The Explainer: This one has nothing to do with cycling

Emilie Parker and her dad

Emilie Parker and her dad

Dear Readers,
I apologize, but I need to change gears and take a major detour from the usual column today.

Mired in self-pity, I sent Padraig a note early yesterday, saying that I was bailing early on my Friday, hit with the flu and thinking that I would delay – or skip – writing this week’s column. I went home. I crawled into bed. I felt sorry for myself (Wahhhh). I drifted off to sleep.

Early, this morning, I woke to the news that my dear friend Bob Torry (one of the best damn professors I’d ever had) died yesterday from complications related to ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease).

A  few minutes later, I learned that the beautiful little niece of one of my law school classmates was among those killed in the obscene act of violence that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, yesterday.

I can’t imagine sitting down and writing about sports, law or cycling while pretending what happened yesterday didn’t happen.

I did not know Emilie Parker, but I do know her aunt, having spent three years with her, locked into that myopic world known as law school. Emilie’s aunt, my classmate Jill, only recently lost her father in a cycling accident and now faces this. I can’t even imagine what Jill and the rest of her family are going through right now.

To put it into perspective, remember that Emilie was a first-grader. She was six years old. Six. That’s around 2300 days on this earth. It’s the age at which everyone is bright-eyed, enthusiastic and drinking in the wonders of a new life. None of us is bad at that age. Emilie was an innocent victim in the purest sense of the word.

 Victoria Soto

Victoria Soto

I read, too, about a young woman, Victoria Soto, who taught at Sandy Hook. The 27-year-old selflessly and heroically threw herself between the shooter and her first-grade students, all of whom survived. She did not.

We use the word “hero” to describe a lot of people these days. We heap medals, riches and adulation on many far less deserving. We even call guys who are paid to ride bicycles around some of the most beautiful parts of the world “heroes,” largely for riding the aforementioned bikes just a bit faster than other guys who are paid quite nicely to do the same thing. Athletes? Yup. Heroes?  Nope. It is Victoria Soto and her colleagues  – unarmed, alone and devoted – who will forever epitomize the meaning of the word “hero” to me. (By the way, the next time some asshole tells you that teachers are lazy and overpaid, you might think of Victoria.)

What’s more, we use words like “tragedy” to describe events that truly only amount to a mere ripple in one’s life. The deaths of Emilie Parker, Victoria Soto and 25 others are real tragedies.

My friend Bob? He led a good, in many ways complete, albeit all-too-short, life. He was an English professor, a keen analyst of literature, film and religion and a terrifically funny dinner companion. I’m going to miss him terribly, but when I think of Bob, it will almost always be with a smile. I wish I could say the same about those poor kids in Connecticut. I wish I could say the same about Victoria Soto.

In coming weeks, we will yammer endlessly about the the factors that contributed to this tragedy. Some will, with good reason, say that it’s a problem rooted in a ridiculously easy availability of guns, whose sole purpose is to inflict maximum damage on as many people in as short a time as possible. We have the world’s highest per-capita gun ownership rate, at 88.8 per 100 Americans. But that can’t be the only explanation. Take our neighbors to the North. Gun ownership in Canada ranks 13th in the world and, in parts of the country, approaches that of the U.S., but they’re actually civilized about it. We are not. Recent data shows Canada has about 170 gun-related homicides (0.5 per 100,000) per year. We have a declining rate, but it’s still around 9,500 (3.0/100,000). There have to be other factors at play.

Others – like the esteemed former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee – offered that it was because we’ve eliminated prayer in our schools. Really?

While those all along the political spectrum will shout their respective opinions in an effort to score political points from this tragedy. Some will strike a chord, others will just seem nuts. Meanwhile, we may take a deep breath and wonder what kind of help was – or should have been – available to that twisted and tortured soul who carried out this obscenity.

As an attorney, I’ve recently taken on cases involving the mentally ill and find that the system in this country is woefully inadequate when it comes to identifying and offering early treatment to those who need it. For the most part, we wait until things turn serious and then take extreme measures to address what is now a critical problem … unless it’s too late, as it was in Newtown. Ours is not a proactive mental healthcare system. It’s reactive, often reacting when it’s far too late to do any good.

No, there is no simple answer. The availability of mental health care, gun control or even school prayer … none of them offers a simple solution to a complicated set of problems.

