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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Commentary

How should we deal with agonized loners?

The Kansas City Star
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 07:34 PM

One spring, when my son Michael was 6, we heard the shrieks of a baby rabbit outside. I went out and grabbed it and shooed away the cat. The rabbit seemed to be in shock, so we put it in a large grocery bag with some water and a carrot.

The next morning it was dead. That night I went upstairs to say goodnight to Michael and he cried — perhaps because on that day, he learned the world was a hard, cruel place, where no quarter was given for innocence, and he grieved for a world he thought he knew, a world now lost.

At Sandy Hook, it was as if we all lost something. Another boundary crossed — now it's 6-year-old kids? But on present trends it won't be the last bloody outrage.

Some tortured soul watches the tube and sees how it's done, how you get noticed, this is how you get people to stop ignoring whatever grievance you're nursing and pretending you don't matter. Yeah, you just go kill people. Look at the coverage. That really gets noticed. But this is about more than guns.

Mexico has strict gun laws, but guess who ended up with the weapons? Judging by news accounts, parts of the country are free-fire zones. Switzerland hasn't been free of mass public shootings, but it has a very low crime rate despite widespread gun ownership.

What does Switzerland have that Mexico doesn't? You'd think that might be a fruitful line of inquiry, along with exploring better ways to spot people who are mentally unbalanced and prone to violence. Decades ago, the laws on involuntary civil commitment were loosened, and many people were deinstitutionalized. Did those changes go too far?

It's also hard to shake the feeling that some essential glue is coming unstuck in our civilization, even though violent crime has fallen overall. You get a sense of a steady fraying at the edges; the things that strike us as extreme seem progressively more extreme.

Whatever solvent is at work is down in the granular level of society, in families and relationships. Many are becoming atomized particles free of attachment.

The glue that holds us together is what scholars call social capital. It fosters families and the voluntary networks that make communities work through cooperation rather than compulsion.

But building social capital exacts a subtle cost in personal freedom. A community rich in social capital is a peaceful place, the best sort of place for people, especially children, to flourish. But it says, "I'm watching you," and the members of that community know that if they stray too far they may pay a price.

We've moved far beyond that in many ways. In "Coming Apart," Charles Murray writes that the values that once kept lower-income white families together — and buttressed America's prosperity — are dissolving, leaking from low-income America and concentrating in upscale America, where divorce has dropped and out-of-wedlock births are rare.

Among many low-income families, a perverse kind of personal freedom — freedom of the most destructive sort — is winning over restraint and commitment.

The voice that says "You don't own me, You can't tell me what to do, I'll show them, To hell with them all!" — that voice is the siren song of our age.

We all have those moments, but a few are driven to actions that remind us our primitive origins are not buried as deeply as we supposed. And, yes, these agonized loners get what they want.

They get noticed. Part of any solution involves politics and policy, especially a reassessment of how we care for the mentally ill. But more broadly, it also has to do with social capital, and I don't know how you fix that solely with politics.


E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board.

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