For the first time since the shooting.
With the same desks, artwork, and backpacks from Sandy Hook Elementary School, classes resumed for the students at a nearby elementary school, three weeks after a gunman killed 20 students and six children. Workers spent much of the past three weeks transforming the former Chalk Hill middle school—which had closed due to declining enrollment—into an elementary school, and parents and students were allowed to come tour the school on Wednesday. But despite the best effort to keep things the same, there were some major differences: police cars were parked at the local high school, and retired principal Donna Page returned to replace Dawn Hobsprung, who was killed when she tried to stop Adam Lanza from the rampage.
In the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting and Boston attacks, Iraq war vet Brian Castner considers his own experience of returning from war and arming himself to protect his family. He speaks to gun expert David Grossman about why we need “sheepdogs” in schools to defend students, the power of violent video games, and profiling for aggression.
Let’s begin with a brief thought experiment. Imagine a young child, yours or not makes no difference, and then imagine an adult next to them holding a gun. I am guessing you have an immediate visceral reaction to even this brief explanation of the scenario. Many readers will fear that the child is in extreme danger, no matter who is holding the gun. But others, fewer in number most likely, will have the opposite reaction, that the child is protected and safe because a guardian is standing over them. One extreme or the other seems inevitable after the killings in Newtown and Boston Marathon attacks.
Brian Castner in his Grand Island, New York, home on July 23, 2012. (David Duprey/AP)
I recognize that my memoir, The Long Walk, my story of my time as a bomb technician in Iraq and struggles with readjusting to life at home, contains many disturbing scenes. In interviews and at book signings, I have learned that two in particular haunt readers: me sitting outside my newborn son’s room all night with a gun so that no one will harm him, and practicing reloading my pistol one handed so I could defend my children while driving them to school.
I continue to be bothered as well, and even writing about them now twists my gut and fills my eyes. But the fear that grips me is a father’s concern for his children’s safety—a panic over the helplessness of a baby so small it could stop breathing at any moment. I thought my feelings were self-explanatory, but I learned quickly while being interviewed for my book that readers would likely view my experience from the other angle.
Take my exchange with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, one of our country’s most thoughtful hosts. We talked about the gun in the minivan for more than 30 minutes, a conversation that was (mercifully) edited down before broadcast. This is how it started:
Gross: I want to describe something you write that I found very disturbing ... You describe wanting to strap a pistol to the center console of the minivan. And I thought that’s just, that’s scary. I mean you have kids, who’d be driving in that family minivan.
Me: Well, I can understand how you would call it scary because my children were there. [But] that's why I wanted it because I needed to protect them ... I had seen so many dismembered children in Iraq that I, as a father, I really felt the need to protect them from something and this was how I knew to do it.
Gross was far from the only one disturbed. I had similar conversations with journalists and interviewers across the country, and in each case it was clear that associating feelings of safety with guns and children was a terrifyingly foreign concept for them.
Newtown shooter Adam Lanza’s house was filled with a revealing mix of weapons and evidence of a troubled, unhappy past.
An unlocked gun safe was in Newtown, Connecticut, shooter Adam Lanza’s bedroom, along with what the search warrants unsealed Thursday describe as an “Adam Lanza an National Rifle Association certificate.”
Police tape stretches across the front yard of the Lanza residence on December 19 in Newtown, Connecticut. Inset: Adam Lanza at school in 2005 in Newtown. (Getty)
There also was “one holiday card containing a Bank of America Check #462 made out to Adam Lanza for the purchase of a C183 (firearm).”
There also was a “Sandy Hook report card Adam Lanza,” suggesting that the 20-year old had remained fixated on his elementary school long after leaving it.
“The school was Adam Lanza’s life,” a witness is quoted saying.
Among the newer items found during the search was “one digital image print of a child and various firearms.” There were also three photos of what apeared to be a bloodied dead body, covered with plastic. And there was a newspaper clipping about the Valentine’s Day 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University in which five students were killed.
The gunman in that case, Steven Kazmierczak, had removed the hard drive from his computer before setting out. Lanza’s 500-gigabyte Seagate Barracuda hard drive was found smashed atop his desk, though he had left behind seven journals containing writings and drawings, which have been given to the FBI for examination.
The witness—whose name was redacted in the unsealed documents—was also quoted describing Lanza as a “gamer” and a “shut-in” who spent much of his time engaged in such virtual killing games as Call of Duty. Investigators found a gaming console in his room, along with an Xbox 360, a Sony PlayStation 2, and an iPhone.