But the first step may be for all of us to realize we, as a country, and we as a people, have a problem. How is it that we can look around and not see the inherent humanity, the innate beauty,  in an Emilie; in the selfless soul of Victoria Soto … or even recognize the pain and agony of that distorted and tortured mind of Adam Lanza? We have a problem. We have a serious, serious problem.

We do need to talk.
– Charles

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30 comments

  1. Ray G

    Charles:

    Well said. Very sorry to hear about your friend Bob Torry. Anytime you learn of a death it is sad news, especially around the holiday season. I am from Canada and I, like so many people from across Canada, the US and around the world, was stunned when I read about what happened yesterday in Connecticut. I am not a father so I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for some of the parents who lost their children are feeling. Gut wrenching sadness, boiling anger, a profound sense of why, hearing the hollow echo of a child never returning home from school. All many of us can do is shake our heads in disgust and wish somehow the news could be different. I don’t pretend to have any answers for you, but I do know this – life does go on, however it will be forever changed for those affected. I can only wish for all those who are suffering from yesterday’s events, …Peace. For them December 14th will always be a hard day to mark on the calendar.

    With the Deepest Sympathy for all in Newtown, Connecticut
    Ray Gentile
    Yellowknife, NT
    Canada

  2. Jesus from Cancun

    Shocking news, even here in Mexico. We have our own violence problems in some very specific areas of the country. But this kind of unprovoked killing of innocent people, of innocent children makes me sick. It feels like a kick in the stomach.

    It has happened before. And each time, it has been one time too many. Why?

    From my perspective, from someone who has lived in the U.S. among other countries and now lives here, in a different culture with different values, I can only think that so many households having guns, so many drivers carrying guns is not right. So many parents buying their kids toy guns is not right. So many wars being fought and so many news of heroic soldiers might give kids a wrong idea. So many violent videogames, games that are supposed to be entertaining and only teach kids killing skills.

    I don’t know, I am not trying to criticize. I am just very upset. I hope something is done, but I don’t know what can be done. I just don’t want to ever know that something like this happened again.

    My sincere condolences to everyone hurt by this tragedy.

  3. LesB

    “We had 10,728 (gun fatalities) here (in the US.) There are other factors at play.”

    Americans are the hardest workers in the First World. I can’t specifically site the sources of the stats, but us Yanks spend more hours per week working than others. I read one stat recently about vacation: Americans on the average get something like 8 days of vacation per year, in Europe it’s more like a month per year.

    Haven’t raised kids myself, but from what I’ve observed and heard from friends, raising kids requires quality time AND quantity of time. Lots of quality time. I’ve heard parents rant about how impossibly hard it is to raise kids and simultaneously manage a job. Don’t know about the rest of the First World, but in the US two-worker families are ubiquitous.

    What are we as humans? We are hunter-gatherer societies who live in tribes and clans. This is the human condition over its history (except for a miniscule sliver of time in the recent past and present.) In primitive society children are raised, nurtured, educated and mentored by the extended family. Sometimes a birth parent is more of a figurehead position, and the child is the child of the clan.

    This environment is what our brains are evolutionarily conditioned to experience, this kind of society where if one parent doesn’t “have the time”, or is mentlly off-camber, or unloving, or is just a really bad influence, there is the entire rest of the clan to take up the gap in child-rearing. The child is never want for guidance, attention or love.

    Raising a child under current conditions is very difficult. Parents, often themselves damaged by our society’s unnatural child-rearing process, trying their best to raise children in the same unnatural setting. Parents these days deserve a medal, every day. I can say this just from, in retrospect, observing my own parents.

    Americans are the hardest workers in the First World. More time at work means less time with the little rugrats and with the not-so-little offspring negotiating the difficult pre-adult years.

    Americans are the hardest workers in the First World — and our work is paying off.

    It is with extreme sarcasm that I say that.

  4. Evan

    Look to the countries with the very fewest gun deaths, overall murders, and least mass murders. The answer is known. Of course people want simple answers which are always wrong. Courage is the willingness to see the obvious. If we really wish to know, we will actually talk and find these answers. But if we are angry, afraid, and have a will to power and wish to only confirm our prejudices, we will let this moment pass.

    It is horribly sad what has happened. I myself know sadness, half my extended family was murdered in the holocaust while the world watched and did not care.

    Today this sadness is also an echo of how we cannot care unless it hits close to us. Thousands of children die each year here and abroad who are poor not white, and of other ethnicities. They are largely invisible.

    For me the answer lies in a change in priorities in our society. I say our greatness is not measured in wealth, now armies, nor power, but by how we safeguard and act towards the most vulnerable among us.

