Bringing a Brain to a Heartfight

The second and third stages of grief, as defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are anger and bargaining. Anger aims for someone or something to blame. It seeks a reason. Bargaining looks for solutions, a way to soften the impact of, or even prevent, the reality of a situation. It’s hard not to feel the grief of Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Martinez who was murdered last weekend in Isla Vista, California.

“So the reason I’m doing this to try to see if we can do anything to make my son’s death mean something. Because that’s all we have got” Martinez said. “What has changed? Have we learned nothing? These things are going to continue until somebody does something, so where the hell is the leadership? Where the hell are these people we elect to Congress that we spend so much money on? These people are getting rich sitting in Congress, what do they do? They don’t take care of our kids.

My kid died because nobody responded to what happened at Sandy Hook. Those parents lost little kids. It’s bad enough that I lost my 20-year-old, but I had 20 years with my son, that’s all I’ll have. But those people lost their children at six and seven years old. How do you think they feel? And who’s talking to them now? Who is doing anything for them now? Who is standing up for those kids that died back then in an elementary school? Why wasn’t something done? It’s outrageous!”

This reflects much of America’s anger, and the deadly impulse its people and politicians are confronted with in the aftermath of these events – the impulse to do something. To find someone to blame, and to find a wider meaning. There’s no way these children’s lives were stolen for no bigger reason than a deranged individual living out some fantasy. Thus, as Charles Cooke put it, these mass shootings have become Rorschach Tests – blood stains onto which we project our own worldviews.

The stages of grief do not have to be reached in any order, and the US has not been too caught up in the first stage: denial. Americans from across the political spectrum have offered explanations and solutions for each mass shooting that makes it to national story status. Some stress the need to focus on mental health issues. Yet, last weekend’s shooter came from a well off family with all the access to mental health professionals money can get. He was in therapy for over a decade – about half of his entire life. Maybe that was the problem.

Others say more restrictions on guns can prevent these things from happening. But, this killer in California did everything by the book. He complied with the state’s regulation that says you must wait 30 days between handgun purchases, and he waited the required 10 days before receiving them. These laws are meant to discourage crimes of passion, but this murderer was not deterred. He passed the extensive background checks and written test required in California for each gun he bought. Each magazine in his possession complied with the state’s 10 round capacity limit.

Are we to believe that there’s a more perfect law we haven’t thought up yet? Or are we obsessing over superficial distractions? Examining the symptoms while ignoring the causes?

In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis wrote of “men without chests.”

“The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

This latest killer, in therapy for so much of his life, was stuck in his head. On the day he decided to kill, he skipped the chest entirely and went straight for the gut. I can’t watch the videos he made, but the quotes I have read suggest he lived life with no chest, as does every gang member who has fired indiscriminately into a crowd.

“What kind of message does it send to the world when we have such a rudderless bunch of idiots in government?” Martinez said a few days after the shooting. From here in China where I sit, it is indeed embarrassing. I feel detached from events in the US sometimes, and after a couple of years I can see it as an outsider. I see from time to time that people from different countries, and some Americans, believe that the United States is unique in its frequency and scale of mass murders, and that the availability of guns is the root of this.

But as the shooting in California shows, a motivated killer can jump through all the hoops and find the means to murder. This year is the 20th anniversary of probably the deadliest mass shooting committed by a single gunman on record. In 1994 People’s Liberation Army officer Tian Mingjian went on a shooting rampage in downtown Beijing, killing scores. Official figures were never released but witness and medical reports put the dead and wounded near 100. Gun ownership is illegal in China, but they are not impossible to get.

To stay in the neighborhood for a moment, it’s worth noting that the mass murder weapon of choice in China is the knife. You may recall the recent attacks in Kunming. Or Henan. Or Guangzhou. Last week the Taiwan metro saw its first mass stabbing.

“New Taipei City Police Chief Chen Guo-en indicated that the man did not have a mental ailment nor did he have any medical treatment history. His blood alcohol level was recorded at 0.04 and the suspect professed to only have drank sparkling water. From a young age, the suspect had seen cases of a similar nature, and since primary school started to think about doing a “something big”, originally planning to commit a crime after graduating university, but suddenly deciding last week that he would do it today instead.

Chen Guo-en said the suspect planned the attack well in advance, and while in high school and university, Zheng would tell friends about his plan to commit a crime. Moreover, as the suspect is from New Taipei City’s Haishan District, the area where he committed the crime would be part of his daily commute. During the investigation and interrogation, the man expressed a complete lack of regret for his crime.”

Sound familiar?

Lu Ping-kuan, the chief secretary of Tunghai University in Taichung in the west of the island, said they had learned through the suspect’s social media account on Facebook that the student was mentally unstable.

‘We had tried to arrange a consultation for him, but because of the recent rainstorm we had to postpone the consultation to a later day,’ said Lu.”

“Imagine if these people had guns. How much worse would the damage be?” It’s a good question, and a fair point. However, it doesn’t follow that weapons, namely guns, are the cause of mass shootings in the United States or that further controlling them or outright banning them is an effective solution. Same for knives in China. Dealing with the causes will require us to think, and think hard about the state of our culture, and what it means to be a man today, and how he can distinguish himself in life – something I don’t see us inclined to do in these cases.

“1950s America” is a pejorative term these days. But in 1950s America boys brought their guns to school for P.E. class and stored them in the lockers. If you mishandled your gun, Dad whooped your ass or chewed you out. Now, boys bring guns to school to shoot the place up and get their 15 minutes of fame from an eager media, and Dad isn’t even around.

Let’s hope America never gets to the fifth stage of grief: acceptance.


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