The NRA recommends arming teachers, but gun-owner and journalist Dan Baum learns that it’s terrifyingly confusing to try to be the hero.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, some people suggested letting teachers carry guns. Putting aside one’s visceral reaction to such an idea, here is what they’re really talking about: terror beyond anyone’s wildest nightmare. I know from experience—or rather, simulated experience.
Firearm instructor Clark Aposhian holds a handgun up as he teaches a concealed-weapons training class to 200 Utah teachers on December 27, 2012, in West Valley City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty)
At a shooting school in Las Vegas, I met Billy Stojack, a burly, egg-bald Vietnam vet who trains elite cops to handle shoot-don’t-shoot situations. He stood me in front of what looked like a stretched bed sheet and strapped a loaded Glock to my hip. “What’s going to happen is, you’re going to see a scenario played out on that screen, and you have to decide whether or not to shoot.”
“I shoot at the screen?” It was rubber, Billy explained, so the heat of the bullet passing through would cauterize the hole and seal it up. Sensors would detect my hits, and a computer would analyze them instantly. Depending on where the bullets hit, the people on the screen would react—either fall down or not. (The scenes were filmed dozens of times, he said, allowing for every eventuality.) “These are what we call ‘active shooter’ situations,” Billy said. “You have an unknown number of active shooters in a building. Here we go.”
The range went dark, the screen came to life, and I was in some kind of school building: cinder-block walls, bulletin boards, office doors with cartoons tacked to them. Up came the sound, realistically loud: people screaming and, in the distance, muffled gunshots. I drew the Glock and held it with both hands.
I found myself moving down a hallway. My heart was somewhere up around my collarbones. My hands were sweating. I realized how many places there were in a school for a bad guy to hide. That doorway! Behind that fire extinguisher!
Loud screams erupted as I turned and stepped through a doorway. Someone came running from the gloom at the end of a hall—a young woman, crying and pointing behind her. I raised the gun as another person came running—someone chasing her? No, a screaming man with empty hands.
I was gasping audibly, my torso rigid with fear, as I turned left into a classroom. People were lined up against a blackboard, crying. On the floor lay at least one body, maybe two. In front of me, a big woman had her arm around another woman’s neck and a gun to the woman’s head.
We spend our lives seeking happiness, but what if what we’re seeking should be the pursuit? William Giraldi on America’s unhappy quest for happiness in light of the Newtown massacre.
For a delusional multitude misreading a Mayan calendar, the world was supposed to end Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. For 20 pairs of parents in Newtown, Connecticut, the world indeed ended, one week earlier, on Friday, Dec. 14, when their children were slaughtered in their elementary school. The president appeared on TV to point out that our hearts are broken, but the metaphor faltered—our hearts are way past broken. Ravaged is closer to the mark.
Mother and daughter Molly and Milly Delaney embrace at a memorial service for victims of the Newtown massacre on Dec. 15. (Julio Cortez/AP)
My barber in Boston—who was also Saul Bellow's (and there ends all similarities between Bellow and myself)—once bestowed upon me this bit of wisdom: “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” He's the father of four grown girls and knew what he was talking about. My first son was about to be born, and I was terrified that my manifold inadequacies as a man would sabotage my success as a dad. Raised in a house of hurt, I wanted to build a home of love for my wife and son. Bellow’s barber was attempting to tell me that parents, and especially parents of young children, think about happiness differently from nonparents.
If you had asked me before my sons were born what makes me happy, I would have given you a catacombed reply about my wife in summer dresses and about my work when it’s kind, about my grandmother when she isn’t rebelching the carcinogenic blarney of Bill O’Reilly, and about Milton when a stanza of Paradise Lost finally clicks. Then the answer was much simpler: Ethan and Aiden and all they do. After Newtown my conception of happiness wants to be simpler yet: my kids getting through another American day without being shot dead by some unmedicated warp with a machine gun. You are only as happy as your unhappiest child. And you are fully alive only if your kids are alive. How convenient that our pop culture is currently nursing a zombie obsession, because those 20 pairs of parents in Newtown are now the walking dead. We can add them to the unbearably long list of casualties.
Thinking about happiness after the Newtown massacre is no easy task. Bellow put down some fine sentences about happiness. In Herzog: “A man doesn’t need happiness for himself. No, he can put up with any amount of torment ... provided there is something great, something into which his being, and all beings, can go.” In More Die of Heartbreak: “Benn ought to have been describing his delight, shining with happiness—or if ‘happiness’ is too romantic in these distressing times, at least glowing with mature satisfaction.” In It All Adds Up, about Whitman: “The universe itself ... draws you into happiness: happiness, an efflux of the soul, pervades the open air.” In Humboldt’s Gift (channeling William James): “Happiness is living at the energetic top.” And in Augie March: “I expect happiness and gladness have always been the same.”