    I have given my life in service to vulnerable people. My deepest wish is that we all do this. It will change us all.

  5. Brian B

    I too am sickened by this. Thanks for your post about this. I agree that there are no easy or simple answers to this problem. Since you agree with that, why would you so quickly and summarily dismiss the suggestion of Huckabee? I find that to be a closed-minded and bigoted way of thinking.

  6. Peter Dedes

    Getting a handgun permit in Canada is extremely difficult; transportation and carry permits more so. Long guns require firearms acquisition permits. In many parts of my country there exists a vibrant hunting culture. While we do have access to guns, we don’t have a pervasive distrust of authority nor do we have ready access to assault weaponry.

  7. randomactsofcycling

    Thank you Charles.
    From someone far, far away in Australia I can tell you that this tragedy has touched the world and we send to our friends in the USA our love and deepest sympathies.

  8. Rod

    Hi Charles,

    Neighbor from the North (and formerly from Mexico 10 years ago). Canadians own lots of guns. Not handguns, mind you. Hunting guns.

    Rifles = tools to kill animals. Irrespective of your position RE:hunting, this is the intended purpose of these instruments.
    Handguns and assault weapons = tools to kill people.

    I think that approach, and its philosophical implications, explain a bit on why Finland, Norway and Canada own lots of firearms without lots of murders. Maybe it is a cultural manifestation that makes everyone believe they are Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or a Morricone film… Or that arming teachers would stop the violence.

  9. Ben F

    Of all of your articles, this one is the best, if also the one I wish had never been required. The families of the victims are in my thoughts, tonight.

    Best wishes to you and yours, Charles. Very sorry about the passing of your friend, get well soon, and, as you say, Victoria Soto is a hero in EVERY sense of the word.

  10. Deb Olson

    Thanks Charles for veering off topic and saying so eloquently what many of us have been thinking for the last 24 hrs. Can we just put our heads together and find a way to outlaw assault weapons? There’ll be the endless discussions and cussings about the subject, but it’s a topic who’s time is way past due. How many more incidents of this tragic outcome must we continue to endure.

  11. Khal Spencer

    Thank you, Charles. This is definitely not a time to discuss bicycling or heroes whose claim to fame is saddle sores. Neither is it time to look for instant answers. I will offer a couple comments, though.

    One, in response to Brian B, I recall that it was relatively recently that prayer was banned from our public schools. It was also relatively recently that lynchings were not endemic in the United States. Correlation is not causation.

    Two, while hunting rifles are owned in places like Canada and that doesn’t seem to result in carnage in their culture, I don’t see other nations where citizens are gobbling up assault rifles and pistols with such abandon. There is a streak of violence in the American experience that ain’t new. War of Independence. War of 1812. War with Mexico. Civil War. War with Spain. War of genocide and conquest against Native Americans. Vietnam. Central America. Only difference now is we are turning the weapons on ourselves and our own children. The NRA says guns don’t kill people, people kill people. That’s exactly right, and it seems to be downright Red, White, and Blue.

    I have a Guns and Ammo magazine back home (yep, I’ve grown up with guns and to some folks qualify as a bit of a gun nut myself) and that magazine spends quite a few pages convincing us that we all need assault rifles in our homes, undoubtedly so the makers can pocket more dead presidents at our expense. I doubt many first graders could have handled an assault rifle. Perhaps its about time the gun owning public made the first small sacrifice and forswears some of the more ridiculous weapons we find being hawked to us and the thinking behind them.

  12. Betsy

    This is why I like following you, Charles. Thanks for helping us keep it in perspective. As a teacher, it sickens me to read the list of victims. So incredibly sad. And I’m sorry for your loss with your professor, too. My dad died of ALS 4 years ago – what an awful disease.

  13. Emil

    An “assualt weapons ban” as suggested by Deb Olson would not have helped the Casper College professors. We need to look beyond the weapon and look at the inherent human cause of this violence and insanity. Do we as a nation really need to continue reducing funding for mental health? Without statistics to back me up, (just my intuition as an ER nurse), psych visits to hospitals are way up, without sufficient resources to deal with individuals seeking help and treatment. Let us look beyond a political or gun control answer and look at the human side of issues.

