I am strongly in favor of gun control. Gun control laws in the United States are long overdue, and the success of the gun lobby in blocking their enactment is a national disgrace. In this blog post, however, I want to distinguish two meanings of turning to the need for gun control in the immediate aftermath of the terrible tragedy that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. These meanings have to do with two differing ways in which human beings can react to feelings of unspeakable horror and powerlessness in the face of the slaughtering of innocent little children.*
One way is to feel the feelings of horror and powerlessness fully and then harness them and channel them into needed corrective action, such as advocating gun control. A second way, however, is to use such action to try to escape the traumatic intensity of these dreadful feelings. Obviously, the tragedy is a terrible trauma for all those—parents, siblings, friends, other students, teachers—who were closely connected with the victims. But the tragedy also constitutes a collective trauma for all of us who feel the horror at more of a distance. A tragedy like this brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities to death and loss—and the existential vulnerability of all those we love, including especially in this context, our children. And, most importantly, it makes us aware of the extreme limitedness of our ability to protect them.
Human beings find it enormously difficult to dwell in such feelings of horror, vulnerability, and powerlessness, and one way we try to evade them is to resurrect an illusory sense of control through some sort of action. Examples abound. After a catastrophic earthquake, people become preoccupied with “earthquake preparedness.” In earthquake-vulnerable regions, it is certainly a good idea to keep extra food and water on hand, but nothing can prepare us for the unimaginable devastation wrought by a sudden major earthquake. Or do you remember what happened soon after the collective trauma of 9/11? Bypassing the overwhelming feelings of vulnerability and terror that were evoked by the shattering of our illusions of invincibility, the Bush administration tried to restore those illusions by leading us into a grandiose “War on Terror.”
Our ability to protect those we love from tragedies like catastrophic earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and mass killings is severely limited. We must be able to dwell in the feelings of horror and powerlessness and help others bear them as well. We must be able pursue gun control without embarking upon a “War on Guns” to evade traumatic feelings and vulnerabilities that we need to own and face. And we must search for and address the sources of atrocities like mass killings of innocents in the society that we all inhabit.
* I am grateful to my colleague Dr. Penelope Starr-Karlin for helping me to become clear on these differing meanings.
Copyright Robert Stolorow