But we Americans don’t spend our lives chasing gladness—gladness, contentment, and satisfaction are all too tame, too armchair. At the same time, most of us don’t spend our lives chasing joy, bliss, or ecstasy—those stem from a Dionysian lexicon of the sublime a bit too close to Nietzsche and at odds with our national Christian humility. Thanks to Jefferson’s famous injunction, happiness is the Goldilocks term that feels just right to our American sense of self. And yet every time we hear his crucial word pursuit, we by dint of some eardrum abracadabra actually hear guarantee, which is why when your last partner broke up with you, he or she probably said, “I’m just not happy anymore.” Never mind that when Jefferson chose pursuit he understood its attendant dedication and resolve—steadfast happiness requires onerous striving. Children make for a happy life in part because raising them is so damn difficult. And we die when they die because at the moment of their birth we cease living for ourselves.
We can jettison golden-age nostalgia, the erroneous belief that happiness has only recently become a one-click-away commodity, because the genius who gifted us the seven words we live by—Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—was a perennial debtor with a shopping problem. His comrade Franklin, too, convinced himself that acquisition equaled elation. Our American birthright, this ravening resides in our molecules and has from minute one. I recently asked a Hungarian artist with a child if he planned to have another and he replied, “No. We aren’t collecting children”—the implication being that we Americans are, in the words of comic novelist Peter DeVries, on a “quantitative quest to fill a qualitative gap.” But it should go without saying that children aren’t things we collect. They are, rather, the best education in love, the best lesson in enlargement, and an antidote to the rabid narcissism and dysphoria engendered by the Great Distraction, by our vampiric gadgets and online quasi-lives.
In his new book The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World, Australian novelist David Malouf writes this:
'You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.'
Not only does Stephen King want you to tax him, for fuck's sake—he wants you to support gun control. King has published a 99-cent Kindle Single called Guns, an essay about gun violence in America. In 1977, King published a novella called Rage under the pen name Richard Bachman, about a high school boy who takes a classroom hostage with a gun. A number of teenage gunmen in the 1980s claimed to have been inspired in part by it, and King decided to remove the book from publication. "They found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken," King writes. "Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it."
Building remains crime scene.
Many residents of Newtown, Conn., met in the auditorium of Newtown High School on Sunday for the first of several meetings to discuss the future of the Sandy Hook Elementary School building—the site of the shooting that killed 26 people in December. Currently the school remains a crime scene, and its 400 students have been attending a formerly shuttered school in Monroe, Conn. Opinions varied sharply on whether to tear the school down, renovate and reopen it, or turn it into a shrine or a park. Alternative ideas on Sunday included turning the school into a planetarium or converting it into a center for peace education. One resident, who advocated the building’s destruction, said, “I cannot ask my son or any of the people at the school to ever walk back into that building, and he has asked to never go back.”
Will attend a private event Friday.
This is a woman who can truly offer support to the community of Newtown, Conn. Former U.S. representative Gabby Giffords will visit the town on Friday, and attend a private event at a house there. Giffords has made a spectacular recovery after being shot in the head two years ago when a gunman opened fire at a campaign event at a mall in Tucson, Ariz. Six people died that day. Earlier this week, she met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to discuss gun control.
No word on any plans for funeral.
A family spokesman confirmed Monday that Newtown, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, claimed his son’s body. The spokesman did not say when this occurred or mention any plans for a funeral service. Earlier this month a private funeral was held in New Hampshire for Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, whom Lanza, 20, killed Dec. 14 before he went to Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 children and six adults.
Urges public to demand gun-control laws.
President Obama has had some trying experiences since he took office in January 2009, but this month’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was the toughest. On NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday morning, the president reflected on the tragic incident, saying, “That was the worst day of my presidency, and it’s not something I want to see repeated.” Obama also incited public demand for gun-control laws and expressed concern over the push to arm school staff.
The news that the Newtown shooter suffered from autism explains nothing about his act and only further complicates the job of explaining the condition to the public, writes Richard E. Farley.
“Shooter Reportedly Had Autism.” As soon as it scrolled beneath the “Breaking News” banner on television, I knew our work had just gotten quite a bit harder. At Birch Family Services, where I serve on the board of directors, we have spent the better part of the last year trying to develop partnerships with financial services companies and others to employ—even for no pay—higher-functioning young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), including Asperger’s syndrome (AS). It is, even in the best of times, a tough sell, and even before the Newtown shooting, these were not the best of times. Financial firms are downsizing, and employees with ASDs have special needs. Usually these needs are not much more than tolerance and understanding of social deficits that often make their interactions with us a bit odd and uncomfortable until we get familiar with them. “Is he dangerous?” was not a question we had addressed in the PowerPoint slide deck we pitch employers with.