  14. Skippy

    Ray Gentile has expressed in a better way , many of my thoughts :
    ” I am not a father so I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for some of the parents who lost their children are feeling. Gut wrenching sadness, boiling anger, a profound sense of why, hearing the hollow echo of a child never returning home from school. All many of us can do is shake our heads in disgust and wish somehow the news could be different. I don’t pretend to have any answers for you, but I do know this – life does go on, however it will be forever changed for those affected “.

    My blogs reflect my take on ” Heroes ” and like you , Charles , i believe that these Teachers in ” Sandy Hook ” exemplify the attributes of a True HERO/INE ! Many of the Armed Forces , away from home , at this time of the year , may well deserve this accolade also ?

    This is the second ” Holiday Season ” , for you , marred by tragedy , but hope that things pick up and your health continues to improve , so that you and your family can look forward to a rewarding 2013 .

    In closing i would like to draw your attention to the ” Cowardice of the Politicians ” , their failure to tackle the ” NRA ” , who use their considerable finances to ruin their opponents , is perhaps part of the problem that affects ” GUN CONTROL LAWS “!

    So as to facilitate an ” avenue of change ” , i created the following petition :

    http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/president-of-united-states-of-america-repeal-the-2nd-amendment

    like the other petitions , i am unable to determine , who has visited the site , but can see from the lack of commitment , that people are happy to see the ” STATUS QUO “!

    As an Australian , that has seen a Shooting Tragedy in Tasmania , where 95 lost their lives , i know CHANGE , can be brought about ! Point me in the direction of another petition trying to achieve what i am seeking to do , so that i can offer my support ?

    To ALL , i wish a Peaceful and HAPPY FESTIVE SEASON with the hope that 2013 brings happier times for ALL !

    EVIL TRIUMPHS when GOOD PEOPLE stand IDLE !

  15. Eric O'Rafferty

    Well said and thank you for your insightful thoughts and compassion; very much appreciated. But, from the the bottom of my heart, I wish you didn’t have to write this today.

  16. George Straz

    Thanks for writing this Charles. Also thanks to the commenters – especially our friends from Canada. The paranoid fear that government’s limiting assault weapons is a slippery slope for freedom, is both ridiculous and terrifying.

  17. Khal Spencer

    As far as mental illness, I’ve heard that Adam Lanza’s classmates thought he had issues of intense shyness or worse, but nothing that would have called attention to him as needing mandatory care. At least so far. Plus, as we found out, the guns belonged to his mom, a gun enthusiast, who was the first murder victim as Adam shot her and took her guns. So one wonders whether this was entirely preventable. Even an armed guard would have stood little chance against this guy’s body armor and firepower.

    Had Adam not had access to a Bushmaster 223 assault rifle, its possible, though, that his killing spree would not have been as massive or as easy to carry out, or that someone could have stopped him had he needed to reload a normal capacity weapon.

    There is no logical need for civilians to have unfettered access to weapons whose only home is the battlefield. Just as my driver’s license doesn’t allow me to drive a Mack Truck without having further qualifications, competencies, and restrictions, I think we need to restrict high capacity assault weapons to those who pass psychological tests and perhaps require these guns to be secured at approved shooting ranges, where one’s deranged kid or spouse can’t obtain easy access to them.

    While the NRA might see this as a slippery slope to loss of our Constitutional rights, let’s recall that the slippery slope is a form of logical fallacy. Frankly, I don’t think there is support for even this modest proposal, say nothing of a gun ban. There is nothing to fear except one’s own paranoia of government.

    Its hard to think of Christmas being a joyous season after this. I don’t feel like I have any right to be joyous. Let’s all make a resolution to find ways to help each other, both the bereaved and those who might be harboring thoughts of mass destruction. Peace.

  18. Petros

    Friday seemed like a cruel joke. It could not (because it should not) be true. And then, because I have a general mistrust of the media (they, in my opinion, tend to sensationalize) I thought “it cannot possibly be this bad”.
    But it was.
    And my thoughts immediately turned inward, thinking back at the days of dropping my daughters off to kindergarten all those years ago. It could’ve happened to them.
    And then I started thinking of all those little angels that will not light up their houses this year (or any other year from now on) during Christmas Day.
    I am a religious person. I believe that they are all (children and adults) in a better place. I believe that the troubled soul of the assailant needs to be in our prayers, too. We are truly all God’s children. The good, the bad, the disturbed.
    I have also had a very hard time understanding the need and purpose of owning a semi-automatic or fully automatic weapon. I asked someone I know once: Why do you want one? the answer was “because it’s my right to own whatever gun I choose”…that thinking will not change regardless of how strict the laws will become, or, unfortunately, how many more instances like Friday’s happen…
    The answer to all this lies somewhere in middle. Which is a place not too many people (politicians, especially) venture into, because lately, ‘compromise’ = ‘weakness’ and ‘defeat’

  19. Peter Dedes

    Toronto Star columnist Cathal Kelly had this interesting and accurate observation with respect to America: “America doesn’t get along very well. They’re probably the most divisive semi-functioning democracy on Earth.

