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1:02 pm
Mon December 17, 2012

The Tragedy In Newtown: The Unanswerable Questions

Originally published on Mon December 17, 2012 2:39 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After Newtown and Tucson, Aurora and the Sikh temple, we hear a lot of answers, opinions really. Too many guns or not enough; lack of access to mental health treatment; violence in video games; violence in the movies and TV; bad parenting; lack of community spirit or lack of religion; that there's no law that can keep everyone safe from evil; that we should just enforce the laws that are already on the books.

And over the past few days, we've heard these answers in different forms. And while we wonder why too many of these mass killings occur, we have to remember that they remain very rare. Still, why more often here than in other countries with similar laws, similar media, similar kinds of communities?

No experts on the show this hour, no arguments or right answers. We want to hear what you're asking yourself, your family and your friends after Newtown. Why here? Why too often? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's begin with Courtney(ph), and Courtney's on the line with us from Oklahoma City.

COURTNEY: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

COURTNEY: I heard you talk earlier about the violence from video games and TV and all that kind of thing, but I think that a lot of it is coming from the blame that's been put on this Generation X and Generation Z or whatever they're calling it now, that, you know, we're not contributing to society and we're just lazy and causing problems.

And there's incredible guilt and shame, and it causes depression and anxiety and causes people to act out. Like I personally have - I have a degree. I have student loans. I can't get a job currently. So I feel like I owe to the government, but I have nothing to contribute. And I think there's a lot of people in similar situations that just feel guilty and anxious and don't know what to do about it. And some of them are acting out in the wrong ways.

CONAN: I hear what you say, and we've talked about it in terms of the difficulties of getting jobs and the effects that that has on an entire generation who's having this problem. In terms of mass killings, boy, that - there's no generation that can claim that they've escaped this. This goes back through history.

COURTNEY: No, it's definitely - it's a stretch to say that it could - you know, that that's what's causing it. But I think that it's a contributing factor. And also on a different kind of note, the people saying that there need to be more mental health screens and that kind of thing - a lot of these people that are capable of such horrific atrocities, they would squeak through the lines of mental health because they're sociopaths.

Sociopaths can pretend to be normal while in the public, and in private they - they're out of their minds.

CONAN: I don't think, Courtney, people are talking about forcing anyone to have mental health screening. I think they're talking about better access to mental health treatment for those who need it. And you're right, some people are not going to be treated. But I don't think we'll all going to be - have to parade in front of a doctor to prove our mental health.

COURTNEY: Oh no, but for the - to get guns, or they were saying to have screenings in order to get gun access. One thing that people that are capable of such terrible atrocities would - they wouldn't be able to tell that they were sociopaths.

CONAN: OK, Courtney, thanks very much for the call.

COURTNEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Courtney with us from Oklahoma City. And let's see if we can go next to - this is Mary; Mary's on the line with us from Bishop, California.

MARY: Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

MARY: Good. I'm calling - I have a concern with the violent nature of what our children are subjected to in that they - I think they're becoming inured to what death is. And then if you combine that with a child who has emotional orders - disorders or a mental disorder, I think they begin to lose a grasp on the reality of what death is.

I had someone close to me whose daughter, 12 years old, very normal little girl, drowned a character in a video game, a nationally played video game, and didn't see a problem with that. She said, well, it's just virtual. But I think that's a problem, that we're - that there's a loss of connection with what death actually becomes.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, and just to reiterate, there are many studies that have been done. They've come to no conclusion. There is no way to tie violence and media to video games. And I'm certainly old enough to remember when comic books and earlier kinds of media were blamed for - oh, this is going to be terrible. And it doesn't seem to be connected.

MARY: Well, but I also know that the studies change. I remember 20 years ago they said - there was a study that came out by the American Psychiatric Association that sitting at the dinner table and eating was an outmoded and anachronistic idea. That changed again 10 years later, saying you know what, the dinner table is one of the best places to sit.

And I think sometimes we - because we enjoy things, we dismiss our own bad behavior because it's easy to do, it's fun to do whatever it is. And as adults I think sometimes we put children behind us and say but this is fun, I enjoy it, therefore how bad can it be.

CONAN: What conversations are you having over that dinner table right now?

