Cruelty and Callous Indifference

Most of the regulars here know that I have a 23-year-old daughter, because I’ve mentioned it here. But what I have not mentioned here (at least I don’t think I have) is that, before my now 23-year-old daughter was born, I had another child — also a daughter — who was born with a fatal genetic condition (Tay-Sachs disease), and who died in 1990 two months short of her fourth birthday.

The defective gene that causes Tay-Sachs can be identified by an ordinary blood test, but in our case the lab technician made a simple arithmetic error, which produced a false negative. The mistake was not caught because no one double-checked the technicians’ work before the results were sent to our doctor.

After we found out that our daughter had Tay-Sachs, and that we would have to spend the next several years watching her die, we contacted the director of the laboratory (through the neurologist who had diagnosed her). We wanted to know how our child could have Tay-Sachs if one of us was not a carrier (both parents have to be carriers to produce a child with Tay-Sachs). We also wanted to speak with the lab director without the intermediary. We wanted answers, we wanted some compassion and understanding. We wanted the lab director to tell us how sorry he was that the mistake had been made and no one had caught it. We wanted him to take responsibility. We wanted some indication that he was aware of how devastated we were. We wanted him to tell us that he would help us in any way he could.

You probably can figure out what’s coming. We did not get any of those things from him. When the neurologist told him that we wanted to speak with him directly, he refused. He said, “I don’t think that’s obligatory.”

Those words will remain burned into my brain until the day I die.

After my first daughter died, I prepared a short remembrance, which I read at her funeral service. I don’t know what I did with it — I lost it somehow, or maybe I accidentally threw it out in one of my many, MANY moves since then. And I have forgotten all of it, except for the last few sentences. Those I remember: “We don’t know why, through the callous indifference of others, Abigail had to be born, only to die. But we do know that we loved her. In the end, that’s all we have.”

I don’t like cruelty and callousness. You may say, Who does? but there is enough of it in everyday contemporary life that it worries me. It keeps me awake at night, because cruelty and callous indifference are behind too much of our public policy today — or lack thereof. I don’t know what’s behind the growing dysfunctionality in the human empathy apparatus these days, but it feels like it’s getting worse. More, it seems to me that some kind of internal censorship mechanism isn’t working as it should anymore, and too many people don’t have the vaguest sense of how the things that come out of their mouths are likely to affect others– especially at times when those others are most emotionally vulnerable.

In the almost 36 hours since a young man barely out of childhood himself fatally shot 28 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut — 20 of them children between the ages of five and ten — there have been so many cruel, callous, dismissive, uninformed, ignorant, and, in one instance that I have seen, unhinged bordering on deranged, responses on these interwebs that it’s very difficult to follow the advice I sometimes get to “just ignore them and they’ll go away.”

So I won’t. What follows are some of the comments about the Newtown school shootings that I have seen since the news about the shootings broke yesterday:

Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer say the shootings happened because religion isn’t taught in public schools.

Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom headlines a rambling, ranting, unhinged screed about Barack Obama’s emotional speech about the shootings: “Obama, Silent About Union Violence in Michigan, Reacts Immediately to Connecticut School Violence.” Jeff is also angry at Pres. Obama for saying, about the children killed in the shootings, “These are our children.” He yells that his children are not Obama’s and Obama’s children are not his. The link is to Wonkette — I refuse to link to Jeff’s blog.

The other McCain thinks that the entire subject of psychologically disturbed individuals committing mass murder is a huge joke, but if you really press him for details, he’ll tell you that mental illness should be re-stigmatized (as if it ever stopped being stigmatized), and that the people Adam Lanza killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School would still be alive if they had had the “common sense” to “recognize that Adam Lanza was dangerously crazy,” and done something to stop him:

People with common sense recognized that Adam Lanza was dangerously crazy, which is why they’re still around to talk about how crazy he was. You’ll notice that Adam’s brother Ryan Lanza … hadn’t had anything to do with his brother since 2010. Ryan knew his brother was dangerous, and did his best to put himself out of danger. But none of the people who recognized Adam’s evil craziness as a danger felt empowered to do anything to prevent him from going on a murderous rampage.

Presumably, this includes the 20 six- and seven-year-olds whom Adam Lanza killed, since McCain doesn’t exempt them from responsibility.