Those who care for people with ASDs get very adept at anticipating uncomfortable questions. We learned long ago to identify that look of anxious curiosity on people’s faces when encountering a 4-year-old who continuously flaps his hands in front of his face at the ice-cream counter or who loudly repeats “red octagon” dozens of times next to you on the bus because he saw a stop sign. Usually a simple “I’m sorry if he’s disturbing you—he has autism and is a little excited today” suffices to diffuse the situation. What’s harder is the nearly uniform look of guilt and pity that then replaces the anxious curiosity. What would be unbearable is a look of fear.
We learn to accept many facts that were once unbearable to us, but they are facts because evidence made them so. Our children will not play like other children; most will not have children of their own; most will need supervision throughout their lives; most will be emotional and financial burdens to us for the rest of our lives and, worse, to our other children. But most will never be a threat to anyone other than themselves, and none of them is more likely to commit a violent act than you or I. Evidence makes this a fact as well.
Two recent studies confirm that AS—the form of autism that Adam Lanza is said to have had—does not make someone more likely to commit a violent crime. In an April 2011 study on the prevalence and treatment of people with AS in the criminal justice system published in Criminology and Criminal Justice, the journal of the British Society of Criminology, Ann Browning and Laura Caulfield concluded that “recent research pertinent to the prevalence of those with AS within the offender population has produced findings which suggest that those with the disorder are not more likely than their non-AS peers to engage in criminal activity.” In addition, in “Violent Crime in Asperger Syndrome: The Role of Psychiatric Comorbidity,” their 2008 study of persons with AS who committed violent crimes, Stewart S. Newman and Mohammad Ghaziuddin found that “most of the cases of Asperger’s syndrome who commit violent crime suffer from additional psychiatric disorders.” And further, “Clinicians should look beyond the diagnosis of AS and attempt to explore the factors that might contribute to criminal behavior in this population.” In short, whatever it may be that causes one to commit a violent act, it is not Asperger's, or any other form of autism.
Facts and evidence will be our best allies in disproving safety concerns in the hiring of people with ASDs. And we endorse the principle that no goal is laudable if it increases even slightly the risk of violence against our children. We know that risk too well, as children with ASDs are four times more likely to be victims of crime than children without the disorder. There is no loss like a parent’s loss of a child. Those of us who are parents of a disabled child come a bit nearer, perhaps, to understanding this agony than most, for we too wake up far too many mornings with our first thought being that today will not be the day our pain for our child began to hurt a little less. There are great hopes that the tragedy of Newtown will be a catalyst for policies that will make our children safer. Let us make certain it will not breed fear of people with ASDs.
Letter to an American friend,
I love the United States, God knows. And God knows how exasperated I am by those professional dispensers of opinion whose anti-Americanism is always synonymous with stupidity, hate, or both—pundits whose message is a magnet for the worst, the most ignorant elements (on the extreme right, on the extreme left, and among fascist-leaning populists and detesters of democracy and the rule of law) to be found in the societies of old Europe.
But that is another story.
Because, of course, it is the friends of the United States—and the Americans themselves—who, after the killings in Newtown, followed relentlessly by those in Webster, and accompanied by the avalanche of lamentable statements with which the gun lobby reacted to the images of the 20 dead children of Sandy Hook Elementary, are doing the deepest soul-searching today.
It is plainer than ever that America is divided into two camps.
On one side are the human robots of the National Rifle Association who were so dismayingly unmoved by the spectacle of those 20 little bodies.
Who—seemingly deaf to normal human emotions, or perhaps just grotesquely cynical—had the gall, shortly after the event, to declare that the problem was not too many but too few guns in schools and that it was time to arm teachers and administrators.
For $100M on behalf of 6-year-old survivor.
Irving Pinsky, an attorney in New Haven, Conn., has filed for permission to sue the state for $100 million on behalf of a 6-year-old girl who survived the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14. Pinsky blames the Board of Education, among other institutions, for failing to protect his client—identified only as “Jill Doe”—from “foreseeable harm,” leaving her with intense “emotional and psychological trauma.” He has filed the claim now in order to “freeze” the evidence to prevent insurance adjusters from shaping it. “Her friends were killed,” Pinsky said. “That’s pretty traumatic.”
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.
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.