Many of events of great importance have occurred recently, not least the terrible tragedic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and I have been tempted to put pen to paper (metaphorically). But not only have many important and insightful commentators said all that I could have put down and more, but another factor strikes me in my distant exile from the centres of world-events. The identity of the victims, their number, and their disposition in the school building was incomplete and confused. The actual crime scenes changed from moment to moment, from one to two to three and then back to two and sometimes to one again, with further victims identified as the shooter’s father, brother, uncles… Like everyone else I was fascinated and could not stop watching.
As I switched from one channel to another-Sky News, BBC, Fox, France 24, Russian Television, New Zealand’s own TV 1 and 3-reporters became increasingly excited, made wild speculations, interviewed each other, and tried in vain to get policemen, city officials, FBI agents and other persons wandering in a dazed state to venture opinions. Hours passed and though a grim story began to emerge with some coherence, the hardest questions remained unanswered: not just why did it happen, but why there and why on that day, and was this event related to other happenings in the past few days and weeks. The usual expressions of anger and grief, the sentimental reflections on the senselessness of the killings, the deferrals of discussion on issues such as gun-control, safety precautions in schools, the normal peaceful nature of small rural towns and villages, the dedication of teachers and other “educators”: the most sensible people seemed to be the clergymen and women who came to comfort the stunned, the pained, the grieving-the rabbi from nearby Danbury, the various priests and ministers from the town’s churches, the nun, along with the excited psychologists and counsellors; then friends of the victims’ families, associates of the teachers, neighbours of the perpetrator, colleagues of anyone caught up in the tragedy. Everyone had something to say, or if not, they could be shown in tears, fainting, or walking concernedly across the grass.
Though there were occasionally statements that made sense and cautioned patience, usually from the state police chiefs and the governor’s office, most of what we heard was noise, sympathetic and stunned, to be sure, but empty of any news value. I can understand why everyone wanted to gather round the elementary school or watch the images on television, but I wonder whether it might not have been better to restrict access to the area for a period of time until everything was secured and under control, with parents kept well away from prying reporters and ghoulish onlookers.
We have seen and heard it all before. Columbia, Aurora, and son and on. As each shocking news story comes to air, first as a breaking piece of information, then as a series of fragmented and inaccurate surmises, then as a more or less official version of what has transpired-a narrative, if I may use the term here, which is subject to amplification, clarification, contextualization and correction over many days and weeks, and in some cases months and years-I have to bite my tongue, keep my silence, and wait until a more convincing version of the facts becomes available.
I am too far away, at the other end of the world-can one be much farther away than in New Zealand?-to do more than try to listen and wait patiently, while all the time feeling my guts twist and boil in frustration, anger and despair at the complete absurdity of the world, the loss of common sense from public discourse, and the helplessness of victims in their pain and grief.
It is best to be able to talk about such painful things, to feel close to one’s family and friends, to be part of a group so as to share the burden. Close to me, however, most people refuse to discuss any of these current issues; they studiously avoid reading newspapers or watching television news. What they are concerned with, if anything other their own families and local communities, are environmental issues, matters that, if listened to long enough, turn into a form of bizarre religion, as fanatical and intense as anything that ever fuelled religious wars over the centuries. To attempt to raise questions concerning political, military or economic crises overseas is only to ask for trouble: to see blank stares and bewildering gestures turn into retreat from the scene or demands that I go elsewhere. If allowed to press on, however, the specifics are distorted and the ideology of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism and anti-rationality comes through.
Other than a passing sentimental tear for children slaughtered in their classroom or a nod at the perhaps dangerous advent of jihadism in the further reaches of the globe, there is no concern, comprehension or desire to make things better. Syria could collapse into a biological nightmare of apocalyptic proportions. Egypt might emerge as a gigantic but rogue state pursuing dreams of a restored caliphate, Mali may set itself up as the next vast training ground for Al-qaida style terrorist warriors. Greece, Portugal, Italy and a chain of other European states lose all financial viability. Even the United States may tip over the fiscal cliff and watch as China marches forward with its expansionist dreams. But how could these scenarios play out when the local media are self-absorbed in Middle Earth fantasies or virtually switch off as holidays (they are summer holidays down here in the remote regions of the southern hemisphere) shut down private businesses, public offices, and government agencies.
Is there a connection between the self-deluded post-modernism that sells its soul to the devil in believing and acting as though the most violent and superstitious gang of thugs in the world are the worthy victims of western colonialism and racial bigotry and the young adolescents who objectify their inner demons and murder innocent men, women and children to relieve the unbearable stresses in their minds? It would be hard to show any direct correlation, but that does not mean such a causal sequence does not exist: what it means is that we have to work patiently through historical evidence and clinical records, interpreting in a complex process. But as Claude Bernard showed more than a hundred and fifty years ago in his Introduction to Experimental Medicine, there is a critical, often subtle distinction between (1) an observation of facts in the outer world, (2) a systematic investigation of the inner environment of motivations and impulses, and (3) an extrapolation through subtle, rational evaluations and comparisons of what has been seen and what has been noted in connections and tensions; but even then the hallmark of the scientific method is (4) a sophisticated process of doubt along with a constant testing and retesting of conclusions.
As much as absolutes based on intuition and traditional beliefs must be put aside-though not totally forgotten, since they allow themselves for the development of new questions to be investigated-so too must purely logical constructs, since the natural world (which includes ourselves and our history) is dynamic, fluid and confusing to superficial inspection. Moreover, just as a medical professional makes decisions on the best evidence and procedures, even though they are never taken as completely true to reality, because probability points towards a reasonable outcome; so too, in regard to the procedures needed to ensure the safety of the public in their normal day-to-day activities informed decisions are granted reasonable weighting-as we know in the inconveniences of air travel, for example, or in the frustrating delays to await results in pathological examinations. Parents, teachers, medical officials and others who deal with persons manifesting signs of mental or emotional disturbance should be able therefore to share information, in as confidential a manner as possible, and take seriously calls for help from the individuals concerned or those close to them. Better safe than sorry means inconvenience and frustration to some people, and even at times curtailment of rights under controlled circumstances, and provision of treatments as appropriate.
These rights of man (citizens, residents and visitors), these liberal civil rights spoken of so often since John Stuart Mills, are never absolute, but conditioned by circumstances and by contingencies. If they were absolute, there would likely be anarchy, as we stepped on each other’s toes (metaphorically and literally), shouted into the faces of those we disagreed with, and found no time to listen to other points of view or reflect slowly on our opinions, learning to distinguish between what we believed we knew, what we learned in various times and places in our lives, and what we could infer, analyse and interpret in the light of the most up-to-date and accurate information available. Not every argument is equal to every other, nor does sincerity-and pain or insult-guarantee possession of the kinds of truth needed to make decisions on behalf of the community in the present or for the future.
In the midst of a crisis, actions must be taken, to be sure, and all efforts to prevent any disaster from continuing or spreading have to be made. But review of the events should be deliberate and conscientious so that correction of flaws in systems may be undertaken and procedures developed to minimize future recurrences. Victims need to be respected and protected. Blame should not become a vindictive game, but recognize that responsibilities centre on the perpetrators and only after that on systems that have failed, officials and experts who have been derelict in their duties are brought to justice, and the public informed of what went wrong, why, and how the rectifications will proceed.
Norman Simms contributes Posts at the Family Security Matters site, and he is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011). The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew should be released soon; and a third volume tentatively entitled Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus: Illusions, Delusions and Allusions is being prepared for 2013.