School shootings: An issue of responsibility

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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A school shooting, again. How can this be happening so often when, even twenty years ago, it was unthinkable? Something has changed drastically.

If trends are significant we can expect a school shooting every year or two. At Newtown, there was an effort made to find out why the shooting occurred, as though that might help us prevent another. I remember wondering what “conclusion” they would come to as to the cause of the tragedy, something that would be demanded by parents and the public. As I remember, there was a lot of speculation but nothing even close to definite.
We shouldn’t be surprised. These incidents are random and statistically rare, though horrific and newsworthy. What a psychotic does is not necessarily based on any kind of meaning that you or I can fathom. The reason that this teenage boy killed one person and injured at least four others was very clear to him but may never be to us. So what is the cause?

When the Newtown shooting occurred there was no end to “experts”, giving their spin on the reality of what paranoid schizophrenics do or don’t do. I remember that most of these experts gave similar opinions, usually veering into arguments about gun control and the effects of its absence.
Yet there was one expert who didn’t seem to belong. He was an intellectual, a doctor and a wise man. He spoke, not with the certainty of true believer, but with the pain of someone who understood the complexity of the human mind, and sees no easy solution. He was psychologist who had the nerve or bravery to state that the cause of these incidents was not the absence of effective gun control but the unexplainable and uncontrollable scourge of mental illness. It was almost painful to watch; this man seemed to know that he was a voice in the wilderness and no one would hear him.

His contention was that the only effective way of preventing these incidents was a more intense application of psychological evaluation of perspective offenders. To understand this we have to examine the profile of these perpetrators. Each of them is male, each shows signs of mental instability and most are less than 30. Though guns may be the easiest and most flamboyant way of committing mass murder, the true common element here is mental illness. Ferreting out this type of mental illness is the best and most consistent way of finding people with the potential for being a school shooter.

And that was the last time I heard this issue of mental illness mentioned in a way that was definite and causal. While I’ve heard it mentioned again, it’s never been discussed as part of a possible solution. There are reasons for that. Firstly, there is the disturbing scenario of what would amount to “reporting” people who show signs of mental instability and a possible tendency toward violence and anger. Like any other legal measure to limit someone’s freedom, detaining someone reported as having a potential for violent behavior creates the real possibility that anyone we find strange or distasteful could be arrested and held in custody. In essence anyone who has any type of obvious mental illness could be victimized and lose his freedom, even if they have no propensity for violence. This is a real danger and not something that most people would want to support.

The second reason is more of an opinion than anything else; my opinion. But this is a blog so here goes: As I see it, we have become dependent in our government to handle issues that we should become involved in. Unfortuntely,It is simpler for our government to satisfy the public by doing nothing and allowing people to focus on popular causes such as gun control. And it easier for us to leave it to the government to solve our problems. The result is that the issue gets thrown back and forth in a barrage of arguments, legal gambits, and debates, and never gets solved. This can be seen in the fact that the gun control movement has fizzled and is no longer repetitively presented on the news, as it was just after the Newtown incident. I would like to see statistics on gun crime to see if any of the measures taken right after Newtown to control guns made any difference. Oddly this is not a subject that is discussed in the press.

If that wise psychologist is right then our duty is to study the possibility of examining people who have shown a demonstrable tendency toward hostile and violent behavior. And if our psychologist is right then you can be sure our government knows this.

So let’s get back to the dangers. How can we institute a system where people who are reported as being potentially dangerous without having that system becoming corrupt and abusive. I have another opinion and since you are reading this you’ll get to hear it as well. The answer is: we start. There are hundreds, thousands of critical challenging issues that plague us. Child abuse, domestic abuse, unemployment, etc. We all know about unemployment. But do you know that four women die a day in our country at the hands of abusers who are known to them and often known to law enforcement.

The main difficulty in preventing many of these crimes is that it involves the government; a known risk-averse entity: detaining or maintaining surveillance on a known domestic abuser is illegal except when a crime is explicitly committed. This is often true when there is a clear pattern of violence and threat, The fact is that the laws aren’t there to protect women from being killed. Legislators are just beginning to open their eyes to the problem; a few are creating laws that defend women and their children.
And so, as horrible as it sounds, the death of women is an acceptable bit of collateral damage that is built into our justice system. That is how bad it is in the U.S. But let’s return to school shootings. Let’s say we develop a system where people are allowed to report behavior that suggest possible violence. Of course there will be a lot of false reporting based on motivations that will range from insanity on the part of the reporter to out and out lying. This IS a danger. The government and law enforcement will be no more interested in putting their hands in that legal light socket than they are interested in creating a system of preventative surveillance that will protect domestic abuse victims.

