American Tragedy

by Saul Levine January 2, 2018


Child and others lighting candles and leaving flowers at the victims memorial alter across the street from the Route 91 Harvest Festival location in Las Vegas, NV.

“My thoughts and prayers are for the victims of today’s tragic shooting.”

Whenever we hear these pious-sounding words, our hearts sink, we are saddened, angry and confused.

Columbine. Newtown. Sandy Hook. Orlando. Charleston. Las Vegas. Texas. Rancho Tehama, California. The killings continue, and each time it is déjà vu, that sick “we’ve been here before” feeling, perhaps only a few days ago.

Those words are usually uttered by politicians, some of whom are genuinely shocked, some dutiful, others insincere. Their statements might include other words like “unspeakable, “unforgivable,” “disordered,” “evil” “violent,” “terrorist” or “lone wolf.” Whatever the lyrics, however, this dirge-like melody is uniquely an American Tragedy.

This creative, generous and powerful democracy is again grievously assaulted and thrown into shock. Yet another horrific mass shooting is perpetrated by an avowed hater, armed with assault weapons easily purchased from a gun store.

The scenario is familiar: The killer might be self-directed or recruited via internet messages, or he may be psychotic or psychopathic. He could be native-born or immigrant, Christian or Muslim, Caucasian or a minority, inspired by inner demons or outer ideologies. This is relevant information, but two other features of these travesties stand out:

First, the willful act is perpetrated by a malevolent and unrepentant hater of “other” people.

Second, he had woefully easy access to lethal weapons.

The murder rate here per capita is astoundingly greater than any other developed nation. The interpretation of the Second Amendment is often more akin to fundamentalist conviction or passion than to reasoning and rationale. The NRA and its acolytes seemingly carry the day.

After a recent tragic shooting, President Trump tweeted that he too was sending his “thoughts and prayers” to the families of victims. He later tweeted, “This is not a gun problem, it is a mental health problem.”

As a psychiatrist, I’m pleased that he is aware of the needs for availability and access to better mental health services. (His planned fiscal cuts, however, will further decimate even what we have).

To pretend (calling it as it is) that gun control is useless in this country is disingenuous, perhaps duplicitous, and flies in the face of overwhelmingly persuasive scientific data (real facts.) Americans comprise 4.4 percent of the world’s population, yet own more than 40 percent of private guns. Studies in many other countries repeatedly show that reducing the number of guns dramatically reduces gun death rates. Yet many Americans simply deny reality: They don’t believe or don’t care.

We in fact know how to mitigate this national tragedy: We can and must institute stringent gun control measures, and we can and must improve our mental health and social services. Politicians’ “Thoughts and Prayers” are not nearly enough.


Better gun control and mental health provisions will help significantly, but they will not prevent all acts stemming from hateful hearts and minds.

Despite being an inspiringly intelligent and benevolent species, we seem to harbor a fatal flaw: Our destructive urges inevitably come back to haunt us. We humans have to confront the challenge of our darker sides, our propensities to aggression, hate and violence.

We have to find ways to diminish our toxic social emanations, our pervasive incivility and aggression. We need international efforts to improve our relationships, so as to achieve positive emotional footprints. This is as crucial to our survival as a species as our carbon footprint.

The overriding goals for humanity have to appeal to the benevolent parts of our natures, so that we might move to a world of caring individuals and communities. If we fail in this vital endeavor, even if global warming is resolved, we might still face the end of homo sapiens. Α


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