MARY: Very, very heartfelt. I have two granddaughters the ages of the children who died. And this thing of we are so electronically connected and spend such little time really listening to the people around us, and I just don't think we reflect. And when I say - I have to say radio, you present things on radio that I listen to that help us think, but so much of it is just kind of mind-numbing, not thought-provoking, and it doesn't allow a greater conversation.

And I hope that this is what's going to come out of this, is that we're going to look into our hearts and say are we truly giving our children what they need, or are we giving them what we perceive as a commercialized world?

CONAN: Mary, thank you.

MARY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Chris(ph), and Chris is with us from Ithaca in New York.

CHRIS: Yes, so often I think the shooters in these cases feel both, you know, powerless and unheard. And this final, desperate action they take gives them both of those things. They feel powerful, and they at least feel heard, or known, I think, to the world, even after they're gone this way.

CONAN: That's a possibility. We don't know what motivated this particular killer, the police have not shared that information. They say they have a lot of evidence. But I think that's possible in other circumstances, though rage seems to have a lot to do with it.

CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, and I'm a preschool teacher, and I felt like when I went to work today, I went with a renewed sort of sense of mission to help my kids feel both a little more heard and a little more empowered, and also, you know, give them some tools for how to deal with life when it gets frustrating.

CONAN: It must have been an interesting - what did you ask yourself before you went to school this morning?

CHRIS: So, you know, I had a great day at work on Friday with my three-year-olds, and when I left, I turned on the radio, and I heard the news. And, you know, I just started crying. And I asked myself, after I went through it, you know, what can I do today? And it really, it really does boil down to just giving my kids some extra hugs, and when I see them get frustrated with each other sort of step in and try to help them figure out how to deal with life's frustrations.

You know, it's hard being a human.

CONAN: It's hard being a human, and you're in a position to help a larger number than most.

CHRIS: Yeah, yeah, so I feel lucky for that.

CONAN: Chris, thank you very much, appreciate it.

CHRIS: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Bye. Let's go next to Nancy, Nancy with us from Port Reyes Station near San Francisco.

NANCY: Yes, hi, I wanted to say that - I have to turn off my radio.

CONAN: Yes, you do.

NANCY: I wanted to say that I can't get the image out of my head of this young man, this apparently very thin, very quiet, very, you know, small guy dressing up in the Army vest with all the bullets, getting himself all prepared for this. And when you say that the image that we see on the TV and the video games don't affect kids, I just think that's insane. I mean...

CONAN: I'm just saying the studies that have been done say there's no apparent connection.

NANCY: Studies aside, we glorify that image. It's all over the place. And when you're someone who feels weak and small and perhaps, you know, not - you're not very taken - you're not taken seriously in your school, you're hurting in that way, I can make that connection, that yes, that's a way out, is to take this big guy, I'm really tough.

You know, your guy, you had a gun expert, gun advocate on earlier who talked about Switzerland not having any gun control. Switzerland doesn't have an army. Switzerland stayed out of World War II. They were neutral in World War II.

CONAN: Switzerland has universal service in its militia. Yes, it does have an army.

NANCY: Well, but they don't fight. They don't have this - they don't have - we are a violent country. That's what needs to be looked at. You know, from top to bottom, this is how we look at nuclear war, and as a person who lives here, in a very quiet, careful, safe kind of place, I have to say that I fear the people out there with assault weapons much more than I do al-Qaida.

It's much more likely they're going to kill me.

CONAN: Both things are extremely unlikely.

NANCY: Hopefully, but that's the truth of it. More people die every year by guns in this country than are ever going to die by some foreign, you know, blowing up with airplanes.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying. At the same time, and I don't mean to be provocative here, more people are going to die in car accidents.

NANCY: Yeah, that's true, but - and when we take measures that help with - we have seat belts, we have - you have to get a license, you have to pass a driver's test. I mean, all those are infringements on our freedom, are they not?

CONAN: They are.

NANCY: So I think we could use a few more. And I would feel much more happy about those infringements on my own freedoms than I do on the freedom to go to the movies and be safe.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for the phone call.

NANCY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Three days after a gunman shot dead more than two dozen people, we're hoping to get past the usual arguments and opinions today on guns and consider the bigger picture about why these incidents continue to happen in this country.

We want to hear what you're asking yourself, your family and your friends after Newtown. Why here? Why too often? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. This morning, parents and teachers across the country struggled with what to tell students as they headed back to class, the first full school day since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Schools there, with the exception of Sandy Hook, are scheduled to reopen tomorrow.

