A Psychiatrist at Large

The brain, behavior, and everything in between.

Newtown Connecticut: Reflections on Sorrow

A time of sorrow, a time of reflection

Newtown CT

Newtown Town Hall

On Thursday, April 19, 2007 following the Virginia Tech shooting on my Psychiatrist at Large blog I wrote a post titled "From Columbine to Virginia Tech".

I wanted to believe that was the last time I would write about children killing and getting killed in this day and age in this country. Unfortunately it was not. I have no words to express the sadness I felt when I learned about the Connecticut tragedy.

I cannot put myself in those Newtown families' shoes, as I feel like I could lose my mind. There is anger and disappointment, not directed at anyone specifically but rather at all of us – a society in which we somehow created a space and a state of mind where such tragedies are becoming a common place.

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A place, where in this time of sorrow, we seem to be choosing time and again to disrespect private mourning and instead give thumbs up and high audience ratings to media that pry most intrusively into people's sorrow with its pointed lenses, sharp cameras, and unstoppable journalists. A time when our main reaction to tragedy is voyeurism.

Newtown now follows in the steps of a number of traumatized communities. As a small community facing such massive trauma, Newtown will struggle to recover. It’s hard enough to make sense of arbitrary chaos that hits out of the blue, to repair the broken trust and to heal the wounded hearts. Let's not make it any harder by further assaulting it with our microphones and bright lights. Let's allow Newtown its privacy, let it bury its dead and heal its bleeding hearts in peace and quiet.

In this time of sorrow, it is so much more disturbing to see that what I wrote five years ago is as true today as it was then. Time is supposed to not only heal, but teach. Hopefully, five years from now, this will only be a sad memory, and will no longer ring as true as today.

 What follows is 2007 text with changes indicated in parentheses.

 Here is a disturbing timeline of school killings in America:

 • [December 2012: The son of a teacher kills his mother and then walks into her school where he kills 20 children (ages 6-7) and six adults.]

• April 2007: A student goes on the rampage at the campus of Virginia Tech killing 32 people before killing himself.

• October 2006: A 32-year-old gunman goes on the rampage at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, shooting dead at least three girls before killing himself.

• September 2006: A gunman in Colorado shoots and fatally wounds a teenage schoolgirl, and then kills himself.

• September 2006: A teenager kills the head-teacher of a school in Cazenovia, Wisconsin.

• November 2005: A student in Tennessee shoots dead an assistant principal and wounds two other administrators.

• March 2005: A schoolboy in Minnesota kills nine, and then shoots himself.

• May 2004: Four people are injured in a shooting at a school in Maryland.

• April 2003: A teenager shoots dead a head-teacher at a Pennsylvania school, and then kills himself.

• January 2002: A student who had been dismissed from the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, kills the dean, a professor and a student, and wounds three others.

• March 2001: A pupil kills two students after opening fire at a school in California

• February 2000: A classmate shoots dead a six-year-old girl in Michigan.

• November 1999: A 13-year-old girl is shot dead by a classmate in New Mexico.

• May 1999: Six are injured by a student in a shoot-out in Georgia.

• April 1999: Two teenagers shoot dead 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine School in Colorado.

What are we to make out of this? Clearly, we are no longer looking at isolated events. These are not events we can file away as “accidents”, before turning over and falling asleep. We are looking at a pattern. A horrific pattern of children killing children in schools. Children, a symbol of life before anything else, killing? And where? At school. I’m not sure what frightens me more. Is it that children kill children? Or is it that schools are now places where one can kill and be killed? School is supposed to evoke feelings of safety and joy and respect; instead it is being redefined as the new human jungle – as unsafe and run down as a drug- and crime-infested neighborhood. When above all, a school is supposed to be both a sacred and safe place for our children. How can one teach and how can one learn when one worries about one’s safety?

My fear is that school violence will condemn our children to perpetual inadequacy and fear. My fear is that our scared and scarred children will grow into fearful adults who think violence is normal and to kill and be killed is a fact of life. This is one frightening prospect.

What are we to do? The easy answer is to do whatever it takes to establish safety. But how do we define safety? Where is the problem coming from? Does establishing safety mean beefed up barbwire fences, metal detectors, around-the-clock security guards carrying assault weapons and bullet proof jackets marching down the schools hallways? Or does it mean an open school, without isolating fences, where students are connected to each other, respectful of their teachers and excited to learn?

As a psychiatrist, I know that fear begets fear and violence begets violence. More of the same begets sameness. When I see violence I first look for the violence that preceded it.

In my book understanding is at the root of healing. As more of the same begets sameness, I also know that violently curbing violence, as appealing as that might be on the short run, will certainly bring not less, but more violence in the future.

I believe that the way to peace is through peace, and only understanding can mend misunderstanding.

What is preceding our school violence? Is it just an accident that our beloved America makes it part of the American way to be a captive audience for a media fatally invested in juicy, violent subjects, and ending with the much less publicized fact that the US is possibly the only country that has been almost continuously at war for more than a century?

Can it be related to the fact that our society values individualism above all?

Our heroes are outcasts and pioneers settling on the far border, creating places for themselves in the midst of nowhere as far as possible from any other humans.

Should we then be surprised when centuries later our suburban generations feel isolated and disconnected?

When our cities are spreading out instead of coming together and distance rather than closeness is a common trait of the American urban landscape, should we really be surprised if people feel lonely even in a middle of a crowd, and alienated from not only the others but from themselves? And if that is so, what is it left?

The way of a reservoir dog, of a natural-born killer, always ready to kill the common Bill, in an impeccably told pulp fiction: and that is, sadly enough, our daily bread!

© Copyright Adrian Preda, M.D.

Adrian Preda, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the UC Irvine School of Medicine.

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