Love and compassion, even for murderers and their families?

The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last week has left me deeply saddened. Of course, I grieve for the children and adults killed that day, and for their families. I grieve for the others who survived the attack but will be traumatized by it for years to come, and for law enforcement officials, medical examiners, funeral directors, religious leaders, and others who must tend to the needs of others while dealing with their own emotional responses to this tragedy.

I also grieve for Adam Lanza, his mother, and especially their surviving family members, who won’t get the support that all of the other grieving families will. Please don’t misunderstand; grieving for them does not mean I condone his actions, or his mother’s choice to keep guns accessible and teach him how to shoot them. It does not mean that if either had lived I would not want them to be held accountable for their crimes. It just means that I think it is wrong to see them as one-dimensional personifications of evil.

I think it is wrong both because it denies the reality that they were complex human beings, as we all are, with good and bad aspects, and because it lets the rest of us off the hook too easily. Mass shootings have become all too common in the U.S., and as long as we cope with them by writing the shooters off as evil monsters, and blaming their parents for not raising them right, or doing enough to protect the rest of us, we avoid facing our own complicity.

We have become a society that is so individualistic, so concerned about our rights and getting our own needs met, that when we notice someone in need of help, if we notice them at all, we make judgments about them and do our best to avoid them. We decide their family problems aren’t our business, and don’t attempt to intervene. We criticize the media for making killers into celebrities, even as we eagerly wait to hear the latest details about those killers in a vain attempt to make sense of their crimes, and don’t show that same curiousity about the victims. We demand changes to gun laws, but continue to reelect politicians who lack the courage to stand up to the NRA. We bemoan the lack of adequate mental health services, but are equally adamant that we don’t want to pay a penny more in taxes to fund those services. We criticize the violent imagery in TV shows, movies, songs, and video games, yet continue to watch, listen to, and play them, or buy them for others.

What will it take for us to decide to do something meaningful to change the direction our society is headed and reduce the likelihood of more mass killings? Will we continue to point fingers everywhere but at ourselves, or will we realize that each of us can only change ourselves, and that change starts with how we treat each other in our everyday interactions? It starts with caring enough to ask how someone is doing and pausing long enough to let them answer honestly. It includes teaching our children (and modeling for them, since actions speak louder than words) that violence is not the way to solve problems. It involves recognizing how fragmented and polarized our society has become, and learning to engage in respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. It means choosing to purchase products that teach and encourage compassion and working together, and to support companies that pay a living wage and treat both employees and customers fairly.

None of these actions will necessarily prevent future tragedies like the one in Connecticut, though I do believe that simple human kindness, and caring enough to notice problems and offer help when possible, can make all the difference in some cases. What these actions will do is start to repair the fabric of our society, help us get to know each other as human beings who all need a helping hand at some point, and bring us together to hammer out compromises and maybe even reach consensus on some policy changes instead of attacking each other anonymously on the internet or shouting each other down at protests or political rallies. As Ghandi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.

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