Hours after Adam Lanza executed 20 first graders and 6 adults in Sandy Hook elementary school, five minutes from my synagogue, Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown, I spoke with my good friend and colleague, Monsignor Robert Weiss, about the “culture of violence” in the United States.
Sitting in the firehouse with our respective congregants, waiting to learn who had lived and who had died, what was there to say, really? A rabbi and a priest despaired about the common thread that we saw as bringing us together at that moment: a society that had so glorified violence and death through television, movies, and video games that our young people had become collectively numb to the reality of what violence really means.
This was the message I and the other clergy from across faiths in Newtown put forward during the harrowing days that followed. Together, we must work to transform our “culture of violence” to a “culture of peace,” we said, to heal a grieving nation.
Fast forward to last Friday, when Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association, used our very words not to heal, but to sell more guns. LaPierre seized upon this delicate moment and co-opted our words to abdicate his responsibility regarding the use of automatic and semi-automatic guns in school massacres across the United States.
True, the lack of availability of assault weapons might not have prevented Adam Lanza’s from trying to attack school children – but it might have stopped him from putting 130 bullets into the bodies of 26 people in less than five minutes.
LaPierre’s obtuse reaction of ascribing guilt upon the gaming industry without acknowledging his own culpability is infuriating. That said, LaPierre’s argument has a kernel of truth, like all good lies. Let us first examine that kernel and then move on to the tale woven around it
As the parent of an 11-year-old who my wife and I barred from playing Starcraft, the same game Adam Lanza frequented, I know first-hand that this video game has an addictive quality and increases anti-social behavior. I know my 11-year-old’s smile and creativity returned after we banned the game in our home. And while I know that at this point in time, a causal relationship between gun violence and these war games is premature, I find it striking that people who perpetuate these acts of mass murder tend to play violent video games. Just because I am not a meteorologist doesn’t mean I don’t know when it’s raining. Let’s remember that the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was once as inconclusive. Therefore, I think it is wise for parents to steer their children away from these violent games, which have been shown to increase aggressive, anti-social behavior, especially in children.
The NRA likes to emphasize that the Nazi regime in Germany took the first step toward genocidal policies by confiscating guns from its citizens. The NRA argues that to prevent this type of totalitarian take-over, we need to make sure the population is armed for the protection of democracy and freedom. Indeed, the second amendment is one important check and balance for would-be autocratic fascist take-overs. But taking the argument to its logical conclusion, American citizens today would need to arm themselves with tanks and missiles, nuclear and biological warheads, to mount a formidable challenge to counter today’s militants. That’s where the NRA logic crumbles.
However, in light of the NRA’s legitimate concern for freedom in the United States, I suggest that we together look at the first amendment for the solution: the right to assemble and the right of free speech. These are the “big guns” of the 21st century, underscored by the fact that massive, non-violent protests succeeded in bringing down Mubarak in Egypt.
I believe our over emphasis on the second amendment has created a profound state of imbalance in the United States, and those with legitimate concerns for creating a powerful counter balance against would-be totalitarian regimes would be well advised to consider arming themselves with bull horns and computers.
Our Newtown Interfaith Clergy Group and the victim’s families have created an advocacy group, Newtown United, which we hope can make a difference in the culture and quality of life. I believe more attention must be paid to the fact that small caliber guns are used to murder 10,000 Americans a year. So not only should automatic and semi automatic guns be declared illegal, and collected in a timely fashion, the same restrictions should apply to small caliber handguns.
Furthermore, let’s consider that almost all the school shooters in our time were either ignored or bullied. I personally know from a classmate and neighbor of Adam Lanza that he was brilliant, odd and severely bullied. We as leaders and educators have to watch out for humiliation. The Torah says that when we humiliate a person, it is like killing them. I believe this to be the underlying cause behind mass shootings. I know that many states have anti-bullying laws, and we should make sure we can sanction schools that refuse to intervene to a case of children tormenting classmates.
Transforming our society requires serious attention, then, to gun control, bullying in schools, mental health interventions and the culture of violence and silence. We can do no less to honor the memories of those whose lives were cut short.
Rabbi Shaul Praver is the spiritual leader of Cong. Adath Israel in Newtown, CT.