How do we face this? It will involve developing a pilot program that attempts to mitigate the inevitable dangers found in preventing random violent behavior. Here, again, is my opinion:
1. Once a “suspect” is established to be potentially violent, we appoint an experienced lawyer, on the municipal dime, to defend this person. In this case, the person reported would have someone actively trying to prove that there is no danger and that no action needs to be taken.

2. In this plan, there would also be an investigator who would be responsible for interviewing possible witnesses and finding corroborating reports of the suspect’s disturbing behavior. Of course they may find out that there is no real indication that the suspect has shown any violent behavior which would add a level of protection to a suspect. If there is enough indication that there is imminent danger, a full psychological examination would be the next step. Finally I suggest a hearing where the evidence from both sides is examined; a judge would preside over this hearing. It would be the judge’s responsibility to decide if the suspect requires surveillance, including an ankle bracelet, periodic searches of his or her home and regular psychological evaluations for an indefinite period.

Outrageous? Certainly. We don’t do things like that. It costs far too much and we don’t spend that kind of money even if it’s proven that hundreds of people die a year, as with domestic abuse. This type of process is a gray area and would take years to set up. And we don’t know if it would work. So we don’t do anything.
This is not an excellent plan; I am not in law enforcement and I’m sure there are major flaws with this idea. However, I feel that it is our, the citizens, responsibility to push for major changes in the way we handle possible offenders and leaving to the solution to the polarizing debate over gun control is not the answer.
Let’s be honest: someone can get a gun online or through a private sale. If someone can’t get a gun they will resort to explosives, poison, knives or one of many other numerous weapons. The point for a perpetrator is not use guns, but to kill. Someone bent on killing will find a way.

Of course I can go on forever. The point is we need to take responsibility and persuade our legislators to pass laws that have a chance of stopping this. Otherwise it will go on and the victims will be the price of our waiting.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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The Railroad: A mystery novel with a twist: Available on Amazon

The Railroad on Amazon

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The Railroad

There are killers plaguing New York, taking the lives of children and their parents. At the scene of each murder the numbers 4-5-1 are written in the victim’s own blood. The killings become known as the Chapter and Verse murders. For Mike Dobbs these murders are nothing more than a few gory sound bytes on the evening news; his thoughts are elsewhere. After years as a successful player on Wall Street, Mike is caught underground in the subwayas the Twin Towers collapse above him. In a deep depression, Mike runs away to a lonely existence in upstate New York. Shortly after, he takes in Eileen and Megan Benoit, both running from Eileen’s sexually abusive husband; the three become an unlikely family. When Eileen is suddenly forced to run , Mike undertakes a dangerous journey to find her. What he finds is the shocking meaning of the Chapter and Verse murders.

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Reflections on the death of a pug

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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Over twelve years ago I bought a pug puppy for my stepson. At that time, being the kind of person I am, I considered the fact that dogs don’t live as long as we would like. I had learned as a child that having a dog with you for ten years or so was natural and I saw it as the price you paid for having a pet in your life. Every few years I would remind myself of this disturbing fact.

We had bought this particular pug because he was the runt of the litter. When the breeder took us out to her garage to introduce us to the litter, all of the puppies had run forward, seeking attention. All but one. This particular dog hung back and looked at us, unsure whether he wanted to be involved. He was tiny in comparison to his brothers and sisters. That was the moment we picked him. This was not a conscious decision but, somewhere at the back of mind was the idea that his size would give him a longer life.

I was right, though I can only estimate that two plus years were added to his life. In the process our pug scratched his eye and punctured it. Twice. I learned that dogs have dry eye and are not given the intelligence to stop them from damaging themselves.

