In the face of tragedy, we tend to overreact. So when the events of Newtown unfolded, that’s what we did. Fingers were pointed in many directions. Guns and gun owners were the first and most obvious targets. How that turns out we still don’t know. Though if history is any guide, we’ll end up with legislation that does little to address the problem while still allowing politicians to say, “See, we did something.”
But it wasn’t just the Second Amendment that suffered. Such was the nature of this particular event—with so many dying who were so young—that people lashed out in many directions. Some questioned whether society was to blame, if perhaps a culture that glorifies violence in movies, video games, television, and song has created an atmosphere where life is cheap and taken with little thought.
My first reaction was to reject such a view. Adam Lanza was insane, and drawing broad generalizations from his actions—whether about guns or culture—seems wrongheaded and counterproductive. In reality, violent crime is down sharply over the last twenty years. While the mass media is adept at efficiently spreading bad news—whether it’s violence in Chicago or any public shooting anywhere—I question whether things are really all that different than they were in the past. We can talk of the good old days, but we should probably make sure they were really all that good to begin with.
Still, one has to wonder what effect our culture has on the mentally unbalanced. In a world where “murder simulators” are the most popular video games and where violence in movies and television is not only tolerated but expected, is it any wonder that these acts of seemingly random, mass violence appear to be on the rise?
I’m not advocating censorship. Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite directors. I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City until the fan in the Xbox burned out. No, we shouldn’t surrender our freedoms in the face of such mindless hate. But we may have to come to accept that such events will continue to happen.
We should remember something else as well, though. Freedom is not the same thing as license. That we allow free expression—no matter how violent or crass—doesn’t mean that our society cannot judge it appropriately. Creating a society that respects life is a much bigger job than any piece of legislation. It starts at the home, in churches and synagogues and mosques and schools. And encouraging that culture is the only way that we can ensure that Newtown remains the exception, not the rule.