Yesterday morning, parents sent their children off to school for the first time since they learned of the latest school shooting. Understandably, they want assurances that school officials have done all they can to ensure the safety of students on their premises.
Ideas are flying, some of them concrete (if not easily or quickly implemented), some of them philosophical, some of them farfetched and troubling: Link metal detectors at school entrances to automatic locking mechanisms. Post armed guards at every door. Arm teachers and train them in classroom defense. Ban "assault weapons." Return formal prayer to public schools. Revamp and expansively fund the nation's mental health system. Privatize education. Require compulsory military service during which young men would learn to respect firearms. Step up disaster drills. Build bulletproof "safe rooms" for every classroom. Implement better strategies to identify and intervene with troubled individuals
At such times, people want to believe that "if only" one easily changed factor had been different, the tragedy would not have taken place.
The sad truth of the matter is that no single solution addresses all the components of the problem of mass shootings, and no combination of solutions will prevent all of them. Society will never manage to address all of the ways in which people who are bent on violence can achieve it. There will be no easy answers. Instead, there will be a crescendo of voices insistently defending their own positions, proclaiming that this massacre, like so many others, is the fault of someone else's policies.
Ultimately, the blame rests with the shooter, who committed a terrible crime that others, at worst, only failed to prevent. That is the point at which our public debate often falls apart. Blame is relatively easy to assess retrospectively; prevention must cover an almost impossibly broad range of possible settings, opportunities, motives, weapons, dysfunctions and coincidences.
Police may yet find a note, a journal, an electronic record to explain what this shooter was thinking, which nonetheless won't be exactly the same specter lurking in the mind of the next shooter. Unpredictability, perhaps more than any other factor, facilitates horrific crimes. Reaction, by definition, lags. As much as we may eventually know about this shooter, the next one will be different. A strategy that might have averted 28 deaths in Connecticut will not match, exactly, the next school shooting.
No one doubts there will be another, and for that reason, it's time to get past overly simplistic suggestions that serve mostly to protect our own turf. It's time to sit down together and acknowledge that many factors converge in every one of these shootings but we can clearly identify common threads.
We can address those threads. We are not helpless to affect this phenomenon at points far from schoolhouse doors. We have useful tools and brilliant minds and, surely, a sense of common purpose.
We cannot allow the loudest voices to stage this discussion as a conflict between our rights and our children. We will never be able to prevent every tragedy, but if we all bring our better selves to the table, we can prevent many.