Yesterday morning in Newtown, Connecticut, a young man murdered 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with six adults, having already killed his own mother. When I saw the news, I broke down and cried. All I could say, over and over, was Why would anyone kill little children? How could anyone do such evil?
Yes, I’m using the word evil. I can’t think of any word that even comes close to describing the actions of someone who is so angry, so desperate, and so full of self-pity that he decides to take 20 children with him. And really, there is no answer to the question of why. Sometimes, people do evil because they can, because they decide to discard their moral compass, because they decide to inflict pain.
But of course, we live in a society in which simply saying that evil is afoot doesn’t cut it anymore. We want answers. We want control. We want it fixed. So we make it a sickness, because we hope that someday sickness will have a cure.
And so we find scapegoats. When another atrocity happens, we hear people say that the shooter must have been mentally ill. We hear people say that the shooter must have had autism. In this case, the media is engaging in scapegoating both groups: more than one news outlet has reported that the shooter was both mentally ill and autistic, as though being mentally ill and autistic were an explanation for killing 27 people.
Yes, it’s happening again. It’s becoming predictable. In the past 24 hours, I have been involved in discussions in which people have not only engaged in the usual He must have been mentally ill speculations, but have also said that because autistic people have meltdowns, it’s plausible that the shooter simply had a meltdown.
Let’s get something straight right now. Autistic people have meltdowns because their sensory systems get overloaded and it hurts more than anyone who has never experienced it could understand. And yes, sometimes, people strike out in the course of a meltdown. Not always, but sometimes. Often, they strike out at themselves. And when they do strike out, it’s a spontaneous act. It’s a neurological response that is not even remotely close to premeditating a murder.
People in the midst of a meltdown do not take the time and the forethought to arm themselves with a bullet-proof vest and several weapons, make their way to an elementary school, and consciously target two particular classrooms of children and the school office. In fact, most people in the midst of a meltdown just want to withdraw and get away from people and the stressors that cause overload.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Autism is not a predisposing factor to premeditated violence. Autistic people are far, far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators.
And the same goes for mental illness. Most mentally ill people do not harm anyone and are at much greater risk of being the victims of violence.
If you must ask the question of why, take a look at what all the school shooters have in common: they are young men. Of course, simply being a man does not predispose anyone to violence. But perhaps the fact that we equate manhood with power and domination in our society does. Maybe, just maybe, we need to separate violence from the definition of being a man. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start looking at the way that we glorify violence among men.
That’s not scapegoating. That’s taking a good look at we do, as a culture, to make it more likely that people choose evil.
Scapegoating innocent, vulnerable groups of disabled people — people with autism, people with mental illness — is irresponsible. It has the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of people who are already struggling against stigma and exclusion.
So let’s do some self-reflection as a culture. Let’s look at what we’re communicating to our young men about what it means to be a man.
And when we do, let’s leave disabled people out of it.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg