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.

Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a vigil held at Newtown High School for families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012.

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  • 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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  • "Don't make any big decisions" immediately after a tragedy is sound advice routinely ignored in the political realm.

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  • A breakdown in our culture, and in our mental health system, seems to be making this kind of nihilistic mayhem possible.

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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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Jonah
Goldberg

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    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

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