Sunday, January 20, 2013


     On the morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, a twenty-year-old caucasian named Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother with a Bushmaster assault rifle in their upscale Newtown, Connecticut home.  He then went to Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School and with the Bushmaster killed six staff members and twenty first-grade pupils.  The first 911 call from Sandy Hook reached authorities at 9:35 a.m., and as police approached the school Lanza killed himself with one of two handguns he was also carrying.
     Among the flood of consolatory responses to the massacre, most have been religious.  In his speech from Newtown, President Obama said, "God has called [the victims] home."  Religious services worldwide have made essentially the same point, affirming that the souls of the slain have survived their physical deaths and exist somewhere beyond nature.  A Christmas editorial on Newtown in the Washington Post described the religious response well: "For many people, there is no consolation and little comfort to be had, other than through some conception of God, however named or delineated.  Religious faith...remains astonishingly resilient, as does the need to perceive some order and justice and source of consolation in the world that is beyond the wisdom of judges, therapists, or grief counselors."  The Christmas rituals of church-going, carol-singing, decorating, and homecoming helped many people, including some of the victims' families, face the catastrophe.
     A less frequent consolatory response has been agnostic psychotherapy.  Here the comforters offer practical, non-religious advice on now to cope with a Newtown-like event.  Though dubious as to how much consolation survivors actually get from temporary outbursts of anonymous gift-giving and sympathy like the one that overwhelmed Newtown, the agnostics believe that such anonymous generosity, plus media hubbub, helps distract some survivors briefly.
     But soon the hubbub stops, the agnostics say, leaving the mourners alone with their losses.  The violent, senseless death of one's own child is fundamentally inconsolable.  Most parents never find closure for it and are offended if told they should.  The best they can do is find a way to live with their grief and make it bearable.  Every survivor must find his or her own therapy, among which the following sometimes work.
     Distract yourself by working towards some kind of activist goal.  For the Newtown massacre, it might be gun control, mental health, school security, or victim outreach.  Survivors can set up organizations honoring the slain and helping other survivors.  They can also volunteer to serve or help lead the kind of foundation established to memorialize virtually every U.S. mass killing in recent years.
     Accept that your life will never be the same but also that with time incurable wounds do partially heal.  Parents with children as young as those who died at Newtown may bear or already have other children, who to an extent replace -- and rechannel their love for -- their lost sons or daughters.  The changeableness of everyday life will create new and unexpected distractions: other family members or relatives may die, the survivors may divorce, remarry, and start new families, new conditions of all kinds will arise.
     The survivors can also try getting as far away from Newtown as possible.  Some agnostic comforters hold that a few survivors benefit from leaving a massacre site, like the father who left Columbine after the shooting there and lived a while alone on a mountaintop.  But most agnostics maintain that staying put and resuming activities enjoyed before the disaster, along with returning to accustomed eating, sleeping, socializing, and working patterns, tends to be more therapeutic.  For some non-religious survivors, imagining a loved one's presence in everyday things like rainbows or butterflies can be comforting.
     One interesting agnostic response to the Newtown massacre has been the heroization of the school staff members who died either confronting Lanza directly or trying to protect their pupils.  Some of the first policemen, firemen, and medics to reach Sandy Hook agreed with a colleague from a nearby city who said, "The first responders were the teachers and the students.  Their actions clearly saved lives.... They weren't equipped to deal with this at all.  They're the true heroes."  Similar tributes have been in the media often enough to suggest that millions of people outside Newtown found them consoling too.
     If consolatory responses to Newtown from agnostics have appeared less often than from religionists, still less numerous are those from atheists.  This is not because atheists were any less appalled by the massacre but because they're fewer in number worldwide and less sought after for an opinion.  Yet despite their small numbers and relative unpopularity with the press, atheists have been heard from.
     Predictably, they've been asked most about how they presented the massacre to their own children.  One atheist mother said she told hers that "some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don't believe that.  I believe when you die you live on in the memory of people you love and who love you.... I can't offer [my children] the comfort of a better place.  Despite all the evils and problems in the world, this is the heaven -- we're living in the heaven, and it's the one we work to make.  It's not a paradise."
