Memento Mori: A call to inaction

I did my best to ignore the news after the Newtown shootings. The story fell into the category of news which neither affects me directly, nor is something that I can help. The only purpose of the news was to make me sad and angry, and to offer no release. I hate this kind of news. I think that nothing good comes of turning such crimes into national media events, and I would recuse myself from it entirely if I could.

The political reactions in the following days have been even worse. For the most part, they’ve been so infuriatingly predictable. We must eliminate guns; we must put guns in the hands of every schoolteacher; we must fight mental illness; we must bring God back into schools. I don’t know whether any of these things will help, though I doubt it. Yet it’s not the banality of these responses which gets to me, but rather the frantic grasping which all of them represent.

Something terrible has happened, see, and now we feel we have to do something. It does not matter whether the things we do are actually helpful or reasonable. We must stir ourselves up into activity, to find something to do which will plaster over the hole of fear and vulnerability which this atrocity has revealed. We will frantically call for action, ensure that something gets done, and so reassure ourselves that we have done our part, have beaten back danger, and have earned the right to slumber again.

If you really want to know what I think should be done, I will defer to Megan McArdle, who is consistently one of the most intelligent and reasonable voices on the internet:

But beyond the strange calls to make serial killers pray more and outlaw things that are already illegal, the most interesting thing is how generic they were. As soon as Newtown happened, people reached into a mental basket already full of "ways to stop school shootings" and pulled out a few of their favorite items. They did not stop to find out whether those causes had actually obtained in this case….

What Lanza shows us is the limits of the obvious policy responses. He had all the mental health resources he needed–and he did it anyway. The law stopped him from buying a gun–and he did it anyway. The school had an intercom system aimed at stopping unauthorized entry–and he did it anyway.

I understand that we want to do something. But sometimes we must consider the fact that there is nothing to be done.

I could be wrong about this. Perhaps there is a simple and obvious law that could be passed which would make this sort of disaster less likely. If such a thing exists, then I am all for it.

But even the existence of such a fix would not really solve the whole problem, would it? We can cover over this flaw in the legal or mental health system, this time. But there will be other holes. There will be lapses in attention and people who slip through the cracks, and disturbed and evil people will exploit these flaws. There are a lot of things we cannot know about these tragedies, but one thing is for sure:

This will happen again.

This will happen again.

What a disgusting truth.

We might—maybe—succeed in making these horrors less common, which would certainly be progress. But we will never eliminate them. And this fact, the essential ineradicability of evil and murder, is what really gets at me. How is it tolerable that any parent should have their child destroyed by a madman? Why is anyone so depraved or damaged as to do this? Why should anyone suffer so much as to want this, and why should they inflict their suffering on so many others?

And I remember that the sorrow of one parent who loses a child is not really different from the sorrow of twenty parents who lose their children. What shocks us during these times is the number of the dead. But children die every day, one by one, and their parents weep for them just as much.

There could be a disturbed young man here in my town. Tomorrow he could steal a weapon, go to the preschool, and kill my boys. There is nothing I could do to stop him.

This is the fear that haunts the calls to action. This could happen to any of us. And if it did, there is nothing we could do about it—but we desperately wish that there was.

I vividly remember the first Ash Wednesday after my oldest was born. I was an Anglican at the time, and I was attending the service which marks the beginning of Lent with my son, who was almost a year old at the time. At the end of the service, we came forward for the imposition of ashes.

The priest came to me and crossed my forehead with ash, saying "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is the usual formula, and I’ve heard it enough times that it’s lost most of its emotional impact.

Then he turned to my precious, innocent, sleeping infant boy. And he marked his forehead with ash, and said, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

It was like an ice pick to my heart.

I want my children to be safe, happy, and healthy. I do everything that I can to ensure that this is the case. But there is a limit. There are things I cannot control, and will never be able to control. It could be a man with a gun. It could be a car on an icy patch of road. It could be a disease.

At the end, all you can do is hope, and pray, and love.


  1. Yes.

    I also find it disgusting that a nation reacts to it’s own children being killed by madmen, yet pays taxes to it’s own madmen who kill innocent children across the globe with little pause for reflection.

  2. There’s entirely too much logic in this post. Not enough scattered, emotional, knee-jerk reaction or “for political gain” game playing. Oh yeah, you’re reacting as a rational parent aware that what happened in Newtown could have happened at AnyTown, USA…and with all the laws on the book, rules in place…there are loop holes and locked doors can be be opened with a enough rounds shot at them.

    And yes, you’re right. What scares me most is that acts like this rip away the “smoke and mirrors” of my facade of control, forcing me to face how much control I don’t have.

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