Monthly Archives: December 2013

Not Just For My Son

Earlier this week, I attended a Town Hall event in East Atlanta organized by State Senator Vincent Fort and a suite of community groups. The event focused on repealing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground legislation (SYG; GC 16-3-21) and was a deeply powerful experience.

Lucia McBath

Lucia McBath

Of the many phenomenal speakers that night, one in particular downright tore the roof off with her heartbreaking story and raw power: Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17 year-old boy who was shot to death while sitting in a car with some friends in a gas station parking lot in Florida. Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, a 46-year-old white man, apparently felt that the boys’ “thug music” was threatening, and when the boys refused to turn it down, he emptied the clip of his handgun into the vehicle. Dunn, who had allegedly been drinking heavily at the time, is pursuing a modified SYG defense because he claims he believed he saw one of the boys inside the car reach for a shotgun. Dunn immediately fled the scene; no such weapon was ever found.

McBath, whose father was for two decades the President of the Illinois NAACP, spoke movingly about how she had raised her son. “My son was taught and trained to stand up for himself, and he told Dunn they weren’t bothering anyone and that if he had a problem he could just roll his windows up… And Dunn, because they didn’t do what he told them, empowered by his gun, he fired ten rounds into the car and three of those bullets instantly killed my son.” McBath – whose bravery is humbling and inspiring and profound – ended her speech with a plangent appeal for recognition, for action: “I feel in my heart at times that I am a lonely warrior. That no one hears me. I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

As McBath spoke, people yelled back – “We hear you! We hear you!” – and when the speaker asked for folks to pledge to sign petitions and march and call the Governor the audience response was tremendous. We held hands and prayed and sang and I for one walked out with faith in the capacity of righteous people in numbers to do good, to effect change. And I think these people will.

But then I got home and read an article in Mother Jones and it made me ill. It’s by a reporter named Josh Harkinson, and you should read it – it’s not long. In quick summary: Bushmaster Firearms International, the company which makes the XM-15, the AR-style assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre last year, is a subsidiary of a company called the Freedom Group (AKA Remington Outdoor Company Inc.), which is in turn a property of Cerberus Capital Management, LP, a private equity firm that possesses nearly $20 billion in assets. Immediately after the shootings in Newtown, and in the face of public outcry, Cerberus pledged to liquidate its holdings in Freedom Group. A year later, it still hasn’t. Why not? Well, in large part, it’s because Freedom Group and Bushmaster are making more money than ever before. As Harkinson explains: “Between January and the end of September, the company raked in $94 million in profits on more than $1 billion in gun and ammo sales, compared with just $500,000 in net profits during the same period in 2012… According to the Freedom Group’s third quarter report, this year’s earnings spike came primarily from a $42 million bump in sales of “centerfire rifles,” a category which includes the XM-15.”

There is so much wrong here. Setting aside some of the more obscene ironies that Harkinson’s on-point reportage highlights (for example, the fact that the California State Teachers Retirement System continues to hold a $750 million dollar stake in Cerberus) the picture that emerges is of deep structures of power and embedded interests that stretch across multiple institutions, private, public, non-profit, and more – with the NRA serving, as it so often does, as the nexus at the heart of things. Because, of course, the folks who call the shots – so to speak – at Freedom Group are heavily represented on the NRA’s Nominating Committee, arguably the most important decision-making body in that institution, and as individuals are major donors to the NRA (in fact, they’re in the “Golded Ring of Freedom” club of million-dollar-plus contributors). And it’s not a far step from that, either, to note the confluences of interest and lobbying activities that link the NRA and the right-wing, corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – whose activities in promulgating SYG laws in conjunction with the NRA are a matter of public record.

My goal here isn’t to sketch out an org chart, nor to sniff out (not-so) secret pathways of converging interests, nor to finger individuals for blame – although there are plenty of folks in this story who deserve public shame (not that they give a damn about it). Instead, I want to make an observation, at once structural and personal, about our contemporary moment.

The continued, outrageous profits raked in by Bushmaster and the insulation of Cerberus in its hypocritical efforts to placate public scorn, combined with the successful legislative advocacy of industry-sponsored groups like ALEC – including but not limited to SYG – represent a twisted state of affairs that is at once classic American capitalism at its worst but also something  uniquely of our 21st Century moment. Industries manufacturing products that hurt people, making money hand over fist in the process, and then successfully protecting their interests through shaping legislation are as old as this country itself, as is the pervasive enmeshment of all our financial activities, however ostensibly benign they may seem, in such activities. But the degree of legislative power today’s firearms industry wields – power, I think, rivalling that of players in the financial sector – has no parallel with any other group thanks to the added element of its frankly ludicrous claim to uniquely patriotic standing and a misbegotten Constitutional warrant that has been twisted and deformed beyond all recognition by those with a financially motivated interest to do so.

But of course that’s not all of it. It’s not just about lobbyists and lawyers and businesspeople gaming the legislative system, shamelessly declaring their best intentions, and piously gesturing at doing the right thing even as they continue to enrich themselves. It’s about selling people fear, about cultivating their fears to stoke marketplace demand, and about enabling their clientele to act those fears out in the most violent ways imaginable.

