Reader John O. writes:
Like most other Americans, it is with great sadness that I react to news reports of firearm-related violence. As someone who has made a career of education, I share a connection to my students, and it disturbs me on a personal level when I hear that students have been targeted in a place like the one I strive to make a safe haven for all. It seems all too often that another troubled human being makes the choice to end the lives of many others, and again we find ourselves struggling to find the answer to that persistent question…why? Why is this happening? Why would a person end the life of another human being, let alone the lives of many? Why do some of them choose schools as places to commit these horrific acts? Why can’t we seem to do anything to stop these crimes? . . .
The answer to all of these is…I don’t know. And I’m not afraid to say that. I don’t know. I don’t know what drives a human being to do such a terrible thing. I wish I did, but I don’t. I don’t know and probably never will.
In the wake of these shootings, many are quick with answers they say will solve the problem. On one side, we need to start arming teachers. On the other, we need to ban all firearms. In between is usually a whole slew of other suggestions, purported solutions, and advice. And after every one of these shootings, these people will put forth the same ideas- give the teachers guns, ban guns in this country, and these problems will go away. The comments section of every news article will be filled with people going back and forth, hawking the same solutions as that hallowed answer to our woes.
I was in gradeschool when Columbine happened. In the years that followed, I saw the same thing I see today. People grasping at anything and everything to try and find an answer to that age-old question — why? The blame shifted from parental neglect and bullying all the way to video games and heavy metal music. And despite the countless news reports showing video of “Grand Theft Auto” and Marilyn Manson videos, we find ourselves here again. We outlined every possible external influence that we believed caused the shooting, but we find ourselves right back at square one.
Back then, as I progressed into middle school, I went along with the theory that these were misunderstood youths who were ostracized and took revenge on their classmates that had ignored and bullied them. After all, my friends and I all played violent video games and listened to rock music and we never harbored any desire to harm anyone. And as the media had shown, it had to be one of those two scenarios, right? That conclusion made sense to me, so I latched onto it. There had to be something that drove them to do what they did, and once we came up with what it was, we could stop it from ever happening again, right?
But as I aged, I began to realize that things aren’t always as black and white situations as we desire them to be. There are things we can’t understand right away, or ever. In an age of infinite knowledge, in which we can Google an answer to just about all of life’s problems, this fact bugs us. We can’t go to that search bar and get an answer to our “why?” And why not?
We can get an answer to why cats meow or why dough rises, we can have a killer recipe for chicken parm or find out how tall Mark McGrath is and his favorite color (6’1 and blue, respectively) at the click of a mouse. So why can’t we get our answer to our eternal why? Google, in all of its infinite wisdom, can’t provide us with that solution, that explanation that we crave. We are left with a void, an unanswerable query in an age of the instant answer.
We hate that void. That void scares us. That emptiness where we float without an answer. That lack of a definite reason in a neat little box at the top of the Google results.
That’s not to say we aren’t provided with answers. Everyone seems to have one. We need to arm teachers, a gunman won’t enter a school if the staff is armed! We need to ban all guns, a mass shooter can’t get a gun if they are illegal! It’s the Democrat’s Fault! It’s the Republican’s Fault! It’s the fault of the Bull Moose Party! (Ok, I haven’t yet seen that one but the way we are headed I wouldn’t be surprised). We all need to rush in and fill that void because it scares us and we don’t want it to linger. That void of the unknown terrifies us because we as humans are supposed to have all the answers. To be smart, you have to. Right? That void means we are weak and incapable of finding an answer to a question and therefor stupid and lesser, right?
As hard as it is, I think we need to sit in that void. We need to bathe ourselves in it, cover ourselves in it. Float in it and walk through it. Embrace it and acknowledge it. That void of unknowing. That void that echoes those three terrifying words- I, Don’t, Know. I don’t know.
The issue we face is a complex one. It is not something that we can wave a wand and make disappear. And a complex issue won’t be solved by simple solutions. We can’t grab it and hold it with our hands, we can’t beat it until it coughs up the answers, and we can’t make sense of it. If you’ve got a nail, you need a hammer. But what we face isn’t a nail. And it isn’t going to be solved with a hammer. Those that offer their “sure-fire” solutions (ban guns! arm teachers!) are trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle by beating it with a hammer. And as you might imagine, it’s not going to put any pieces where they belong.
This has been a sentiment I’ve held in response to shootings going back to the Aurora Theater tragedy. And in every tragedy since, I’ve seen the same, knee-jerk responses of “Ban Guns! Arm Teachers!” or some other one-step solution. It’s either those crazy “gun nuts” that are inherently violent killers, or those “hippies who refuse to do what’s needed.” Everyone sinks their anchor into a simple solution that will stop all these massacres but that everyone else is obviously too blind to see.
And therein lies the problem. None of us are allowed to say “I don’t know.” To do so would be a sign of weakness, of intellectual failure. Since you don’t know, my answer must be the correct one, right? To be an educated American after all, you have to have a strong opinion on everything. It’s not what you know about an issue, it’s how strong your opinion of it is. In politics you’ve got to have an answer right away, because sitting and thinking and not having an instant answer would mean you’re sitting on your rear doing nothing while the world burns. We want our movies on instant streaming, our meals fast, and our answers just as quickly.
But to do so, we must jump to conclusions without thinking. The country demands that we have an opinion before press time, and as a result we don’t have time to think. We’re expecting a solution to a problem all neatly wrapped and presented to us on a plate by dinner. And in doing so, we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot. With such quick reactions we’re not getting anywhere. We need to stop, slow down, and say those three terrifying words that some of us would rather say “Bloody Mary” 3 times to a mirror in a dark bathroom. Those three words- I don’t know.
And from there, from those two simple words and one contraction, we can begin to build up. We can start to figure out what it is that gets us here. But first we need to acknowledge that it may be something that we cannot comprehend or understand, and there may not be a clear answer in sight. We have to admit that maybe, just maybe we don’t know what is causing this epidemic. As much as it hurts us, as much as it pains us, we have to come to grips with that very fact.
I believe that then and only then can we start to try to figure out what it is that drives a human being to act in such a horrific way.
I don’t know. And I’m willing to discuss from there.