That same selflessness was what sent the firefighters this morning to the early morning blaze where they were suddenly, senselessly ambushed.
In the company of these heroes are other selfless souls, such as 23-year-old Dylan Smith of the Rockaways, who rescued six people with his surfboard amidst a raging storm surge and wind-driven flames during Hurricane Sandy.
The news that he drowned while surfing in Puerto Rico on Sunday was enough to make you believe that any higher power is at best indifferent.
After years of getting a bad rap.
“Hug a teacher today,” implores a spray-painted sign outside a building in Newton, Conn. The heroic actions taken by teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School to protect students when Adam Lanza came shooting down their halls has inspired a new appreciation for the people in whose hands parents put their children’s lives every day. In recent years federal and state attempts at education reform have cast a negative light on teachers—scrutinizing their tenure, basing their performances on students’ standardized-test scores, and increasing their responsibilities without increasing their—often very minimal—pay. Many hope that, after seeing the lengths teachers are willing to go to to protect their students, America will adjust its attitude toward educators.
Will this time be different? Andrew Romano speaks with Colin Goddard about whether the Newtown school killings might finally spur concrete changes in our gun laws.
The cycle is so familiar it’s sickening. Multiple people, sometimes dozens, get shot in a hail of gunfire: a congresswoman and her constituents, moviegoers at the theater, college students in class. The public grieves. Politicians pledge to “take action.” And then the pro-gun lobby gears up, the outrage dies down, and nothing ever gets done.
In this Monday Jan. 21, 2008 file photo Virginia Tech shooting victim Colin Goddard speaks during a rally supporting a bill to close the gun show loophole at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. (Steve Helber / AP Photo)
But what if it’s different this time? What if, in the wake of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last week, that cycle is finally about to end?
It’s true, we thought this might be the case before. In early 2011, my colleague Pat Wingert and I wrote and reported an extensive feature story for Newsweek about the aftermath of the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and did kill six others who’d come to meet her in a supermarket parking lot. Our thesis was that, if one looked beyond the hoary Washington logic—the NRA is too powerful, guns are a losing issue, and so on—it was clear that the post-Tucson moment was peculiar enough, and the forces at work were potent enough, to produce real movement on gun safety—if advocates proceeded carefully.
Our prescriptions at the time were simple. “That means no outlawing specific guns,” we wrote. “No relitigating the Second Amendment. And no frantic liberal overreach. Just two precautions that a majority of voters favor, according to a new Newsweek/Daily Beast poll: background checks for every gun buyer (which 86 percent of respondents support) and a revival of the recently lapsed ban on the kind of high-capacity clips that [shooter Jared] Loughner used in Arizona (which 51 percent support).”
“The vast majority of us have [little] in common … with the two-dimensional culture warriors—the latte-sipping elites, the paranoid survivalists—who have dominated the debate for decades,” we concluded. “We respect guns, gun owners, and the Second Amendment, and yet we want gun violence to be as rare as possible. We know that guns can contribute to a community’s safety, and yet we acknowledge that none of the 18 mass shootings since May 2007 was stopped by a legal handgun carrier. If Obama recognizes this reality, and takes action, it’s possible to imagine us having a grown-up conversation about guns for the first time in almost 20 years.”
And then, as usual, the conversation petered out—and neither Aurora, Oak Creek, nor any of the dozens of other mass shootings around the country in the past 18 months alone got it started again.
Which is why the response to the Sandy Hook shooting has been so remarkable. The conditions for change are, after all, no different than they were in January 2011. But something fundamental seems to have shifted. In the last week alone, California Democrats introduced a bill that would require background checks and one-year permits for ammunition purchases, the Republican governor of Michigan vetoed legislation that would have permitted concealed weapons in schools, and a private-equity firm announced that it was selling Bushmaster, the company that manufactured the deadly assault rifle used in Newtown.
NRA president David Keene reminisces about the days when kids brought shotguns to school and tells Lloyd Grove that Friday's widely panned press conference 'went pretty well.'
Reviews of the National Rifle Association’s post–Sandy Hook press conference are still rolling in, but much of the initial reaction has amounted to the sort of brutal pan that would have closed a Broadway show on opening night.
“State of the Union,” Senator Joe Lieberman said the NRA’s comments have been “really disheartening.”