Let’s get real: there are gun manufacturers and retailers who don’t mind mobilizing insurrectionist fantasies and white supremacist irredentism to move their product. That’s part of their business model. And not just that: they’ve acted, successfully, to change our legislative landscape so that when their clients act on those fears and kill others – children, even – both the killers and their enablers face no blowback whatsoever. Instead, they profit.

And let’s get even realer: if our society – with all its hideous double standards – does nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – when twenty toddlers, nearly all of them white, and in a wealthy community in the Northeast to boot, are slaughtered, mercilessly – what in the name of God  would ever drive us to action?

“I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

COPYRIGHT JASON FRANCISCOMy friend and frequent collaborator Jason Francisco does work photographing graffiti memorials to murder victims in the most blighted parts of North Philly – walking so-called “murder corridors” with his Leica. New memorials go up every week, sometimes, every day. So many. So many kids. Last year, he took a picture of a massive one, on the Corner of 5th and Cecil B. Moore. The mural stretches up and down, easily six feet tall, sprayed lovingly on a cinderblock wall mounted with barbed wire.  A childlike angel, faceless, its hands clasped in prayer, floats next to the epitaph: “Dedicated to Sandy Hook Elementary School.” Sending the photo to me, Jason remarked: “I hope there is an equally enlightened graffiti writer in Newtown, CT who remembers the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia.”

I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to make my bets on that one.

That Town Hall event earlier this week was powerful. It left me feeling hope and conviction. I still feel those things, and believe that SYG can be repealed, and my heart and solidarity is with those who fight towards that end. But against forces so powerful, against exploitation and oppression so thorough and vile and total – beyond simply repealing laws but to changing attitudes, to changing our culture, to changing our way of life – what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I do know that we have to try.

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Note: I didn’t bring an audio recorder with me to the SYG event, and am working from my handwritten notes. If I’ve gotten any of the quotes – or any other details wrong – please let me know, and I will amend this accordingly. As always, the same goes for the rest of the content in this piece.

If you want read more about the NRA Board, you can do so here. If you want to learn more about the geographic breakdown of gun violence in America’s inner cities, I recommend this article.

Jason Francisco’s photoseries on Philadelphia’s Murder Corridors, “These Are the Names” is available here. It’s really worth checking out.

The Shooter

Copyright Jason Francisco

“Many people have asked why the shooter did what he did on December 14, 2012. Or in the vernacular of the criminal justice system,  ‘Did he have a motive to do what he did?’ This investigation, with the substantial information available, does not establish a concrete motive.”

It’s been a year since the massacre at Sandy Hook, and the Connecticut State Attorney’s report on what happened on that December morning has been public since just before Thanksgiving. Its conclusion is simple: we cannot determine what drove Adam Lanza to murder twenty-six people, twenty of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHES), or what led him to shoot his own mother earlier that morning. Though these events can be described at painstaking length, and documented in voluminous appendices, his actions remain unexplainable. And with that the investigation is closed.

But the fact of the matter is that not every mystery is equally unexplainable, or at least, that different mysteries can be unexplainable in different ways. Not even the most credentialed physicist can definitively explain what transpired in the first instants after the Big Bang, and even the most eloquent poet cannot explain what precisely happens inside of a person those first moments when they fall in love. But as thinking and feeling humans we are closer to some unexplainable mysteries than to others, and we can sense the shape and tone of the questions they raise even if we cannot diagram or recite their answers.

What might bring an individual to commit an act of horrific violence is unexplainable in a different way from why violence is a feature of the human condition in the first place. Even though contemplating one mystery easily slides into a meditation on the other, their different modes of unexplainability ramify in different registers – psychology and theology, respectively. In the case of Sandy Hook in particular, the impulse to invoke the unexplainable is understandably acute. If Adam Lanza’s room, with its windows covered in garbage bags, remains a dark spot, impenetrable to our vision, then how much more mysterious must we feel were the goings-on inside his head or on his hard drive – both of which he took care to obliterate?

But in the case of some black boxes, you can hear the shadows move within, and question what fuels their rustling.

In the eyes of the law, of course, and the question of motive aside, certain determinations can be made, cut and dried. On the morning of December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, a twenty-year old man with a history of mental health issues, committed a minimum of thirty-eight felonies, actions that display clear premeditation. “It is clear that the shooter planned his crimes in advance and was under no extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse.” Here, as in elsewhere in the report, there appears a co-determination between logics of explanation and exculpation, reason and blame. Though Lanza did the unthinkable, he clearly thought it through, and thus, presumably, if he had survived, he would have had – in the State’s eyes at least – no grounds for defense by reason of insanity.

Reading these passages, and others, it is hard not to perceive in the Report a tension between competing logics of explainability and accountability. “It is known that the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close. As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues.” To those he should have been close. What does this mean? As early as 2005-2006, Lanza received a diagnosis of comorbid Asperger’s, Obsessive-Compulsive, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders – does this “should have been” reference his inability to achieve certain psychological milestones, specifically those prescribed by psychiatry? And yet: As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues. This seems to suggest a rather different kind of failure – a moral one, an inability to take responsibility for himself. Without excusing Lanza for what he did that day in December, we must acknowledge that our effort to explain what led up to those events seems motivated, at least in part, by a desire to locate and judge previous moral failings, some sequence of transgressions that prefigured them.