    That’s the real root of America’s mass-shooting problem. Guns are the necessary instruments. Paranoia is the cause.

    Americans don’t trust each other, neither as individuals nor their institutions. So they must have guns.”

    Your society has complicated problems.

  20. Mark

    A horrible horrible tragedy… What can you say when something like this happens, especially when you rightly make the comparison that other countries have similar high levels of gun ownership, but don’t have the same problems of shootings.

    Yes, restricting guns (especially semi-automatic) is part of the answer, but as Charles rightly says, there are other cultural issues at play, which somehow (god knows how?) need to be addressed.

  21. Jonathan

    As a new father of a 7 month old, my heart bleeds for the families of Newtown CT. I’m finding myself in tears every time I read an article about this senseless destruction wreaked by one young man.

    As viewed by an outsider, the USA looks broken. The system just isn’t working anymore. When it’s easier and cheaper to obtain weapons of mass murder than it is to obtain decent mental health care, it’s time for EVERYONE to take a step back and have a long hard look at things.

    I’m yet another Australian who is thankful for our stringent gun control regime. While we have our fair share of violence and violent crime, I sincerely appreciate how difficult it is for people to acquire guns.

  22. Bobroberto

    As a parent and grandparent my heart continues to ache for those who have been and will continue to be sacrificed by gunfire as a result of our interpretation second amendment rights. My mind boggles at how a muzzle loading musket of the 18th Century is now an assault rifle but other constitutional interpretations must be left as is. As much as the stain of slavery continues to affect our lives, so does this notion that there are still French and Indians to shoot on the frontier. A most curious interpretation of freedom. How many enoughs do we need to disarm?

  23. Travis

    As the father of two young boys (4years and 8mos) and a teacher I would like to thank you for these words. I am still struggling with what happened as I imagine most are. A mass shooting of any kind is perhaps me of the most insideous things our societies can produce. I applaud the discussion and debate these incidents can foster in people, but am also fearful of the rhetoric that ends up inevitably following. These events polarize the extremes of the gun debate. The pro gun camp says arm the teachers and this wouldn’t have happened, while the anti gun camp says get rid of guns and this wouldn’t happen. And somewhere in the middle, a discussion of our woefully inept system for dealing with mental illness. What is ultimately lacking it seems to me, is a discussion on why we (I mean Americans here but also humanity) cannot seem to instill a sense of interconnectedness to each other, to our environments, etc. why don’t we have a discussion on how we can all be better towards one another? Because someone needs to be blamed and someone or some party needs to feel like they won. Until that ceases to be the case we will continue to injure each other and ourselves, and perpetuate a culture where violence is the answer, schools are run like prisons to keep people out, and where we cultivate a culture of fear and anger.
    So to combat this I plan on loving each and everyone of my students even more, and pushing them towards empathy, compassion, and nonviolence. I plan continue to good things for others, and act as selflessly as I can, to be a good steward of our planet, and to generally remember this from Ghandi:

    “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.”

  24. Michael Schlitzer

    I spent extra time this weekend with my 5 year old. Of course we went to a bike shop (and some girly stores too), but mostly we just walked, she talked and I listened. She held my hand.

    We watched the President and as he read all 20 names of those children – just first names to make it even more intimate – I hugged my little ones so tight and cried for those parents who would never get goodnight kisses again.

  25. TominAlbany

    We DO need to talk. We also need to LISTEN. Most seem to be interested in being heard.

    Politics is hard stuff because there’s so much at stake both in the here and now (money, power, fame, success, helping others, getting re-elected) as well as the longer term (what does the U.S. want to be when it grows up.

    I hope people would actually communicate. Talk AND Listen. The last election cycle doesn’t seem to indicate any thawing of relations.

  26. Pingback: The Explainer: Can reform begin at home? : Red Kite Prayer

  27. Michael Levine

    Charles,
    Thanks for your words of reason on this… and many subjects. We DO need to talk. I just “discovered” your blog. Well done, my man.
    Michael L. mikethebike NYC

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