     Other atheists, who observe rituals like Christmas, Hanukkah, mealtime grace, and even prayer in order to give their children a sense of cultural tradition, strip these rituals of religious content, arguing that familiarity with them helps their children separate the wheat from the chaff in religious responses to events like Newtown.  Other, less traditional atheists prefer a scientific approach.  "We are a science-based family," said one.  "When we don't know the answer, we say, 'We don't know.'  We don't say 'Jesus did it.'"
     Some atheists talk openly with their children about death.  One told hers that when "people die, it's just like before they were ever born.  They're not scared, they're not hungry, they're not cold.  But the people left behind miss them."  One father said his children were too young to comprehend Newtown, but if they'd asked him about it he would have told them that "the shootings were done by a young person who was mentally unstable."  Believing morality is man-made, he also would have said, "You don't have to have religion to know right from wrong."
     I found all the religious, agnostic, and atheist responses to Newtown admirable in one key way.  They all helped the survivors and the millions who empathized with them deal emotionally with their sudden shock, grief, and horror.  As a hospice volunteer, I welcome anything that helps human beings endure the ordeal of their own deaths or the deaths of those they love.  At Newtown, only survivors can be so helped, because all the victims themselves were murdered before anyone could help them.  If religion, agnosticism, or atheism helps any survivor there emotionally, I'm for it.
     That said, as a materialist I not only prefer the agnostic and atheist responses philosophically but also believe that materialism offers consolations none of the others do.  Since I've seen no other materialist comment on the massacre, I offer what follows as possible comfort.
     I prefer the agnostic and atheist approaches to Newtown because they more fully accept what I see as the three fundamental facts of human existence.  Fact Number One is that all human beings die.  Fact Number Two is that no credible evidence has ever shown a) that any human being or other living organism survives its own death other than as material residues or b) that any god, deity, divinity, or other supernatural being exists or in any way influences reality.  Fact Number Three is that the human species came into existence solely through natural processes of cosmic and terrestrial evolution.  More atheists than agnostics embrace all three facts, many agnostics claiming uncertainty as to whether gods exist, all atheists insisting they don't.
     Materialists, of course, not only take the three facts for granted but induce from them and scientific knowledge as a whole that the natural order is the only reality there is and is infinitely unified and self-sustaining.  In other words, material nature is all that exists, all the way down, and is radically non-human.  Human sentience, percipience, cognition, and rationality are freaks of insentient, impercipient, non-cognitive, and irrational forces whose ultimate substance is now and may forever be unknown.  All we can do is extrapolate from the facts of our own own cosmic history what this substance may be and how it may work.  To me, such reasoned speculation is the heart and soul of philosophy.
     So what, then, are materialism's unique consolations for a horror like the Newtown massacre?  As the preceding paragraphs indicate, materialism is not a warm and fuzzy worldview.  It sees human life as an irrelevance and aberration in an unfeeling, unthinking, and inhuman All.  It sees death, which people instinctively reject and deny, as an indifferent and inexorable fact dragging humanity back into the natural chaos it came from.  It sees life and death as insoluble existential contradictions and assumes neither is more meaningful or valuable than the other.  How then can materialism console anyone for Newtown?
     I'll begin an answer by stressing that all materialists, like most agnostics and atheists, believe that death leads to absolute peace and rest.  However much pain and fright the Sandy Hook victims may have felt during the massacre, they no longer do.  They're having the best and deepest sleep imaginable, one all of us will eventually share with them.
     But unlike agnosticism and atheism, materialism assumes further that the natural ingredients human beings are made of -- the elementary particles comprising their molecules -- are somehow connected to the All's material essence and are as valuable and important expressions of it as any ever were, are, or will be.  Human beings are bound to one another and the All by the essential stuff from which we and everything else in the cosmos is made.  How, where, and in what form this stuff existed before our own Big Bang is a mystery, but that it did and that it unifies all existence is axiomatic in materialist philosophy.
     What the axiom implies is that all the material objects, including human beings, in our cosmos are inextricably interwoven.  We share the same hundred-odd atomic elements and their underlying particles with the most distant galaxies.  The hydrogen atoms fusing at the sun's core are identical to those in the water we drink, despite the vastly processes they're undergoing.  The carbon, nitrate, and other residues of the Newtown victims are reintegrating with nature in whatever form their families chose, a reintegration that awes and comforts me.
