"What is there to say?" That's the question editorial writers all over the country were asking themselves after what happened at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. It's no longer necessary to specify where Newtown is, or just what happened there. It has become one of those places that has become indelible in the nation's memory. Unfortunately.
All those children. And the teachers who were killed trying to protect them. There were no words. Words would have been a kind of sacrilege. So here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette we just ran an empty box in the editorial column in memoriam.
It was a natural enough, a human enough response. A respectful enough, even reverential enough, response. Like that of anyone who knows he has nothing to say but hurries to a house of mourning with a plate of food, a green plant, or nothing but his presence. Just to be there. To listen. And be still. To observe a moment of silence. To just Be Still.
There would be words enough later, more than enough. A flood of words -- turgid and muddy, a whole sea of platitudes and banalities and worn phrases are rolled out every time something like this happens. The psychologists must have a term for it -- the way a shocking event may only confirm what we've believed all along. It's not Cognitive Dissonance exactly. It's not cognition at all, but just a kind of autonomous reaction, like a knee jerking. A new outrage? It only seems to solidify old ideas. Here is what we've always thought and too often said. And now say again.
The gun-control people concluded that the answer was ... more gun control. The NRA, after a long hesitation that showed it does have some shame, announced that the answer was ... more guns. Specifically at schools. The usual guilt merchants were there to say it was all the fault of Society, which is always a handy scapegoat. If everybody is to blame, no one is. By making the responsibility collective, none of us in particular have to accept it. The critics of today's culture, if that's the right word, thought long and hard and intellectually, and concluded that it was all the fault of ... today's culture.
The usual Job's Comforters, arriving late but unchanged, were there to say we'd brought it on ourselves. All the voices fell into their accustomed places in this Greek chorus, producing a swelling discord.
It's a particularly American assumption, that for every problem, or even unspeakable horror, there is a solution, or at least a new policy. And it has its advantages. There's something -- indeed, much -- to be said for tighter regulation of firearms in our gun-happy society. Just as there's much to be said for cutting out the pornography of violence that streams across our television screens. And for having a guard -- a well-trained and well-armed one -- at every school.
Who needs those military-style assault weapons flooding the market? And those banana clips full of ammo. Why? To go squirrel hunting? To satisfy some veteran's nostalgia for the weapon he once fired on the range? How strange. I've never had the slightest longing for a 105-millimeter howitzer I could call my own.
But any logic and humility, let alone any new insight, was soon lost in the national shout show that follows every Newtown, Conn., or Killeen, Tex., or Virginia Tech. But the storm of words soon abated. You could hear the rustle of newspapers all over the country as readers turned to the sports pages. And it was a step up. Compared to reading the practiced opinionators who know just what they think and always will, the sportswriters seem open-minded. Maybe there's something about keeping score, the unarguable judgment it delivers at the end of a game, that makes them less dogmatic, more pragmatic, and willing to reconsider old positions.
And what's this -- something good out of Joe Biden? The vice president is said to be conferring with a wide range of officials in law enforcement in order to come up with a comprehensive plan to stem the violence in our shoot-'em-up society. Instead of just another piecemeal approach to gun control -- like a restriction on gun shows here and a limit on the size ammo clips there.
Here's hoping he'll also get together with some leading cultural critics and people who work in mental health. So they can talk about violent video games and such. And the need to pay more attention to potential killers while they're still potential, rather than after they've shot up a school, movie theater, fast-food restaurant. Or firemen rushing to the rescue and being ambushed by some maniac.
Please, no more Band-Aids instead of a complete physical -- and mental -- check up. Let's check the ideological hang-ups and moralistic judgments at the door before tackling this all too widespread problem. Let's approach this problem in much the way government has responded to other challenges when it comes to public health, whether smoking or venereal disease or polio, smallpox and such. That response has been remarkably effective. The progress on all those fronts has been dramatic. Smoke-covered newsrooms, not to mention bars and restaurants, have become things of the past. Also, the conspiracies of silence that used to cover the Big C or AIDS -- and prevent honest discussion and effective treatment.
Now is the time, way past the time, to approach violence in our society in much the same way as we did those other plagues -- as a problem in public health rather than an ideological tug-of-war. Surely we can respect the Second Amendment and still act to protect our children. It's striking what Americans can accomplish when we approach a challenge in pragmatic rather than political fashion. Didn't this used to be a can-do society, not a debating society?