“Insane paranoia” was how Gawker summed up NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre’s Friday morning performance at Washington’s Willard Hotel. The New York Daily News editorialized that LaPierre “will forever now be known as America’s maddest gunman.” USA Today, quoting residents of Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were massacred by a deranged young man wielding a semiautomatic Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, headlined its story: “Completely off the mark.” Even conservative pundit Erick Erickson, of the influential RedState blog, tweeted: “I’m not sure this presser was good in style a week after Newtown.”
An unmitigated PR disaster, right?
“I think it went pretty well,” NRA President David Keene told me.
It was nine hours after his fellow gun lobbyist variously blamed the carnage on Hollywood, the news media, pop music, “gun-free school zones,” and a generalized culture of violence—but not guns—while advocating armed security guards at every school in the nation.
“Certainly from our perspective, we had thousands of supportive calls at the office this afternoon,” Keene went on. “We’ve got thousands of retired police officers, veterans, and the like who were saying, ‘We’ll volunteer and do whatever we have to do” to make the NRA’s dream a reality.
“Coincidentally, I was in Israel [when Sandy Hook occurred on Dec. 14] where they’ve had a training program for school security guards for years,” Keene said. “Particularly in the 1970s, they had a whole spate of school mass shootings. Of course, their shooters were crazy in a different way than our people are—because they were Muslim terrorists. The Israelis decided that the only way to solve it was to put armed security guards in the schools, and they trained them privately in much the same way that the NRA trains people. And it ended the problem.”
A school shooting in America, a horrific rape on a New Delhi bus. Different incidents but both are deep problems that plague each country and seem unsolvable. Dilip D’Souza asks why.
In the US, it’s a horrific massacre with guns. In India, it’s a nightmarish rape and beating of a young couple in a bus. In my years in these two countries I’ve called home, no crimes cause as great a surge of outrage, followed by anguished introspection, as ones like these do.
Women participate in a candlelight vigil to show solidarity with a rape victim at India Gate in New Delhi December 21, 2012. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters, via Landov)
There’s outrage, but there’s no end to these atrocities. There may never be. In a two-week stretch last July, we saw an Indian assault on a woman and an American gun massacre. In a two-day stretch last week, we saw … an American gun massacre and an Indian assault on a woman.
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and now Sandy Hook: each triggers a blizzard of hand-wringing over gun control and that unresolvable debate about whether guns kill people or people do. Columnists suffer conniptions trying to identify the failings in American society that drive men to these atrocities. Overseas, we non-Americans shake our heads in wonder: “Random, meaningless acts of mass killing are rare elsewhere in the world and yet so common in the Us”, writes Ranjona Bannerjee in a recent column.
Rare, newsworthy, and yet you can bet other events will soon crowd the fallout of Sandy Hook off the headlines—though only until the next outburst of inexplicable slaughter. And if such shootings are what Americans agonize over far too often, we Indians find regular hysteria after our women are attacked.
This has happened in Bangalore, Mumbai, Mangalore, Guwahati … and just days ago, it happened like this in New Delhi: Men in a bus offer a ride to a young couple. They then drive around the city, including through police security obstacles. Clearly unmindful of any possible repercussions, the men rape and beat the woman with an iron rod. Eventually they throw the couple, stripped and unconscious, on the side of the road not far from Delhi’s airport. They have so badly beaten her that her intestines—her intestines, no less—have had to be removed and she is struggling for life in hospital.
One front page report has these words I am struggling to comprehend: she “faces the prospect of never being able to eat a meal if she survives.”
The depravity of this episode shook us all. For me, it was a reminder of a Monday morning a few years ago at Mumbai’s popular Juhu beach.
The gun lobby’s front man couldn’t even get the number of children murdered at Sandy Hook right. But what are facts when your whole premise is a lie, writes Michael Daly.
The National Rifle Association’s leading figure apparently paid so little attention to the particulars of the Sandy Hook School massacre that he misstated the number of murdered children when the organization finally broke its silence on Friday.
Distraught family members leave the fire station after hearing news of their loved ones from officials Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (Don Emmert/AFP, via Getty)
In irony gone ghoulish, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president and chief executive officer, actually inflated the body count of youngsters. He made the startling and revealing error while suggesting that things might have been different if Adam Lanza had encountered an armed security guard at the school.
“Will you at least admit it’s possible that 26 little kids, that 26 innocent lives might have been spared that day?” LaPierre asked.
The official NRA prepared statement said only “26 innocent lives,” which was correct when the six murdered adults were tallied with the correct count of 20 murdered children. The “26 kids” was added by LaPierre, but his lack of attention to detail is understandable when you consider that his organization is essentially a sham. Facts cannot mean much when the whole proposition is a lie.