     Its inhumanness awes me.  Nothing in the reabsorption of the victims' remains into the natural order has a shred of knowing, thinking, or feeling in it.  Like all inorganic matter, the victims are now forever locked in material oblivion.  Yet the very grandeur and serenity of their insensibility comforts me.  Why does it have to be humanly cognized?  I'm virtually certain that intelligent life did or will evolve either elsewhere in this cosmos or in countless other cosmos-like manifestations of the All.  Maybe in some of these it's not bound by our mortality or dimensionality, though I haven't a clue as to how or why that could be.
     I'm comforted that the Newtown victims live on in the minds and hearts of those who knew, loved, and, most poignantly, mothered and fathered them.  But they also quite literally exist in the air we breathe and the earth we trod.  I'm soothed by knowing my own cremains will someday be scattered in the Desolation Wilderness of California, where I had a near-fatal heart attack in 1995, because I like to picture them slowly blending with that magnificent landscape.  I'll then join the Newtown victims -- and their assassin -- in the peace that frees us from tragedy and madness, reunites us with the essence of being, and passes all understanding.
     Yet while the prospect consoles me, it also reminds me that the riddle of human existence has no answer.  We were born with an instinctive love of life and hatred of death because evolution blindly burdened us with it, even as it just as blindly condemned us to die.  The clash between life and death and the inhumanness of the mortal cycle as a whole was, is, and always will be incomprehensible in human terms.  Other than with humanly-contrived consolations like those I've already mentioned, there's no way to soften or rationalize Newtown.
     But not every issue raised by Newtown is so intractable.  Two kinds of pathological behavior primarily caused it, and both are remediable.  The first is psychological and will require identifying, restraining, and treating potential mass murderers like Lanza before they strike.  The second is social and will require delegitimizing the current gun culture of America.
     According to experts, the psychopathy of mass murderers like Lanza is hard to spot ahead of time.  One violence-predicting program that incorporated 106 risk factors in an interview for patients leaving mental hospitals found that 90% of the program's low-risk patients committed no violence during the next six months, while half the high-risk patients did.  But almost all such research is about people already known to be mentally ill, to be drug abusers, or to have been arrested, which is not the case with some mass shooters like Lanza.
     Yet experts agree more efforts must be made to flag potential killers, particularly those like the Virginia Tech and Aurora students who'd already alarmed campus mental health professionals.  Besides making such screenings more accessible to law and health officers so as, for example, to force potentially violent patients to take their psychiatric medicines, proposals for beefing up mental health counseling in schools at all levels are in the works.  But stopping mass murders in this way will be a long, hard, uncertain slog.
     More straightforward and effective would be a frontal assault on the constitutional guarantee to bear arms and form militias.  No other civilized nation in the world has so absurd and ridiculous a provision in its fundamental laws, one that not only condones but encourages the kind of pathological social behavior seen ever since the Newtown massacre -- thousands of U.S. citizens flocking to gun shows and stores to buy military assault rifles and oversized ammo clips of the kind Lanza used for fear they'll be outlawed.  The very idea of arming one's self against one's own government in a democracy as solid as ours is so crazy that reverberations from it like the Newtown massacre seem sane by comparison.
     The weapons needed to fight the U.S. military shouldn't be limited to assault rifles.  They should include planes, missiles, tanks, cannons, and optimally, chemical and nuclear devices.  Granted, assault rifles are more lethal than the single-shot muzzle-loaders standard back when the Second Amendment was ratified, but all they can do is kill unarmed and unsuspecting men, women, and children.  What's needed for a war with the U.S. government is every killing machine available worldwide.
     Short of curing ourselves of our Second Amendment lunacy, we should at the very least support and put in practice the tighter gun controls now being proposed all across America.  Among these are mandatory background checks for all gun buyers, banning assault weapons and oversized ammo magazines, registering all weapons and tracking them in a national database, strengthening mental health oversight, putting proven and potentially violent criminals under closer watch, and increasing penalties for carrying guns near or in schools.
     The National Rifle Association's notion of mandating armed guards in every U.S. school is even more preposterous than the Second Amendment itself.  Hendrick Hertzberg points out in the 7 January 2013 New Yorker that finding "a presentable advocate for the view that the No. 1 cause of gun violence is a shortage of guns" has been impossible since Newtown.  But the NRA and its most fanatical supporters are advocating precisely that view.  Arm all teachers, they say.  Encourage all  American citizens to carry concealed weapons.  Get rid of gun controls wherever possible.  Target all congressmen who support gun control and vote them out of office.
     This is a social sickness we can cure.