In other states, many districts added an extra security patrol or reviewed emergency plans. In Tampa, officials locked down three schools after finding a bullet on the floor of a school bus.

Mass killings like this are rare. Still, after Tucson, Aurora, the Sikh temple, now Newtown, who - why do these things happen more often here than in other countries with similar laws, similar media? We want to hear what you're asking yourself, your family and your friends after Newtown. Why here? Why too often? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to John(ph), John with us from Baldwinsville in New York.

JOHN: Hello Neal.

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, go ahead.

JOHN: I think when we reflect with mindfulness on the violence in American society, violence is used throughout society to perpetuate a skewed idea of the American dream.

CONAN: What do you mean? Give me an example.

JOHN: Well, all the way from the beginning, when Europeans came to the Americas, they perpetrated violence for economic gain against the natives here and against the land. I live three miles from a lake that is the most polluted lake in the country, that's now being cleaned up. And, you know, that was a tremendous violence for economic gain, short-term economic gain.

And I think it's all tied into commercial interests now. Violence is used to promote commercial interests, and our kids and our whole society, you know, they're victims.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, but there was certainly as much, if not more, violence in Mexico. Canada had a very similar experience to ours. There is not - these kinds of shootings are not unknown there, but there are fewer.

JOHN: Well, you know, all people have a propensity for violence, I think. But if we look at our - I don't - I think that we have to examine the violence that we consume as - individually and as a culture. And I think the idea of the American dream kind of puts a veil over our eyes so we don't see the violence that is necessary to maintain it.

I'm not saying we can't achieve the American dream or whatever people think of it, you know...

CONAN: Yeah, a lot of people with different definitions of the American dream. I wonder which one you're using in this context.

JOHN: Well, I would say economic gain at all costs. And I think that's definitely what we're in. If you look at cutting health care for people, and I know with Obama's, you know, health care system we're supposed to be broadening access to health care, but, you know, in the - I'm a registered nurse, and there's a lot of people without insurance, particularly young people that have their own businesses.

And they tell - when they need a test, an X-ray or a CAT scan, they say how much is that going to be? I don't have insurance. And a lot of times they don't get it. And when I talk with older nurses that were nurses in the '60s and '70s, at least in the Northeast around here, in Syracuse, New York, there was a lot of manufacturing jobs with insurance, and, you know, she said it was very rare, these nurses, that people didn't have insurance.

And that's just one example of, you know, we look at the short term, where we have to say oh, we've got to save money here and cut money here and cut money there. And that's been going on a lot for the last 10 or 15 years without a thought of how it affects people.

That's a form of violence against people.

CONAN: All right, John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have, this is from Cindy(ph) in Chico, California: I have a 23-year-old angry son. I think part of the issue being discussed is the changing role of gender. My son and other young boys seem to be being left behind by motivated, focused and high-achieving girls, and there's no attention to the myriad of young men who are lost right now.

In addition, males are more conditioned not to seek help. We need a cultural tidal wave caring and supporting young men. Let's go next to - this is Charlie(ph), Charlie with us from Charleston.

CHARLIE: Yes hi, Neal. Yeah, this whole incident has just made me question the (unintelligible) values of life all around the world. I notice everyone holding vigils and gatherings to honor these innocent children whose lives were lost on Friday, yet everyone here, or most people here, seem so accepting of drone strikes or military action around the globe.

And I don't think we can have it both ways. And I think it's just important to, you know, value all life equally. And, you know, this whole incident just made me question, you know, question those values that we have for children here and abroad.

CONAN: So you see this as, in a sense, as U.S. actions abroad, foreign policy coming home to roost?

CHARLIE: In a sense, yeah, you know, or the people - we just can't have it both ways. You know, I know an earlier caller just kind of mentioned that we are a violent nation. And, you know, when we're waging wars and have been in wars for, you know, over a decade, I just, you know, think this is something that, that people are if not becoming immune to are becoming accepting of. And this is...

CONAN: There is, if you go back through history, no time when these kinds of things have not happened, these kinds of mass killings by people who are troubled for the most part. And they may or may not be times when the United States was at war. They don't seem to be connected, in other words.

