However, what I found telling was the NRA’s failure to consider what it means to provide children with a psychological sense of safety. Armed guns will protect their physical security, but they threaten to bring into the child’s view and experience the belief and fear that the world is dangerous, filled with bad people who can harm them. Why else have armed guards in the school building in the first place? In other words, what the NRA did not recognize is our shared hope that we can protect a child’s innocence; that is, an experience of the world as a loving place, where strangers are friendly, authority is dependable, optimism is realistic, curiosity is rewarded, and of course armed guards are unnecessary.
But having noted this lapse, I can also ask, whether or not we adults, as bearers of our culture, any longer believe that children are entitled to their innocence. There is a sizeable literature, think of Neal Postman’s prescient, “The Disappearance of Childhood,” published in 1982, which argues that we have created a social world that undermines the experience of childhood innocence. Children are told to be wary of adults who touch them, lest they be abusers, and they are exposed to sexual stimuli as well as fantasies of violence throughout their childhood. In our anxiety for their future we overschedule their lives with programmed activities, and test preparation sessions, so that they experience little spontaneous play. Many children are also exposed to our psychological conflicts when, as parents, we divorce one another and then fight over their custody. The television series, “The Wire,” a story of Baltimore as a decaying postindustrial city, and widely regarded as realistic, highlights how some African-American children are far too soon introduced to the world of adult violence, ineptitude and corruption.
The list could go on, but do we care? In others word are we committed to sustaining the experience of childhood innocence? One reason we might not be is because as adults we no longer feel psychologically, financially or physically safe ourselves. As a result we are pulled toward protecting ourselves rather than our children. The psychologist David Bakan, argues in The Slaughter of Innocents,” that throughout history adults abandoned infants when faced with food shortages. Children in other words, potentially distract us from our own struggle for survival. While in the developed world we have ample food, the anxieties associated with securing an adult role that confers dignity, purpose and a livelihood, have grown substantially. This may be one reason why birth rates are falling throughout much of the West. Perhaps the NRA's conviction that monsters threaten us and our children, represents, in an exaggerated form, a widely held belief that the world has become more dangerous for adults.
If this is true, one question then is how one makes sense of danger? I want to suggest that the NRA’s philosophy, or perhaps theology, is based on the idea of an evil presence in the world, which, if and when acknowledged, makes innocence seem delusional. Harlon Carter, who helped “overthrow” the NRA’s “old guard” in 1977, attacked it using the discourse of good and evil. “The latest news release from the NRA,” he said, "embraces a disastrous concept, that evil is imputed to the sale and delivery, the possession of a certain kind of firearm, entirely apart from the good or evil intent of the man who uses it.” This discourse of evil is also why LaPierre referred in the press conference to “predators and monsters,” rather than, for example, to mentally disturbed people. In this sense, the discourse of evil stands in contrast to the discourse of disease and health. The idea that Adam Lanza, was mentally disturbed, in other words, he had a diseased mind, can be usefully challenged by the idea that he, or much more likely, his mother and first victim, was evil.
Does the idea of evil have standing? Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and religious thinker, wrote a widely read book, “The People of the Lie,” based on the idea that evil people are hidden, their impacts insidious, and that through their failure to tolerate imperfection in themselves and others, they often drive others, particularly children, into acts of desperation. The book, published in 1978, in this sense might be read as a précis of the Newtown shooting.
The idea of evil is not compatible with the belief, that if social conditions are right, fair and just, people can be perfected. This belief has been the basis for much modern social policy as well as the foundation for tolerance and for a commitment to pluralism. My own sense however is that idea of evil remains unsettled within us, we are so to speak “bedeviled” by it, as we contemplate not simply the Holocaust, but more recently, the slaughters in Rwanda, in Bosnia, and the attack on women in parts of the Muslim world. Certainly, the psychoanalytic conception of character holds that loving and destructive feelings are comingled in our most intimate relationships. This is one basis for domestic violence. In other words, one hypothesis is that we are dishonest when we project our own struggle with the idea of evil onto people and groups, like the NRA, whose view of it we then label as extreme.
The belief that evil is real and insidious can certainly give rise to the conviction that we must defend ourselves against evil at all costs. But one question is why we can’t rely on the state. the government, to protect us against evil. Certainly, in the NRA’s worldview, the state cannot be counted on, and in fact may become the enemy. This is why its leaders put such great store on one interpretation of the U.S. constitution’s second amendment; namely that it protects the right of people, “to keep and bear arms.”
It is tempting to dismiss this as paranoid thinking, but surely one trend in the wider world is the apparent decline of states and the rise of non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations and criminal networks fully capable of attacking and defeating police forces and armies. In the U.S. we need only look southward to our neighbor, Mexico, to envision a scenario of how criminal gangs, wealthy and armed, might defeat the state. Moreover the conspiratorial idea that the United Nations is the first step toward global domination by hidden powers, an idea that attracts some NRA members, bears a family resemblance to the idea that the global corporation, which under certain conditions can equip private armies, is growing more powerful than the states that regulate them. Truth be told, in the United States, outlaws have often successfully challenged, defeated and corrupted the state. Think of outlaws on the western frontier, the Mafia in Chicago, whose leaders undermined judges and policemen with bribes and threats, or local urban police who, in decaying industrial cities, abandoned high crime areas to criminals.
I am reminded here – of all things! – of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.” It shows how young people lose their innocence, and potentially their sanity, when they come to grips with adult hypocrisy, or what Holden Caulfield, its hero, called its “phoniness.” I think the book had such enormous resonance for two reasons, First, it raised the question of whether we could sustain the innocence of childhood long enough in the life of each child so that children could become optimistic adults, even as they had to confront, in their adolescence, the dirty secrets of the adult world. Second, it had resonance because, published in 1949, it was anticipatory, foreshadowing young people's loss of trust in the adult world some fifteen years later. Some thirty years after its publication, Neil Postman argued in his own book that the idea of childhood innocence in the United States, had a hundred year run, from 1850 to 1950, suggesting, once again, that an artist’s antenna, in this case Salinger's, picks up signals from the future.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” is both the book’s title and Holden Caulfield’s fantasy of his life’s work. As he tells his younger sister Phoebe, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around- nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff- I mean they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Perhaps the Newtown shooting and the NRA’s response both raise questions we all face. Who, if anyone, will do the work of “child-catching” in a post-industrial world, how should they do it and how do we help them?