Thirty-one years ago, when a man named Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II, the arrest and the trials that followed were dominated by a question: Who sent the would-be assassin? The Soviets? The Bulgarian secret police? Turkish fascists? John Paul was asked if he had a view, and he said it didn’t matter. In his biography “Man of the Century,” Jonathan Kwitney reported John Paul’s conversation with a close friend Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur. “I know well that the responsible one was the devil,” the pope said. “And whether he used the Bulgarian people or the Turkish people, it was diabolical.”
I thought of that story for days after the first bulletins of 20 children shot in Newtown, Conn. Whatever we find out about the thinking, habits and sickness of Adam Lanza, it was the evil one who sent him to kill those children. And evil is part of life.
But there are three obvious public policy ideas that come to the forefront after Newtown, and what happened there can push them forward quickly.
First, broadly, we must provide more treatment options for parents of children whom they know to be mentally unstable and potentially dangerous. If your child is hungry, you can get food. If your child breaks his leg, the hospital is there. But if your child is psychologically sick or mentally unbalanced and beginning to show signs of violent behavior, you’re more or less on your own. We have to change this. We are making more sick teenagers and young men now, not fewer, and this is going to continue as our culture breaks up. I think we all know this, deep down.
Second, Congress should move quickly—really, right away—to ban something almost every member would ban next week if they were given a clean, short, unambiguous piece of legislation. Two years ago, after Tucson, I urged President Obama to make such a bill a priority in his 2011 State of the Union Address.
A hot subject then was the polarizing nature of our political rhetoric. But I wrote:
Normal people are not afraid of a lowering of discourse in political speech. They don’t like it, but it’s not keeping them up nights. Normal people are afraid of nuts with guns. That keeps them up nights. They know our society has grown more broken, families more sundered, our culture more degraded, and they fear it is producing more lost and disturbed young people. They fear those young people walking into a school or a mall with a semiautomatic pistol with an extended clip.
What civilian needs a pistol with a magazine that loads 33 bullets and allows you to kill that many people without even stopping to reload? No one but people with bad intent. Those clips were banned once; the president should call for reimposing the ban. . . . The president should seize the moment and come out strong for a ban.
My reasoning at the time: many Republicans on the Hill were ambivalent at best about extended clips. Few would go to the wall to defend them. The problem, as I saw it, was the Democratic Party, which had overreached after the assassinations of the 1960s, talked about banning all handguns, and suffered a lasting political setback. (Bill Clinton bucked the trend and paid a price for it.) The Democratic Party got burned and didn’t want to mention gun control anymore, even when it came to obvious things like extended clips.
My reasoning now: Newtown changes everything. Move.
What I fear is that the Democrats will overreach and put together some big, comprehensive gun bill that will bog down in useless disagreement, debate and acrimony. But they can get extended ammunition clips banned tomorrow with a brief and limited bill, and they can use that victory to gain momentum and launch a bigger debate on gun violence. A quick victory now would be good for the country: At least something good, one small thing, would have come from the disaster in Newtown, and would have come quickly.
Third, everyone who has warned for a quarter-century now that our national culture has become a culture of death—movies, TV shows, videogames drenched in blood and violence—has been correct. Deep down we all know it, as deep down we know our culture has a bad impact on the young and unstable who aren’t sturdy enough to withstand and resist sick messages and imagery.
When Hollywood wants to discourage cigarette smoking it knows exactly how to do it, because it knows exactly how much power it has to deliver cultural messages. When Hollywood wants to encourage environmentalism it knows how to do it. But there’s a lot of money to be made in violence…