The time to mourn will continue, but the cries to fix the problem that took the lives of 20 children in Newtown can no longer be ignored. At a memorial service last night, President Obama, who appeared to be sincere in his resolve to do something about mass killings after the fourth in his first term, said:
“Because what choice do we have?” he added. “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
And so the gauntlet is thrown down. Can the nation capable of putting a man on the moon because a president challenged us to do so find a way to prevent another Newtown?
A recurring answer from many in response to crises is to blindly leap to simplistic, overarching “solutions” to whatever they perceive as being the “real problem.” Sometimes the “real problem” is the system is corrupt and irreparably broken. Sometimes the “real problem” is that we have dismantled the safety net for the mentally ill. Sometimes the real problem is that we fail to honor the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
The “real problem” tends to reflect whatever priority we personally hold, and we call it the “real problem” because people who hold a different priority want to solve the wrong problem. It’s wrong because it’s not ours, and it’s not ours because it’s not the one that conforms to our priority. As with all beliefs, it’s a matter of chosen faith. The solution consistent with our faith is the one we believe will solve the real problem, and therefore the solution we support. And anyone who believes otherwise is wrong.
For those of us who have neither the authority to solve grand problems, nor the responsibility should our solutions be wrong, it’s easy to opine. The best part is that if the powerful don’t heed our opinion, we can smugly say, “See? I was right.” The illogic of false choices doesn’t change this smugness.
As much as anyone, I wish I had a cure for the death of these babies, and the death of any child. I wish I could prevent many horrible things from happening, as do so many others. But cures don’t come easy, and don’t come cheap. At this moment, appeals to emotion are very likely to swing opinion, as emotions are raw. Yet any fix will be around long after the emotion has waned, and we will live with the fix every day when nothing horrible happens.
While the day after the shootings was not the time to think, now is. While it is probably too early, we no longer have the luxury of feeling now that the gauntlet has been thrown.
The primary positions are already laid out. There is gun control. There is our mental health system. There is a stronger bubble around our children. There is greater school security. And there are any variety of variations and combinations of these ideas. Many have already laid claim to their positions, and will spend the rest of the discussion arguing why theirs fixes the “real problem.”
One line from President Obama’s speech at the memorial last night stands out in my mind.
Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?
No one wants to respond in the affirmative. No one wants to say that history has shown that we cannot eliminate tragedy from our world, as someone bent on engaging in horrible acts will find a way to do so. It’s defeatist. It’s uncaring. It’s unacceptable.
Yet, it might be the case, and all the arguing over what is the “real problem” may be just so much noise. Every solution has consequences, and the weighing of these consequences can’t be obscured by the emotion of the moment. There are cures worse than the disease.
Scientists seeking a cure for cancer don’t search for a solution that will eradicate the disease. They search for tiny bites of the solution. They search for a means of delivering a toxin to an errant cell that causes one obscure form of cancerous growth. Their search has taught them that there is no “real problem,” but a million problems, all of which need to be recognized to find the cure. And then, they need to balance the harm of each bit of the solution with the benefit, so as not to cure the disease by killing the afflicted in the process.
Most of our big problems require us to think much longer, much harder, much smaller, than we like to do. We want to proclaim that there is one big solution that will fix the “real problem.” It’s nonsensical. Worse yet, it leads us to argue about nonsense, and while doing so, ignore the small things that can be done to ameliorate tiny bits of the problem without terminal consequences to the host.
Don’t rush to your favorite priority to proclaim it the right solution, or the wrong solution, to the “real problem.” Don’t rush to join a team in this fight and defend your faith to the death. If there are answers, they will require thought. And it may be that there are no solutions to the “real problem,” that the answer to President Obama’s question is that tragedy is the price of freedom. But that doesn’t mean we cannot strive to find answers that will prevent as many tragedies as possible, even if we can’t stop them all.