TO ANYONE who was here in Scotland, at the time of the Dunblane shooting of 1996, there’s been something almost unbearably familiar about the pattern of horror, disbelief, and searing grief surrrounding last week’s shocking massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The image of little, bright-eyed children gunned down at the very start of their lives, and of brave teachers taking the bullet to defend them, is one that never leaves the mind, once it has entered there; this week will have stirred terrible memories for many people, and given an extra edge to their passionate sympathy for those greiving families in Newtown.
One cartoonist said it all, with an image of Santa’s sleigh stopped in the snow, while the old man covers his face and weeps; a shatteringly powerful drawing, of a moment of happiness and anticipation turned to utter despair.
So now, it falls to America’s newly re-elected president to “do something”, to try to make sure that no such horror can happen again; and there has been no shortage of advice on what should be done. With a gun-related death rate of just over ten per 100,000 people per year, the United States is certainly among the most violent of developed western nations; the rate in the UK is at least forty times lower.
And it’s becoming difficult even for America’s wealthy and influential gun lobby to resist the argument that this has something to do with the sheer number and sophistication of guns in circulation in America; almost one for every American, where in Britain there is barely one gun for every thirty people.
Yet as Barack Obama begins to move towards proposals for tighter gun control, it already seems unlikely that such changes will provide all the protection people seek. This is not to say, of course, that reforms in gun control – and in the availability of health care for people with mental problems – are not worth pursuing; if even one mass shooting could be prevented, the effort would be worthwhile.
What such measures cannot do, though, is to change the fundamental texture of American society towards something more like the UK model; nor is it clear that most Americans would want it to.
As one Swiss commentator pointed out this week, the idea that free citizens should have a right to bear arms is not some American eccentricity; it has a long and respectable history in the theory of republicanism, and the Swiss – who recruit every male citizen to an armed militia – are prepared to tolerate a high gun death rate, by European standards, as the price of that principle.
Even if president Obama succeeds in banning assault rifles, he will still have to contend with the simpler handguns used in the vast majority of shootings; and the nation will still be armed to the teeth, by the standards of most western countries.
And this is because the idea of life as a battle, in which each citizen has to be prepared to fight for his piece of land, his family, and his chance in life, is written so deep into the DNA of the US, particularly in those states where the idea of the frontier still lies relatively close to the surface.
In the aftermath of last week’s shooting, one of the comments circulating widely on the internet made what seemed like a pretty sharp observation. “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb,” it said, “And we all take our shoes off at the airport. 31 shootings since Columbine, and no change in our regulation of guns.”
Yet this argument precisely misses the point about the double-edged nature of America’s relationship with the gun; that it represents both a terrible external threat, and – in the minds of millions of Americans – a vital form of protection, an aspect of security.
So it’s perhaps here – in challenging the old American assumption that security grows from the barrel of a gun – that Obama can best use his political capital, over his remaining years in the White House.
On his visit to Newtown earlier this week, he made a start; he challenged the individualism of much American thinking about the family, and invited people to acknowledge that no matter how much they love their children, they cannot fully protect them unless they combine with other citizens to ensure that they live in a peaceful and civilised community.
The gun-toting right, of course, argue that the answer lies not in fewer guns, but more of them; an assault rifle in every teacher’s desk. Nor is America the only nation attracted to the illusion that we can make our complex 21st-century societies more “secure” by making them more intrinsically violent; across the world, since 2001, societies have tended to react to increased threats by introducing ugly and bullying “security” procedures, discarding civil liberties, and threatening violence to any citizen who objects.
Yet America now has a president who seems fully to understand that the most profound kind of security comes from the experience of living in a just and reasonably well-organised society, where the law is enforced, where violence is rare, and where people are either at peace with themselves, or able to express their restlessness through creation and invention, rather than destruction.
And although we will never know what strange, distorted psychodrama was playing in the brain of the gunman Adam Lanza, as he walked into Sandy Hook last Friday, we can know this: that the Christ-figure whose birth we celebrate next week, and who is venerated by so many millions of Americans, was unambiguously on the side of patience rather than vengeance, of peace rather than war, and of openness and vulnerabilty, rather than armed self-defence.
So much so, that he came to earth as a tiny, helpless child, born in a stable because his gentle earthly father was in no position to demand a room at the inn; an image not of the brittle illusions of human strength and invincibility, but of the mutual need and dependence that binds humanity together, and out of which we can begin to build worlds worth living in, and the faint, glimmering possibility of peace of earth.