I first published this piece after Sandy Hook, in December of 2015. Since then little has changed, except that our government has become more polarized and more people are dead. As I write this, we are in the Memorial Day weekend, rather than the winter holidays, and that feels worse. But I need to make some updates to this piece with knowledge I have gained since my original post.
Many cultures observe a festival of lights in the darkest days of winter. For us it is Hanukkah, for others Christmas; as well there are Pagan festivals of light in the winter. For Jews and Christians, the winter festival also represents salvation.
This winter, however, no amount of candles, LED lights or bonfires, will lighten the darkness in our hearts. In mid-December, there have been at least three mass shootings in public areas. The most heartbreaking of course is the loss of all those precious children at the school in Newtown CT.
In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a, we find:
“Man was created alone, to teach you that whoever takes a single life... Scripture ascribes to him the guilt of having destroyed the whole world; and whoever saves a single life..., Scripture ascribes to him the merit of having saved the whole world.”
The world of those parents in CT, as well as in other places of mass murder, HAS in fact been destroyed. No parent should ever have to bury a child; that it was from senseless murder makes it that much worse.
There is no answer in Torah for such acts of violence. The Torah tells us we were created “B’tzelem El-him”, in G*d’s image. The Torah also commands that we shall not murder. These acts of murder, in essence serve as an attempt to destroy G*d from the world.
On December 19, 2012, President Obama gave a charge to his cabinet to find answers and real fixes for several problems in our country. I would like to elaborate on what I see are the issues, and how we can address them:
- The glorification of gun violence in movies, TV and video games: Just as it is not legal, according to interpretation of the First Amendment, to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, other incendiary speech should be limited too. This includes, as I see it, limiting the glorification of gun violence in the media.
- This country has become, in the last few decades, morally bankrupt. We no longer teach ethics, values and personal responsibility in schools. I firmly believe that these topics CAN and should be taught, without resorting to the Bible or other religious teachings.
- With the current trends in healthcare, mental health care has become very difficult to afford or access. We need much more available mental health care in this country.
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has, based on my experiences as a teacher, forced, far too many students into inappropriate main stream settings. The schools are not equipped or staffed for this, and most teachers do not have the requisite special training needed. By mainstreaming such children, they are then shunned by their classmates, leading them to be socially isolated, and often hated for the disruptions they cause due to their difficulties. If these students were taught in special needs programs with similar students, they would be able to function at a higher level, and would be more socialized. This would result in such developmentally or educationally disabled people feeling more at home in society. Some Chabad schools have been very successful with this.
Since I wrote the original piece, people smarter than me have educated me on the special education system. A better approach would be to have small classrooms, with no more than 15 students per class, and two qualified EDUCATORS per classroom. Each student would be treated as if they are neurodivergent, and their own individual learning needs and goals would be addressed. By doing this, no student would be singled out, or left behind. This would greatly reduce the chances of what happens today, with students becoming demonized and isolated because of learning differences.
So, what can we do about this horrible trend? I have seen many calls for more gun control laws. In my opinion, adding broad based gun control is really tilting at windmills. In the case of the Newtown shooting, the rifle was apparently legally obtained. One thing to observe is that these weapons are sold as semi-automatic, which means one shot per trigger pull. Amazingly, while gun shops cannot legally sell full-automatic (one trigger pull, many bullets) versions of these rifles, they can sell the conversion kit to switch to full auto separately. This is certainly one area where gun control might have effect.
However, rather than putting a spot Band-Aid on an arterial bleed, we need to stay focused on the root causes – guns are the tool but not the source of the violence. None of the ideas I have suggested are easy. Making mental health care accessible would be expensive, as is special needs instruction in schools. We need to provide motivation for good people to go into these fields with scholarships for advanced degrees in mental health care and special needs education, with the recipients committing to at least four years of public service to pay for their scholarships.
People attached to gun control will be very quick to point to the UK and Japan as examples of locales where gun control works. However, those are island nations, with much lower populations. It is much easier to limit the inflow of guns and to control what happens.
In the United States we have over 10,000 miles of borders which are difficult to manage. In addition, less than 10% of container cargo that enters the country is even inspected, and this is post 9/11! Further, it is possible to download plans for guns off the Internet and 3D print them, and ammunition is made at people's homes every day. Thus, even if you somehow eliminated EVERY gun in the US today, it would NOT eliminate guns tomorrow.
Therefore we MUST turn to methods other than gun control to stop this scourge. Gun control can be part of it, but anyone who wants to hold on to gun control and ignore everything else is putting people's lives in continued jeopardy!
It seems to me that we have been placing a value on human life by refusing to confront these issues, which are mainly economic. It is a very cynical calculus when people monetize the value of human life. Please consider talking or writing to your State and Federal legislators to fully fund the fixes to these issues, so that we can restore some sense of freedom and safety in our lands, and restore value to human life, instead of having greed be the capital we operate on.
Rabbah Rona Matlow is a Veteran Pastoral Counselor in Las Vegas. Ze has taught in Jewish Day Schools, in classrooms with students with special needs in the mainstream, and has seen first-hand how difficult mainstreaming can be.