Be the Hero: Preventing the Next Newtown

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil doer; nothing more difficult than understanding him." -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

On a December morning last year, the children of Newtown, Conn., set out for Sandy Hook Elementary School. Backpack in place, and lunchbox in hand, twenty first-graders anticipated the day's special activity: holiday-themed arts and crafts. Anyone reading this reluctantly knows the perverse turn of events that followed: instead of a lesson on the holiday season, these young students were attacked and killed. Their last day became a tragic lesson on humanity's capacity for depravity and immorality. Eight boys and twelve girls, all between the ages of six and seven, died that day. Six adults were also slayed, while helplessly trying to protect their students from the armed intruder. Jason Frank, a Newtown Police Department Detective, was one of the few people allowed onto the crime scene during the aftermath. As he began the painful task of sifting through evidence, Detective Frank noted Christmas ornaments to the side of a classroom, still drying on the windowsill.

In moments like these, we often rely on the verbal crutch of clichés, as no words do justice to the magnitude of our pain. No matter how many times I write and rewrite the facts of the Newtown massacre, I will never find the right words. I will never adequately capture the community's pain, or the anguish experienced by those families. For this, I am sorry. And for the needless loss that should never have transpired and that nobody can undo -- I am also sorry.

In the days and weeks following this tragedy, journalists -- wordsmiths by trade -- also searched for ways to describe what happened. Newspaper headlines repeated similar themes across the country: "Unfathomable day for parents, kids," (The Boston Herald). "Newtown shooting: a quiet town hit by an attack of unimaginable brutality," (The Guardian). "Quiet Connecticut community rocked by unthinkable," (New York Post). "Small town tries to cope with unimaginable tragedy," (NPR). Despite, or because of, their attempt to capture our emotional despair, these headlines were misleading.

We know the unfortunate facts: Mass killings are not unthinkable. There have been 61 mass shootings in the United States since 1982. (The FBI defines a "mass murderer" as someone who kills four or more people in a single incident.) When we look at the twelve deadliest shootings in America, half have occurred since 2007. Six mass shootings occurred in 2012 alone, totaling over 100 victims injured or killed. Without dispute, the Sandy Hook shootings were despicable and inhumane. But in light of this clear trend, can we reasonably call the shootings "unimaginable" or "unfathomable?"

Of all mass shootings that took place in the United States over the past 30 years, more than three quarters of the murder weapons were obtained legally. -- Ravital Segal

The research of Stanford Psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, sheds light on this disturbing pattern of mass murders. Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment followed 24 male college students as they simulated prison life in the basement of an undergraduate psychology building. Slated to continue for two weeks, prisoner abuse quickly became so inhumane that Zimbardo called off the study after only a few days. In his TEDTalk, "Psychology of Evil," Zimbardo explains that in order to understand human evil, we must not look for the bad apple. Instead, we must try to understand the bad barrel -- the system that creates and maintains evil behavior.

Many aspects of American culture contribute to one such "barrel" -- the "barrel" that fosters mass murder. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45.1 million Americans over the age of 10 experienced mental illness in 2009. That's nearly 20 percent of all adults in the United States. Simultaneously, between 2009 and 2011, states cut funding for mental health services by $1.8 billion. Frighteningly, this resulting lack of mental health care coincides with easy and lawful access to deadly weapons. Of all mass shootings that took place in the United States over the past 30 years, more than three quarters of the murder weapons were obtained legally.

Adam Lanza, the gunman in Newtown, perpetrated a vicious crime. He was also a victim of our society's failings. Adam Lanza's brother, Ryan, told law enforcement that his family suspected Adam of suffering from a personality disorder. Given this reality, why didn't Lanza receive adequate psychiatric care? And why did he have access to lethal -- and legal -- weapons?

As Zimbardo points out, "understanding is not excusing." There is no excuse for the atrocities that Lanza brought upon the Newtown community. There is also no excuse for our society's role in abetting this type of mass crime. Zimbardo's definition of "evil" includes passive tolerance through inaction or indifference. Our insufficient mental health services and weak gun control laws embody our society's passivity -- and resulting culpability.

Toward the end of his TEDTalk, Zimbardo points out that the antidote to evil is heroism. He suggests that there are two components to becoming a hero: First, you have to act when others are passive. Second, you have to act socio-centrically, instead of egocentrically.

The British Statesman Edmund Burke warned, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." To prevent the next Newtown massacre, we must heed Burke's warning and embody Zimbardo's definition of heroism. If we don't, we can already predict the outcome.

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