Thoughts. Prayers. Conversation. These unfortunate three words mark what we always hear when we have a tragedy like the one at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The same three words were spoken after Columbine, Sandy Hook, the Orlando nightclub, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater, the Las Vegas strip and Sutherland Springs, to name just a few.
Are we becoming desensitized to school shootings and mass murder? Is this our new normal? I hope not.
Normal connotes things that happen every day, things like the sun rising, sitting in traffic and washing the dishes. School shootings and mass murder are horrific events, but they are, fortunately, not yet as common as people may perceive.
Instead, what is normal and all too common is the instantaneous, 24/7 media coverage of these tragedies, especially on television. This coverage is, of course, good to the extent that information should flow from police and elected officials to the public. But great care must also be taken to pay attention to the details of the incident, what happened before it and what happened after.
Not only do we need to learn about the offender’s past, his or her motives, plans and, of course, reason for the shooting. We also need to hear the courageous stories of the heroes in these awful events, like the school teacher in Parkland who acted as a shield to protect his students. Or the teacher who barricaded herself and her students in a closet. We can also learn better ways of protecting buildings and classrooms and preparing ourselves for emergency situations, just as we do when we get on an airplane.
It is also important to know what we do not want — a rush to judgment. In many (but not all) of the mass shootings and school shootings, a common theme of mental illness emerges (not to exclude of course the access to assault-style weapons). Such problems may be part (but not necessarily all) of the reasons underlying one’s evil actions.
Yet, we do not want to demonize or ostracize all persons with mental illness. Why? Because the majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not commit these horrific events. This false-positive problem is very real and we need to balance that prediction with protecting our citizens.
What we do want is sound intelligence and the collection of facts to help craft better policies. A student interviewed after the Parkland shooting this week said the school had recently gone through active-shooter drills, which may have helped students turn away from the gunman rather than run toward him. It is these types of training events that have become our new normal.
In the end, citizens want some sort of action from our local, state and especially federal leaders. But what should this action look like?
There are those who think that we need more gun control to make certain kinds of weapons less accessible to certain kinds of people, i.e., terrorists and mentally ill people. One such approach, banning semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, was adopted by Australia as part of a major set of policy responses to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre where 35 people were gunned down.
On the other side, we hear arguments about the need for better mental health screening and treatment, and for taking action when there are warning signs of trouble.
These are not mutually exclusive policy options; they can and should work in concert with one another to try and put a stop to the unnecessary loss of life that has played out far too many times in the U.S.
Schools in particular are a place where ideas are born, thoughts challenged, discoveries made and leaders developed. Let us do all we can to ensure that our classrooms are filled less with “more conversation” and more with “conversation about ideas.”