CHARLIE: You know, yeah, that is true. You know, I guess the main thing is it's kind of had me thinking was just the value of life for everyone. And I think if, you know, people were just more cognizant of that on a daily basis, it could just be beneficial to everyone.

CONAN: All right, thanks Charlie.

Thank you. Let's go next to - this is Robert(ph), Robert with us on the line from Tucson.

ROBERT: Hello, Neal, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ROBERT: Hi, I'm a college instructor, and we went to our graduation ceremony the Saturday after the incident. And a lot of my colleagues were concerned just in general about the gathering, and we were talking about, you know, the motivations behind why it seems the schools are such a trend, why it's almost, you know, trendy to go shoot up at schools, shoot up schools.

And I couldn't help but wonder if part of it is this tendency to make these guys essentially famous, and there certainly seems to be a one-upmanship in terms of body count and horrificness that I'm wondering, you know, there seems to be - it could be relatively enforceable, the kind of legislation that prevents mentioning these people by name and even - or showing their images and at least removing that form of motivation, if it in fact is what's part of it.

CONAN: I hear your argument, and I've heard it before. It is not relatively easy. There's the First Amendment.

ROBERT: Well true, but it wouldn't be a matter of not being able to discuss these issues and the people, it would be removing some of the incentive by, you know, perhaps referring to them as - give them a number.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, but there's nothing that could prevent anybody from publishing their name and their picture, and there's another point, which is: Do we need to understand who these people are to get a better appreciation of how we might address these problems in the future? And there's the further point of perhaps the motivation was political, and it was McVeigh in Oklahoma City and not an Aurora movie shooting, and...

ROBERT: Right, but why should we know McVeigh's name? I mean, should - do we really - it's like, they become like a list of anti-heroes, almost, for this certain, you know, subculture. And the fact that there they're - just repeated so often that I have them memorized, and I'd rather not know who Loughner was, but I do.

And so it's certainly - I mean, I heard - Morgan Freeman wrote a letter addressing this sort of thing recently, you know, in response, but I haven't read that yet. But it just seems there could be some consensus among media outlets to somehow limit the amount of fame that these characters get. I don't know.

CONAN: OK, Robert, thanks very much, appreciate it.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Ken(ph) in San Mateo, California: As we think about what conversations to have and how to move in the right directions in response to the mass killing epidemic we're currently experiencing, we should take a moment and remember the basis of our union, the purposes for which our political institutions were set up in the first place, among which were to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare.

At this point in our history, we've almost lost the ability to think and act as a community rather than a random collection of disconnected individuals. Our political culture is a unique balance of the individual and collective, but we've forgotten how to express and act on our collective rights and the need of all - of use as a community.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Erin(ph), Erin with us from Branson, Missouri.

ERIN: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

ERIN: Well, I thought that one thing no one seems to be touching on is the punishment for crimes like this. It seems like in today's time, in America, it's so easy, one way or another, to get out of, you know, stricter punishments where you have other, you know, sort of like Third World countries that cut off your hand for stealing. I think that in America, you know, you can - there's things like parole and probation or like - more like this case is leaning towards, where they're saying he was mentally ill.

I mean, yes, that happens, but it just - it seems like we're not getting punishment - they're not getting the punishment that they deserve. I mean, they say that the older things that we used to do, like hanging people, is cruel and unusual punishment. They weren't thinking about that when they killed 20 children and six adults. They weren't thinking about cruel and unusual at all.

CONAN: The deterrent of corporal punishment or, indeed, cutting off hands, I think that is cruel and unusual punishment.

ERIN: Well, that's, you know, quite extreme. But, I mean, I think that our punishment system should be a lot stricter than it is. It's a lot easier for actual criminals to wiggle through the cracks.

CONAN: Again, we put people away for longer periods of time and more of them than any country like ours in the world, and yet our crime rates and our murder rates are much higher than other places, like Canada - not a different place than us, really.

ERIN: True. But I also - I'm not quite sure, you know, it's portrayed as they just kind of go in there and sit for however many years. Are there even any programs that are trying to talk to these criminals to figure out, you know, why they did these things, what's going on with them that they, you know, that they could even think about stuff like this?

CONAN: Rehabilitating criminals. And, again...

ERIN: Right.

CONAN: ...just to point out that we're talking almost a separate subject. The people who carry out these kinds of crimes that we're talking about in Newtown or Aurora or the Sikh temple, these are not people who did time for armed robbery or anything like that.

