Friday, December 21, 2012

Tragedy demands change in thinking on many levels

From today's Briefing:

On the drive home from dance class this week, Katie, seemingly apropos of nothing, said, “If you’re afraid of making mistakes, all you’ll do is pretty much stand still.”
My daughter’s words have been needling me ever since, for reasons she doesn’t begin to understand.
Katie’s been sheltered as much as possible from news of the violence in Newtown, Conn. She doesn’t know that children her own age were murdered in their classrooms one week ago. She doesn’t know that teachers sacrificed their lives for their young charges. She doesn’t know that a 20-year-old is responsible for a breathtaking, logic-defying amount of destruction.
You and I know, of course, and we’re still grappling to find the words to describe the pit in our stomachs and the dull pain in our chests. Our eyes still well with tears when we read the names of the murdered and imagine the emptiness in their homes.
So what are we going to do about it?
I fear that so many of us are afraid of making mistakes that we’re going to just stand still. I also fear that standing still means we’ll be discussing — and shielding our young children from — something similarly horrifying in the coming months or years.
What kind of change do we need?
We need a shift away from a culture that encourages children, teens and adults to shoot virtual people and aliens. The top-selling video games of the year so far, according to Amazon’s sales, are Just Dance 4,Halo 4Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Assassin’s Creed III. Thank goodness for those kids who want to dance.
Can we imagine a future in which most of the top games don’t simulate violence? And can we imagine a future in which parents heed ratings on the boxes?
Halo is rated M for Mature because the Entertainment Software Rating Board has determined that the “content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up” because it “may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”
Yet many families allow their kids to play it. I’ve often heard that it’s OK because the virtual killing targets aliens, not humans.
There’s at least one student in Katie’s class who brags about playing Halo. That second-grader is rewarded for multiple “kills” on a game designed for someone a decade older.
Video games are hardly the only symptom of a culture in need of repair. The top three grossing movies of 2012: Marvel’s The AvengersThe Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games. Violent, violent, violent.
Does watching a bunch of violent movies make the average American a raging killer? Absolutely not. But what does it say about us that the most popular movies of the year are destructive, that we find death and explosions and mayhem entertaining?
We also need a shift in attitude toward mental illness and its treatment. By all accounts, the Newtown murderer was an emotionally and mentally ill young man. We’ve been robbed of the ability to interview him, study him, try to make sense of his deranged actions. No amount of speculation will appease us.
We don’t need to talk to him, though, to know that consistent access to mental health care is inadequate. We don’t need to talk to his murdered mom to know that mental illness is often misunderstood, that it’s difficult to manage, that it’s unpredictable and frightening and has a way of trapping, injuring and mutating the people we love.
Finally, we need a shift in the way we discuss guns in this country. We need measured, thoughtful, educated, civil talks about how many guns and what kind of guns. Our children deserve reasoned discussion about the scope of the Second Amendment.
The time has expired on kneejerk reactions from either side — not just because of the 27 victims in Sandy Hook but because of the estimated 85 people who died yesterday because of gun violence and the 85 who will die today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We can’t be so afraid of making mistakes that we choose instead to stand still, waiting for the 85 who will die tomorrow.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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