Goldberg: On Newtown, mourn first, then act

Before making major policy changes that could prove ill-advised, we as a country should wait till feelings are less raw.

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Newtown memorial

President Obama speaks during a memorial service for the victims and relatives of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, in his moving and heartfelt statement in response to the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn., President Obama said, "As a country, we have been through this too many times…. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

He's right about so much here, but so wrong about one thing.

In a democracy, politics is a synonym for "democracy." It is through politics that people with strong feelings and interests peaceably hash out their disagreements. When politicians say they want to do something regardless of the politics, or to go "above" or "beyond" politics, what they generally mean is they want to do something regardless of the rules or what their opponents have to say or, often, the facts. This, after all, is the point of the expression "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

I've lost my share of loved ones in recent years (a father, a brother, a close friend and a mentor), though (thank God) I've experienced nothing that can match what must be the soul-eating despair that comes with the murder of a son or daughter. Still, one piece of advice you often hear in such situations is "don't make any big decisions" in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.

It's sound advice that is routinely and predictably ignored in the political realm. Right now, people are talking about putting metal detectors and X-ray machines in every school. I'm open to the idea. But barely a decade past 9/11, how many people find the quick-started security system at airports reassuring and necessary? Imposing the equivalent of TSA screening at every elementary school in the country strikes me as the sort of idea people propose out of panic and despair.

But, again, that's sort of the point for some. It's really quite amazing. For 20 years, at least, we've been hearing about the dangers of "anger" in American politics. Angry white men are the scapegoats for all our problems, including several mass shootings that were perpetrated by the mentally ill. But now, in the wake of this shooting, anger isn't the disease, it's the cure. "We should mourn, but we should be angry," insists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. He continues: "The horror in Newtown, Conn., should shake us out of the cowardice, the fear, the evasion and the opportunism that prevents our political system from acting to curb gun violence."

Except, our political system has acted to curb gun violence. Violent crime, gun violence and school violence have all dropped dramatically over the last 20 years, even as the number (and lethality) of guns in America has risen dramatically. It's not even obvious that mass killings are on the rise. And according to economist John Lott, mass shootings almost always occur in locations where guns are banned.

It seems that Dionne and countless others want to use fear, evasion and opportunism in the wake of this tragedy to win an argument they couldn't win when passion was in check.

Still, these sorts of rampages by the mentally ill are becoming all too frequent in recent years (though none, despite what you may have heard, involved automatic weapons, which are very hard to own and incredibly rare in gun crime cases).

A breakdown in our culture generally, and in our mental health system in particular, seems to be making this kind of nihilistic mayhem possible and attractive to sick young men. This is a point the media should keep in mind as they provide precisely the kind of saturation coverage such men find enticing.

But while guns are easy to scapegoat as talismans of evil, and the media are worthy of criticism, the mentally ill are different. Many of the "warning signs" for the Newtown killer could be leveled at millions of young men. Who among us doesn't know someone who was a smart loner with poor social skills in high school or college?

I think we need better mental health screening and treatment for potential murderers, though I'm not sure how to implement it. What I am sure of is that we shouldn't try while we're still so angry, or mourning so deeply.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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