By the time he died he was mostly blind and deaf. But there was as strange footnote to his life. We have a running joke in our family that we have a silent beacon on our roof that calls to stray animals and instructs them telepathically to come to our house where they will be brought into our canine and feline fold. For those of you who have joined the “animal hording” persecution squad you will horrified to note that, at one time, we had five dogs and five cats. This number has fluctuated over the years but, for a while, that was our head count. All of them, except for out pug, were rescue animals. While we made an attempt to find some of their owners, it came down to a choice between dubious burden of increasing the members of our family or the probability that these animal would die with their demise on our heads. Tough choice.

Well tough choice for those lacking even a touch of a conscience.

One of strays, the latest in fact, was a dog of unknown breed. He was stocky, had wiry hair and had a long snout with a line of light fur leading down to his nose. We called him Oy (as in “Oy, another stray dog!”). At first we wondered about him; he seemed to fall in love with our pug. He would lick his ears that were constantly afflicted by sock ear. He would keep tabs on him, making sure that he was okay.

I come from the cynical set. Movies about animals acting like humans have always set my teeth on edge. I liked Milo and Otis but forgot it quickly. I watched Oy and our pug and thought their friendship was simply some biological oddity caused by genetics. That thought satisfied my sense of reason and rationality.

One morning, recently, our pug had a stroke and he could move only a few parts of his body. We all held him as he tried to adjust to his new situation. He was oddly calm and seemed more confused than anything else. Within an hour he had slipped into a coma. Minutes later he died with more dignity than I felt a dog would have. He was a class act.

I hadn’t considered what effects his death would have on Oy, who had only been with us for a few years and had missed most of our pug’s life. I learned a lesson in the value of reason; suddenly Oy, who was always upbeat and loved to go outside to roam the back yard, suddenly had a major shift in his personality. If he was human he would have been described as dissociative, vague, confused.  The common wisdom held by the rest of my family was that Oy was pining. That didn’t work for me: I felt it was a bit too mystical and too Disney. But as the days went on I watched a dog who seemed like he was no less than stoned and dazed. Before long he stopped going outside. He lay on a blanket with two other dogs and he barely raised his head.

I let it go; there were important things to worry about; there always are. And then the day came, only a couple of weeks after we lost our pug that my wife came to me. Our granddaughter was with us so she spoke in code to spare the little girl the sadness of the news. With her eyes wide my wife walked up to me and told me “Oy is D-E-A-D”.

I was speechless. And so I found a strange corollary to the pain we all experience with the repeated loss of pets throughout our lives. I thought of Milo and Otis again having, as it did, a pug in one of the leading parts. While I can see that movie for the fantasy that it was, I wondered about animals and their natures. I have always considered dog’s behavior to be mostly hardwired, an unavoidable manifestation of genetics. Now I’m not certain.

Our Pug (named Booda by our son over twelve years ago) finally met the end that I had dreaded for so many years. In his classy gentle way, his death was not horrific but quiet and dignified. But the reality of his death was magnified by watching Oy deteriorate, like a bereaved family member. It oddly widened my of what reality is and what holds value for me. Smaller things hold values, a fact that it has taken me years to accept due to my overblown sense of myself.

I can only reflect on a line from Shakespeare; there seem to be so many truths that are illuminated in his writing: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

My wife recently said, sadly, that Booda and Oy are together again. I didn’t exercise my right to be “reasonable”. I simply accepted it.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth

Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com

Many years ago, I came across a book named “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. What began then was what I now see as a lifetime journey. Campbell, in many ways, was like Einstein and Tesla. It’s a rare phenomenon that produces such a person. What Campbell has in common with other stellar intellects is nothing less than the ability to see beyond the physical world. For most of us, we exist in two dimensions, seeing the world through the narrow view of our society. For any of us who has pondered the infinite, the meaning of life found through religion and self-reflection, we have gained a small glimpse of the space beyond cell phones, trophy mates and a constant slavery to the novel, short lived and easily discarded social “brass rings” that dominate secular thinking. This is the realm where Joseph Campbell existed and did his work.

Campbell was a College Professor who spent his life studying the spiritual practices of all cultures of the world, codifying each and comparing all of them. His journey amounted to nothing less than a quest for the common thread throughout all of the myths and religions of the world, the common thread that is inherent to all mankind. What would you find if you searched for the common force that drives all of us, the thing we all must confront in the end? Are we all alike enough, despite our various religions and cultures, that there can be one purpose that underlies all of our struggles for meaning? Seeing beyond cultures and time itself, Campbell ferreted out this one purpose.