ERIN: Right.

CONAN: Erin, thanks very much for the call.

ERIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to this email from Alda(ph) in Germany: I live in Germany and often talk about gun control with friends here. A Swiss friend of mine once told me that in his country, where people are fond of having guns because of a strong hunting tradition, the control is done on the basis of ammunition. Why not do this in the United States? Even if there were stricter gun control regulations, there would never be a recall on all the weapons that are already circulating, but controlling the sale of ammunition might actually help more. If certain ammunition were banned for sale to individuals or could only be bought with very strict license and in limited amounts, it might be more effective.

And one clarification. The previous caller mentioned a letter from Morgan Freeman. Representatives for Morgan Freeman made a statement that - statements attributed to the actor regarding the Newtown, Connecticut shooting are a hoax. Again, there was no legitimate statement from Morgan Freeman.

We're talking about guns and how should we think about the questions that arise from the number of incidents that have been in this country. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's go to Michael. Michael's on the line with us from Fresno.

MICHAEL: Yes, hi. How are you? Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MICHAEL: Yeah. One of the things that kind of strikes me with all of this is this is a mentally ill individual who did this crime. I think...

CONAN: Again, we think so. We don't know so.

MICHAEL: Right.

CONAN: Let's wait for the real diagnosis.

MICHAEL: OK. Well, my whole issue is that we have a lot of freedoms, and our country's come a long way to provide us a place where we can live and enjoy our lives better than a lot of other countries, and that's why we all like living here and people want to come here.

So it's - I think a lot of people are all of a sudden jumping and wanting to make changes, which ultimately lead to restriction of our civil liberties, restriction of our freedoms based on a single action - an action, although, you know, very, very unfortunate, obviously, is something that is incredibly rare, and is not something - you know, the guy who did it is dead.

He's not going to do that again. We have to do whatever we can to prevent something like this in the future, but we don't necessarily need to move away from where we've come, and we don't necessarily need to make drastic changes based on emotion only.

CONAN: What would be drastic? Would a limit on the number of rounds in an ammunition clip be drastic, or going back to the assault weapons ban that was in effect for 10 years?

MICHAEL: Well, I don't think that certain weapons being out of the mainstream is unreasonable, of course. However, you know, one has to think to yourself, I think this actual occurrence brings very good light on it. Instead of sitting there and waiting to be harmed by a gun when you can't do anything, the only thing that stops someone with a gun is another gun. I mean, the only thing that stopped this individual was his own bullet.

So, I mean, that's - you know, we have to ask ourselves: Is there a real threat out there to us? And if there is, the next question is: What kind of defense, or is our police adequate to defend us in all situations? Can they get there fast enough? So, you know, these are the things that we need to ask and try to decide rather than jumping and making huge changes to what's already in place.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Reed(ph), and Reed's with us from Havana, Florida.

REED: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

REED: My concern is the socialization factor of the perpetrator. In this case, here's a young man who apparently was pulled out of a public school at a fairly young age by his mother, and we don't know much about her yet. But was he, by his isolation from his peers, so stressed and so troubled that he had to take it out on the - what he saw as the perpetrators of his problem - in other words, first, his mother, and then the students whom he otherwise would have been, you know, socialized with? And I wonder...

CONAN: I'm sorry...

REED: ...wonder how his upbringing had a bearing on his ultimate decision to do this.

CONAN: And it's an interesting question, but the fact is we don't know. We don't know his motivation why he killed his mother, or why he went ahead and killed those other students. This is just speculation.

REED: Right.

CONAN: All right. Reed, thanks very much.

REED: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's a email we'll finish on from Stormy(ph) in Montana: I think the conversation we should be having goes even deeper than gun control or mental health diagnoses or the way, in general, we treat each other. We seem to have lost our compassion in many aspects of our society and have somehow transitioned to a me-first and who-can-I-blame thought process, which needs to be turned around. Fifty years ago, people who were upset or troubled didn't take out their frustrations nearly to the degree that it occurs now. How can we get back to caring about each other more?

Thanks to everybody who called and wrote. It's a question to which we are likely to return. We appreciate your time, for listening and for contributing to the program, but stay with us. Up next, when your town - hometown is Newtown. Rob Cox shares the story of his hometown, now a place of vigil and notoriety. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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