Cauldron to Kitchen
Paganism, food and spirituality
Gun Laws and Ethics
Today Connecticut is passing some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Approximately 60 pages of details about which long guns are now illegal, and when, where, and how people who have criminal and mental health issues may or may not have access to a firearm of any kind. In wading through the legalese, I looked and looked for something that, had it been in place before Newtown, would have stopped the murder of 26 people. I can’t find anything.
A conservative commentator, Bill Whittle, says,
We want to blame something, anything that we can control. But what we really want to ban is violence and murder and insanity, and we don’t talk about that because deep in our hearts we all know that violence and murder and insanity are built into the human condition, and likely always will be.
And I have to consider what I, as a Pagan, think about that statement. Of course I don’t believe in some Angra Mainyuesque power that pulls us toward horrible, despicable acts. But if we did not have any pull to do these things, we would not need ethics. Pagan gods provide many more obvious behavioral models than the monotheistic religions. We have plenty of warrior gods and goddesses, we have deities that destroy creation, and deities that make trouble. But we don’t condone rape because someone was possessed by Zeus, and we would not excuse a bomber because they said Kali wanted something destroyed.
Was the Newtown killer* just evil? In Simon Baron Cohen’s, The Science of Evil, the scientist explores how violence and murder relate to empathy, or more specifically, lack thereof. Empathy comes when certain pathways in the brain are activated, and humans are equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to match other people’s emotions in our own bodies. This neurology is the biological basis for empathy, and it is beautiful.
It is our biology that grounds us deeply into the Earth. We cannot forget to eat, or sleep without consequences. Our ties to the planet are our connection to her, empathy no less than food, water, or shelter. We are bound by cords of blood and bone and flesh.
Dr Cohen describes particular disorders that can, in their strongest expression, be a zero on the empathy scale: Borderline Personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality disorder, sociopathy and Asperger’s syndrome. Some of these are closely related to parental nurture. But some aren’t. The last in particular is an expression of nature’s variation. Cohen describes how people with Asperger’s may be violent because it seems logical and fits a certain pattern. There is no specific intent to harm, but there is a complete failure to recognize that their actions affect the humans around them, or even that that should matter. People with Asperger’s focus on patterns and take that far beyond average human vision. Many gains in the sciences and engineering have been made because of this variation in genetic expression. And Cohen points out that Asperger’s on its own rarely produces killers. This is because laws of community and behavior are also patterns, patterns that, while complex, are eventually acknowledged and favored by those with this different way of seeing the world.
It’s hard to know what Nancy Lanza was thinking. She didn’t lack for money, but there has still been no statement that her son had professional help of any kind. She moved him in and out of schools - a very poor choice given how resistant people with Asperger’s are to change - and there was no evidence that he had ever been hospitalized for violent behavior. He excelled in math and science, but his social skills were poor. According to one of his teachers, he avoided human contact. And he spent a lot of time playing violent video games.
In his seminal work, The Gift of Fear, noted security expert Gavin de Becker encourages us to have empathy with those that would hurt us. This will save our lives because, we understand them better than we like to admit, and this empathy lets us predict their behavior. We all have the biological impulses that urge us to strike out, to harm, or humiliate. It is accepting this and using it that provides a path to safety.
It is reasonable to speculate that Nancy bought guns for her son in an effort to engage with him around something in which he was interested. Leaving aside her poor judgment, I find I have some empathy for this. My step-daughter was deeply angry when she was forced to move in with us. She played video games and did not relate well to others in her peer group. (we did cut her off the video games, but that is another story) She liked the Legend of Zelda, and I got her a bow to give her something to positive to do. So I understand Nancy Lanza’s thought process.
I think she chose not to see that her son was a danger because he was her son and she loved him. She wanted more than anything else to see him grow up to be a happy person. There is no evidence that she did anything but trust that he was going to be fine. Which is what I did. My daughter is fantastic. Nancy’s son wasn’t.
If human law could not have prevented the deaths in Newtown, what is left but to appeal to the gods? To be sure, our gods, guides, and ancestors protect us. But it is up to us to listen to them. I don’t think that the gods will save humans from violence and murder and insanity because it is part of our biology. Our job is to look unblinking to the example they set, and live our lives balancing our ethics with our natural impulses. Laws don’t create ethics, empathy creates ethics. Our ties to each other create ethics. And laws cannot fill in where there is no connection. We are what we practice.
* I will not write his name in any public forum. Every assassin and spree killer in the modern communications era has studied and craved the notoriety of seeing and hearing their name in the public discourse. I will not contribute to this. I politely ask that any who comment abide by the same rules.
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