In the end Campbell called this one path we all share the “monomyth” or, in more popular parlance, the “Hero’s Journey”. We’ve seen dramatic versions of this journey in movies such as the Star Wars franchise. If you’ve watched any of these movies you are seeing the Hero’s Journey in action; Campbell was friends with George Lucas who has admitted Campbell’s teaching had a profound influence on his creation of Star wars.

Star Wars is a representation of the Hero’s Journey on a very grand scale. But the destruction of an evil empire is not the version of the Hero’s Journey that most of us experience; our lives are smaller in scope and our battles are often more internal and personal.  Despite this Campbell believed that even in our smaller and less spectacular battles there is something extraordinary and profound; the Hero’s Journey is just as significant for a CPA as it is for Luke Skywalker.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Hero’s Journey is that there is a tipping point, a difficult choice to be made; accept the call or resist it. Campbell believed each of us is called to some purpose regardless of our station in life. And those who resist this call to manifest a greater meaning in our lives, to be safe and avoid the risk inherent in the Hero’s Journey, are endlessly miserable in a way they can’t define. If our destiny is to find out who we are, then a challenge to our comfortable lives is the only natural crucible in which we can be forged. Can taking the path of least resistance, the safe route, reveal our greatest traits? Or is it just a placeholder for true meaning in our lives?

There has been very little written about the specifics of the Hero’s Journey; one of the questions that have found difficult to answer is this: what will any of us experience if we answer the call? It may be as simple as overcoming fears, allowing a “Hero” to take a path to being a great artist or something as important and basic as building a family. All of this can take place at a small, individual level, affecting only one person. Why is there no clear map to the specifics of the Hero’s Journey? It is because an integral part of the journey involves the hero facing his or her own demons and overcoming personal obstacles. These challenges are so specific to each person that no generic map can be created to express how an individual’s journey will manifest itself.

For each of us, our only path to finding our “call” is self-reflection, study and, if you are so inclined, prayer and meditation. Like any spiritual practice, the Hero’s Journey and its language are arcane and initially difficult to understand. But for many around the world this path has proved difficult but worth the pain it may bring initially.

It is our choice to ignore this call, perhaps for years, perhaps forever. And if we accept the call, things are not comfortable; we are tested and challenged and it is possible that we might falter. But if we stay our course through forces that seek to defeat us, we emerge on the other side with knowledge that helps us and possibly helps others.

Campbell is not for the faint of heart; much of his work is scholarly and requires absorbing a new set of concepts and a new language. But the trip can be worth the price. Start with a book named “The Power of Myth” which is a transcription of several hours of television interviews with Campbell. After a few readings you will start seeing the parallels between Campbell’s philosophy and your own life, or the life that you have always wished for yourself. This is not self-help; self-help seeks to calm the soul and provide simple techniques to make you happy. The study of Campbell’s works is a journey to something greater and the path is not always pleasant. But neither is a life well lived; nothing worthwhile can be learned without some discomfort.

Campbell, in my favorite of his many quotes, recommends answering the call, tested by a trial by fire as the only way to move forward. The particular quote puts his truth in stark relief: “If you are falling-dive”.

If you are interested in following this path, in “facing yourself”, I would suggest purchasing “The power of myth” and contacting the national Joseph Campbell Association. While Campbell’s books are basic to understanding his philosophy, the association can connect you to people interested in Campbell’s teachings. Take special notice of the national network of “Roundtables”; these are groups that meet locally to discuss various aspects of Campbell’s philosophy and the subject of mythology itself.

This is no cult. A cult is structured to support the organization itself. In the end internalizing Campbell’s teachings is a solitary journey that you must make on your own and the Joseph Campbell Foundation never benefits by it. Progressing in the Hero’s Journey involves using materials ranging from Campbell’s books to other “spiritual” books such as Sidhartha by Herman Hesse.; again, the Joseph Campbell foundation receives no money for the purchase of any of these books or from any of the activities of people attempting to follow this path. In many ways Campbell’s teachings create an “anti-cult”; where the individual ultimately eclipses any group affiliations.

In the end Joseph Campbell was a college professor whose scholarly work caught the attention of millions, though it was certainly not his intention as he navigated his way through a University Professor’s career.  But a serious student of Campbell can gain a lot by immersing himself or herself in the magic of the monomyth.


Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com