The word monster comes from the Old French word monstre, to show, as an omen, a warning, a sign. The same Latin root shows in demonstrate, premonition, admonish (read here for a fuller etymology.) The term was once applied to people with birth defects who seemed to bear an omen in their bodies. And indeed, this is a warning—perhaps a recessive gene showing up in a population, or a bad case of malnutrition or toxic exposure. We also have monsters who don’t show their omen to the world until they are grown and ready to wield a weapon. But already I feel the modern connotation of monster distances us from the mass shooters—they are other, they are unstable, they are not like us, this is random evil from a sick monster. Unfortunate, regrettable, forgettable.
And if we recognized that our monsters are showing us something? What would they be showing us? The quick answers are the desperate need for gun control—the dramatic mass murders being but the tip of the iceberg for gun violence in America—and the need for better mental health care, these incidents also being the tip of the iceberg for so many who do not get adequate care (see here for an incredibly affecting post from a mom of a 13 year old on the verge of being capable of this kind of violence).
We may make some improvements in gun control in the wake of this tragedy, though it seems less likely we will do anything about mental health services. There are some improvements in each that could surely save many lives in incidents big and small, and we should follow through with action to prevent harm in effective ways that reduce real risks, not just build up our fear culture and lock us away from each other.
But I’m thinking even beyond this, about what it means when a mentally ill person takes the tools of destruction we let flow freely, and goes supernova, and what it means when we let it be—mourn and move on with the status quo intact. I believe this shows us something about the violence in our culture. And the kind of violence I mean is not just the virtual violence of video games and movies, or even the real gang and drug violence. It’s about the violation, the disrespect, the dehumanizing we do in little doses all the time. It’s the violence that is rape culture. It’s the violence of how we treat our Earth’s environment. It’s the violence of partisan vitriol. It is the violence of corporations above people and the environment. The violence of racism. The violence of all -isms.
When I was younger, I thought of violence in its simplest terms—the violence of bombs, of guns, of fists. I first heard about non-violence through hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr. and imagined it merely to be standing up for your convictions without using physical violence. Later heard about Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. By college I started to understand violence more in the abstract as I learned about sexism, hetero/cis-normativity, racism and classism and how we are all prone to those violations even if we also seek to uproot them. A few years later I was hearing about non-violent communication through my experiences living in intentional communities and becoming involved in union leadership in grad school, and next I embarked on that great living experiment in non-violence: having children. From the violence of the birthing room for so many families to the violence of discipline, some of it is more obvious as physical violation, but there is also the violence of the mommy wars, the violence of calling them “mommy wars,” the violence of coercive and conditional parenting (yes I have been guilty of this and will continue to be, I’m sure), the violence even of schooling for all the times it breaks a child down instead of lifting them up. And as with the isms no parent is fully free of this even if we are working for change.
Not to digress too much, but in addition to parenting’s gift of bringing me face-to-face with the struggle to be non-violent, I have learned so much about non-violence from the unconditional love of my children, and so much from my 8 year old son, who lives the path of non-violence and compassion in a natural way that is an example to me every day. As with legions of mothers, fathers, and other caregivers before me I’ve found children to be challenges, teachers, and healers.
So perhaps that brings me back around to this latest slaughter of children. It is the fact that they were targeted for their innocence that makes this so horrific and perverted. It shows us there is a cancer of violence in our culture that cannot be contained and excised. It is a mirror held to our faces to remind us of all the little acts of violence that we allow to slip by that will crest in the actions of the armed and unhinged. We can try to call it a random unpreventable event, or we can accept our complicity and work to change the culture it came from.
The parallel in our violence to the environment might be a hurricane like Katrina or Sandy, or the Fukushima earthquake. All natural events and we could just clean up and move on, or we could look at how human forces intensified the storms (I’ll let us off the hook in responsibility for causing the earthquake) or intensified the damage caused. Seeing violence as only the physical force of the disaster diminishes our ability to change the underlying conditions. In order to address our role in the violence, we need to teach each other about all forms of violence so that we may be aware when we are contributing to our culture of violence, and so that we can be clearer in our intentions to practice non-violence at all levels.
By working to heal the violence in our culture, we will also get at more than the tip of the iceberg. It makes little sense to put drastic measures in place to prevent just these mass shootings, even though they are becoming more common. But the increase in mass shootings and the unbearable horror of 1st grade victims is a sign for us. I think this is what Mike Huckabee was getting at when he said that violence in schools is what you must expect when you ban prayer from schools. Of course saying it in this blaming, judgmental way is its own form of violence, but he senses the loss of something sacred here and is expressing it in the terms that make sense to him.
We need to honor and value and practice non-violence in everything from the way we speak and move through the world as individuals, to the way we design our systems that serve us—yes systems of gun regulation and mental health care, but also all of health care, our schools, our corporations, our energy production, our food systems, our foreign policy. It is violence when people suffer without adequate health care, it is violence when people suffer without adequate and nourishing food, it is violence when we place corporate personhood above humanity and the environment, it is violence when we suck desperately for energy at all costs to life on the planet, it is violence when we turn our back on oppression within or without our borders. Let this tragedy—this monstrosity in Newtown, Connecticut serve to show us the wounds in ourselves and our culture and inspire us to work for a non-violent culture.