Here’s one, from the Wall Street Journal (and this will be the last one for now because I can’t stand looking at them anymore, and really, how many examples of cruel, callous, dismissive, ignorant, and just plain stupid responses to Newtown do you need?) that includes a little bit of every one of those parenthetically mentioned qualities. The sentence I bolded is possibly the stupidest I have read anywhere on this subject:

A very long time ago, the ancients would have attributed such tragedy to fate or to the gods. The dead would be honored, grief in time would recede and the living would push onward, as if there were any other choice.

No longer. For better or worse, we inhabit a more modern world that feels compelled to submit all such events to analysis. The details of the killer and his life history are still spilling out and we will learn in the days ahead more than we probably want to know. From analyzing all this, it is assumed, a protective salve of public policy will emerge. So we will debate after Newtown, and perhaps something worthwhile will come from the effort.

As happened after the shootings at Columbine High School, where two students shot 12 other students, there will be calls for the control of guns, notwithstanding the existence of 200 million guns amid a U.S. population of 311 million. Last year in Norway, a nation with a tight gun-control and licensing regime, Anders Breivik methodically gunned down 69 people, mostly teenagers, on the island of Utoya.

Questions about both gun control and violent mental illness were raised this year when James Holmes allegedly shot 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. After college-student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, there was a great effort to understand what is possible, and not possible, in the treatment of shattered minds that pitch people into violence and murder. Specifically, what protections from people in the grip of uncontrolled mental illness or evil derangement is the broader society entitled to?

There is time enough for that public debate and all the usual intellectual tensions put in motion by such discussion. But not at this moment. Newtown’s massacre is a crushing event. The emotions pouring now from every person in the United States toward those families are the right ones. It is better to let them run for awhile.

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Kathy Kattenburg

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  • I read Goldstein’s odiousness yesterday, but I think the WSJ’s editorial manages to top it, especailly since it comes from the editorial board of a major newspaper. The message of “it’s not time now and it should never be the time” is utterly reprehensible. Of course it is the right time to discuss the many nuanced components of a culture which can allow massacre after massacre to occur. Of course it is the right time to discuss mitigation, (not elimination, that may be impossible as Brevik’s case shows), of the violence.

    There’s a facebook meme doing the rounds that perfectly answers the WSJ: one nutter tries to light his shoes on fire and every air traveller in the world has to take their shoes off at boarding but 22 small children get shot multiple times and the Right tells us we shouldn’t talk about gun control. Say wha?

  • The most cogent response that I can think of to the WSJ’s unspoken question “What do gun control initiatives get you in a nation already awash with guns?” is that they represent a potential means of helping socially norm the notion that there is a powerful obligation to ensure that – if these things are going to be out there (which clearly they are) – there’s a responsibility associated with their ubiquity. The current narrow focus on this as an issue of rights, which are then hotly contested, pretty much entirely ignores issues of responsibility. Firearms have almost become an empty talisman used as tribal marker to be waved at each other, without remembering that talismans have magical powers that mean they pose real dangers to all involved if misused.

    • The realistic but nuanced take is that gun control won’t prevent gun violence 100%, but it can mitigate it. That is the experience of every other modern democracy which has faced this problem. You’re right in saying that the WSJ’s editors probably have many background reasons for wishing to deny this reality, but that chief among them is that the issue of 2nd amendment rights have been turned into a conservative litmus test.

      • The challenge is that the United States is not every other modern democracy. They are far out on one end of the spectrum on this issue – one area where exceptionalism is real rather than a commonly held ideal. Given the historical particulars, we should reasonably expect that the mitigation offered by such measures will be neither as great nor have as immediate a set of effects as in other democracies that had different starting points (not to mention vastly different historical trajectories). As a knock on, I would anticipate that the most potent mitigation measures are ultimately cultural and behavioural, rather than immediately instrumental (i.e., changing how people think about guns and act with them, rather than removing them – that latter is, in my judgement, a non-starter in the American context).

  • Last year in Norway, a nation with a tight gun-control and licensing regime, Anders Breivik methodically gunned down 69 people, mostly teenagers, on the island of Utoya.

    As Steve Hynd wrote before (and I’m paraphrasing):

    In 1996 in Scotland, a nation with a tight gun-control and licensing regime, children were murdered in a Scots school. As a consequence, in 1996 gun ownership in the United Kingdom became illegal, with the overwhelming support of its inhabitants.

    Now who are the crazies and the nuts?

  • Maybe I’m just being obtuse, here, but it seems to me that if owning guns is illegal and a cop sees a guy with a gun, he can arrest the guy before he kills a whole bunch of people. Is that point too complex for the NRA?

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