I appreciated the moment of silence the country observed this morning as 26 chimes of a bell honored those who were killed last week on the school grounds of Sandy Hook Elementary School. I heard some used the number 27 to include Nancy Lanza, the mother of the killer, but I didn’t hear anyone suggest 28 (correction: one entity did).
Shouldn't it be 28 bells? As someone who has struggled to believe life is worth living, I feel sad for Adam Lanza. Clearly this was a young person in an unimaginable amount of pain. I can tell it's unimaginable because few Americans have even tried to imagine it. I've heard the questions, "How could anyone do that?" and "What kind of person?" I wish these were honest attempts to understand, but mostly these have been rhetorical questions that precede a good session of vilifying the latest crazy person. I have an answer for "How could anyone do that?" but it's hardly worth sharing with someone who means, "How could anyone do that except for a monster who should never have been born and who better be burning in hell right now?" [My audience for this piece does NOT include anyone with a direct relationship with anyone who died in Newtown last week.]
I've heard no prayers said for Adam Lanza, no public honoring of his life or acknowledgement that he was a victim, too. The people in Adam's life failed him, just as we fail countless people who struggle with emotional and personality disorders every day. He needed help and it wasn't there for him.
It regularly occurs to me that life is unbearably hard and kids don’t deserve the pain that many of them face. Sometimes I look at babies and feel sorry for them because they’re at the very beginning of their lives and who knows what terrible ordeals they'll have to go through. I can imagine Adam believing he was sparing the Sandy Hook students from having to live in an awful world with awful people and pointless suffering. I think that's often the motivation when mothers kill their children. To release an innocent child from a hellish life on a wretched planet can be seen as an act of mercy. I have no idea if this was Adam's reasoning, but take a minute and consider it. Can you step outside yourself and try to imagine, just for a second, the logic that would lead someone to think killing is an appropriate thing to do?
No? Maybe you can't. Many people choose not to imagine the minds of the unstable because it's disconcerting to see the world through the eyes of someone whose logic is so twisted. Or maybe you're afraid of how much you might have in common with the depressed, the manic or the schizophrenic. Why would you want to step outside of your safe, sane mind and try to understand a disturbed person? Why would you want to get that close to ideas you want to keep out of your head?
Because we distance ourselves from the mentally ill there's little sympathy for Adam. It's easier to see him as crazy-scary: someone who should have been shot before he had a chance to shoot others. Or if we see him as an ill person who needed treatment, we think such treatment should have cast the devil out of him, as if emotional disorders were caused by evil.
We need to get semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of regular Americans and we need to make mental health care easily accessible, but we also need to develop true sympathy for those who live with mental illness. Americans like to see everything as either good or evil, using even medical symptoms as clues to someone's moral standing. This is what we've done with Adam Lanza. Even those willing to accept that he must have been mentally ill tend to use that phrase as code for evil. We say "He must have been sick" with judgment, not understanding. But if everyone who suffered from an emotional or personality disorder made our challenge known to our families, neighbors and co-workers, Americans would eventually be forced to change our attitude about mental illness. Mental illness is everywhere and it's not evil and it rarely leads to violence. Most symptoms of many disorders are driven by fear, not the desire to hurt anyone.
Whatever Adam was suffering from was beyond his control, and no one stepped in to get him the help he needed. His slaughter of 27 people might be the ugliest, most senseless killing the United States experiences for a very, very long time, but Adam Lanza did not step out of the mouth of hell. He was an American boy with a disorder that no one paid enough attention to. (In a country where people don't have access to powerful weaponry, his symptoms might have led to a more innocuous breakdown.) We'll never know what he was thinking, but I think that's enough to earn him the benefit of the doubt. I mourn Adam Lanza along with the people he killed because every life cut short in Newtown that day was a tragedy. Each of those schoolchildren deserved to grow up, and so did Adam.