As should be apparent to anybody who attends one of its conventions turned gun show, the NRA is a shill for the gun industry, which puts profits far ahead of victims, even if the victims are 20 school kids. Or was it 26?
The NRA’s proposal to post an armed guard at every school is only part of a larger plan. The ultimate aim is for the firearms industry to keep selling as many guns and magazines and bullets as it can.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, a friend of mine who was a longtime Special Forces operator before he was wounded in Afghanistan summarized in an online posting the general position of the NRA and its supporters: “If everyone had a gun, people would be able to kill a shooter before he caused too much mayhem.”
"My heart aches for you and your families.”
"Holding You in Our Hearts.” That’s the title of an open letter Michelle Obama wrote to Newtown and the victims of the horrific Sandy Hook shooting, sharing her grief over the loss of the 20 children and seven adults killed in the Newtown shooting. “As a mother of two young daughters, my heart aches for you and your families,” she writes. She praises the heroism of Newtown’s first responders, as well as its children, parents, educators and “the outpouring of love and support that has come from every corner of America,” adding that the president “will use all the powers of his office” to “prevent tragedies like this one.”
Critics were quick to pounce, but many Twitter users said 'right on' to the NRA chief's press conference.
For first interview since Newtown shooting.
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre wouldn’t answer any questions at a Friday press conference, but he will have to on Sunday: he will be appearing on Meet the Press for his first interview since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. Earlier this week, the NRA released a statement promising “meaningful contributions” to keep such shootings from happening and said it would hold a press conference on Friday, but the organization has otherwise been virtually silent. Soon after the shooting, the NRA suspended social-media activity and refused several media requests. On Friday, LaPierre called for armed guards at every school, saying that they could have prevented the Newtown shooting.
A gunman on a 1989 schoolyard rampage shocked the nation and Congress into action. Then legislators poked holes in the assault-weapons ban—and betrayed the victims.
Let’s not betray the murdered children of Sandy Hook Elementary School the way we betrayed the murdered children of Cleveland Elementary School two decades ago.
A display of assault style semi-automatic rifles are seen at CJI Guns store in Tucker, Georgia on Dec. 19, 2012. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA, via Landov)
Cleveland Elementary being the school in Stockton, Calif., where another demented former student returned with an assault rifle and murderous intent.
Patrick Purdy fired more than 100 rounds into the recess yard that day in 1989, killing five youngsters and wounding 27 others and a teacher before taking his own life. He might have killed even more than were killed at Sandy Hook, but kids dashing around in a playground are harder to hit than those huddled in a corner.
The murder of four little girls and a little boy, ages 6 to 8, was still enough to rouse Congress to action, or rather to what seemed like action. The eventual result, after five years of wrangling and appeasement, was the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.
The purported intent was to ban all semi-automatic weapons—handguns as well as rifles—but the bill had so many qualifiers and loopholes that it did next to nothing.
Firearms manufacturers simply found easy ways around the ban by marketing “compliant” weapons. The strategy was equally successful in getting around bans that individual states such as Connecticut instituted after the federal ban expired in 2004, thanks to a provision slipped in at the last minute.
The “compliant” guns marketed by Smith & Wesson include the rifle James Holmes used to kill 12 and wound 58 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Bushmaster’s “state compliant” line includes the weapon the Washington, D.C., sniper used to kill 13 innocents. Adam Lanza used another “compliant” Bushmaster to murder 20 children and six adults in Sandy Hook.
A mother of a 10-year-old boy at Sandy Hook Elementary School broke down while talking to CBS News on Friday. 'I get to put my kids to bed at night, and I’m very lucky,' she said, while tearfully acknowledging that 'there’s a lot of parents tonight that have not gotten that miracle.'
Friday’s horrific Colorado shooting has reignited the debate on gun control. Just how bad is the problem?
We as a society are held hostage by the NRA’s thugs. This must be the time for change. By Robert Shrum.
Gov. Dan Malloy mourned the loss of 'beautiful beautiful children' in a poignant speech on Friday evening. To those who want to help, Malloy said the best way is to “say a prayer or send a best wish or to be thinking of these individuals who have suffered so mightily today.”
The president got emotional discussing today’s school shooting in Connecticut. Read his words.
Kevin Fallon pieces together details about the Connecticut shooter.