To those he should have been close. By all accounts the person closest to Adam Lanza was his mother, Nancy. Demonstrating an even further conflicted concern for adjudicating both explanation and blame than it does in its treatment of Adam, the Report argues that Nancy was unaware of her son’s plans and thus not legally culpable as an accessory while sidestepping questions of her potential negligence in providing her son with access to weapons and training and even giving him guns of his own. To be clear: in addition to “many edged weapons, knives, swords, spears, etc.,” there were at at minimum five guns in the Lanzas’ Sandy Hook home – the two pistols, combat shotgun, and Bushmaster XM-15 which he took with him to SHES that morning in addition to the rifle with which he shot Nancy four times in the head while she slept. Although I find vilifying Nancy Lanza distasteful, with the release of this report some assumptions of  solidarity with her in the immediate aftermath of the shootings now seem woefully premature. How many mothers — or fathers — would surround a son like Lanza with weapons, or would cut him a check as a Christmas gift, writing in the memo that the money was to be used to buy yet another semiautomatic? And this despite the fact that, as the reporter notes: “The shooter disliked birthdays, Christmas and holidays. He would not allow his mother to put up a Christmas tree. The mother explained it by saying that shooter had no emotions or feelings.”

Far be it from me to judge the moral landscape of parenting a child as distant as Adam Lanza appears to have been, let alone how one would navigate doing so as a single mother, whatever your financial resources. I can only begin to imagine the yearning for connection with a son who does not appear to return your love, who won’t even let you touch him, how that void builds over years and years and leaves you desperate for something, anything, to share with him — to the point where you embrace and celebrate his mastery of technologies of death as at least one thing, the only thing, that you can share. But, Christ in Heaven, if your son makes explicit to you that he doesn’t care if you live or die, if you yourself are the first to say that he has no positive emotions whatsoever, if he collects videos of people shooting themselves and murdering others, if he tells those who ask that his own life is worthless, why, why, why would you keep giving him guns as gifts? What possibilities are you entertaining or even encouraging, consciously or otherwise, not just in terms of what might happen to your son, but to you? And does it ever rise to the surface of awareness, if only for a moment, that the catastrophe which you are courting may consume not just you and your child, but so many others as well?

These are all questions, not explanations, already far too many for this space, but to them I must add just one more. Nowhere is the Report more suggestively candid in acknowledging what it cannot explain than when it addresses Lanza’s choice of target. “The first question was whether the shooter had a reason specifically to target SHES or any student, teacher, or employee. No evidence suggests that he did. In fact, as best as can be determined, the shooter had no prior contact with anyone in the school that day. And, apart from having attended the school as a child, he appears to have had no continuing involvement with SHES.”

Apart from having attended the school as a child. The shortness of this clause belies the length of time Lanza spent there: nearly a quarter of his entire life.

In literary and linguistic circles, you may occasionally run across the phrase “hapax legomenon.” It’s a Greek term, literally meaning “something said once,” and is used to refer to a word or phrase that only occurs once in a given literary text or linguistic corpus. In the Sandy Hook Report, one word in particular only occurs twice – which technically makes a “dis legomenon,” but since the referent in both cases is the same, and they show up on the same page, the singularity remains. That word is “love,” and it appears when the report turns to Adam Lanza’s experiences as a child at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  “The shooter indicated that he loved the school, and liked to go there…He loved music and played saxophone.”

But then: “In 2006, the shooter’s mother noted that there were marked changes to the shooter’s behavior around the seventh grade. Prior to that, he would ride his bike and do adventurous things such as climbing trees or climbing a mountain. He had stopped playing the saxophone. He had been in a school band but dropped out. He had withdrawn from playing soccer or baseball which he said he did not enjoy.”

What happened to Adam Lanza? What changed the boy who loved his school into the young man who returned there to destroy it? What changed the boy who loved music and playing his instrument into someone who couldn’t tolerate even the sound of a barber’s razor or a lawn mower outside? What changed him from a boy who didn’t mind climbing trees and bruising his knees into one who would go through a box of tissues a day to avoid touching metal doorknobs? And what changed him from all these things into a man who strode, breathing calm despite the ear-splitting rapport of his assault rifle, as he mowed down a score of children in mere minutes?

These are the questions the unexplainable brings. Beyond that, all we have is wreckage, and grief.

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Note: There are numerous points in which the report is elliptical and where even on the third or fourth reading certain details remain hard to pin down (for example, the exact number of weapons in the Lanza home). I’m thus glad to amend or correct anything I’ve gotten wrong, and I would certainly be eager for clarity on these details and others if someone else can provide them.

The photo which accompanies this piece is the work and property of my friend and collaborator Jason Francisco. You can view it, more from that series, and some of Jason’s other, fantastic work, here: http://bit.ly/1bfDjtE.

Updated for Clarity, 12/14