Emma Cowing: Beware backlash over US massacre

A memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. Picture: AP
A memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. Picture: AP
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IN 1927, AA Milne wrote a children’s poem about getting older. “When I was five, I was just alive,” it reads. “But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six, for ever and ever.”

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, which claimed the lives of 20 children aged six and seven, those words take on a horrific poignancy. No-one’s life should stop at six. No child should be shot in their classroom, 11 days before Christmas.

No wonder America is angry. When 27 people are murdered, and 20 of them are children, anger is a natural and human reaction. We Scots perhaps understand this better than most. The Dunblane tragedy left a deep scar across the Scottish psyche. The eventual banning of handguns felt like the only appropriate response. The scar remains, but the action helped heal the wound.

America is still dealing with an open sore and it has been lashing out. Tempers are flaring about gun control and the argument over tightening laws versus the right to bear arms. Meanwhile, open season has been declared on the family of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who shot his mother in their home before driving the four and a half miles to Sandy Hook elementary school, where he killed 26 more and then turned the gun on himself.

On Monday, a blog started doing the rounds entitled I Am Adam Lanza’s mother, written by Liza Long. In it, Long, who gave her “mentally ill” child a pseudonym yet posted a picture of him, wrote about how her 13-year-old “terrifies” her, described how he had threatened to kill her and regularly screams insults at her.

She writes: “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys – and their mothers – need help.”

While I understand Long’s motivation for writing the blog and her frustration at the lack of decent healthcare for children with mental health issues in the US (a problem not confined to that country), she is not Lanza’s mother. Nancy Lanza is dead. She will never be able to tell us what it was like living alone in that big house with her son for the three years after she and her husband divorced. She will never be able to tell us what problems Adam suffered, or why she kept four guns in the house.

Speculation on such things then, is dangerous and counter-productive: tarring thousands of young people with a broad “mental health issues” brush because of the actions of one. In the aftermath of a despicable tragedy, it can be easy to start accusing everyone with a mental health issue of being capable of walking into a school and shooting children. It is also a handy way of distracting focus from the very real issue of America’s lax gun laws.

After the 9/11 attacks, violence against Muslims shot up. The FBI reported that, in 2000, there were 28 hate crimes against Muslims. By the end of 2001, that figure had risen to 481. Were the victims of these hate crimes responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Centre? Of course not.

Lanza is believed to have had a personality disorder. He also suffered from Aspergers’ syndrome, a form of autism. Aspergers affects normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. It can make it hard for sufferers to relate to the social world around them.

Peter Howson, the celebrated Scottish painter, has it. So does musician Gary Numan and the actress Daryl Hannah. Some of the greatest minds in history are believed to have suffered from Aspergers, including Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Carl Jung and Benjamin Franklin. Research has yet to uncover any link that suggests an increase in violence among those with Aspergers – many advocates argue that those with Aspergers tend are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators as they are often picked on for being different.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, America needs someone to blame. Because the perpetrator is dead, it is easy to shift that blame to anyone who can be viewed as being similar to the murderer. But to start seeing every person with a mental health issue as a potential killer is dangerous. It will do nothing to salve the wound.