Ian Hassall: It's unthinkable and we must make sure it stays that way

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Adam Lanza, the gunman who killed 27 people in  Newton, Connecticut. Photo / AP
Adam Lanza, the gunman who killed 27 people in Newton, Connecticut. Photo / AP

After the Newton, Connecticut shootings, people will be asking, "Why did he do it?" To many, the answer will be self-evident: "Because he was mentally disturbed." No mentally sound person would do such a thing.

But the question is the wrong one. What we should be asking is, Why do people who are similarly mentally disturbed but living in other countries not do it? The answers in this case are not so self-evident, but some spring to mind.

They are not mutually exclusive. If we are to take seriously our responsibility to protect children and other possible victims we should consider each of them, because in New Zealand we are not necessarily permanently exempt from such a disaster.

One possible answer is that there is a particular kind of mental disturbance that is more common or less well treated in the US which leads to this lethal behaviour. This seems unlikely.

Another answer is, because they don't have ready access to multiple-shot deadly weapons - which, if we are to learn from the tragedy, takes us down the path of not ever in New Zealand making guns as readily accessible to even the most irresponsible of people as they are in the US.

A third possible answer is, because they cannot imagine it. People are less likely to imagine something if they have no experience of it and it is not a part of their habitual thought patterns. Perhaps this is our greatest safeguard against such an event.

Unfortunately, the more such things happen, the details are closely described and visual images made available, the more they can be imagined by disturbed people. How are we to avoid this?

Prevention in this case could take us down the path of censorship of news stories, films, TV programmes and interactive games in which mass killings are depicted.

In our open world, effective censorship is probably not practical although we can continue to discourage the depiction of the enjoyment of violence.

There is a tradition in New Zealand and the USA of learning to use guns from an early age, but this familiarity in New Zealand is associated with recreation and practical farm use, not personal "defence" as seems to be the case in the United States.

We do not have the American problem of gunshot homicide that is one of the commonest causes of death in young people there. But sections of our society do condone and glorify aggression. We do have a high rate of youth suicide. We have high rates of violence against intimate partners and children. Our personal desire to win has become couched in aggressive expressions borrowed from America, such as "kick arse". Contempt for the weak and dependent is expressed in newspaper columns and political forums. In this we are similar to the United States. Nevertheless, there is a residual restraint against naked, lethal aggression embedded in our society. We would like to believe and should believe that actions such as those carried out in Newton are unthinkable in New Zealand even by our mentally disturbed citizens.

That is our best protection. We have an important and never-ending job as citizens in maintaining the conditions that ensure that this is so.


Ian Hassall is a children's advocate, research associate at the Institute of Public Policy, AUT University and a former Children's Commissioner.

- NZ Herald

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