When prayers are not enough

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
November 1st, 2017

There is nothing worse than a mass shooting like the one in Las Vegas last month, except perhaps how easy it is to forget and to go about our lives as if nothing had ever happened. The killing of 59 (including gunman) and wounding of more than 500 of our neighbors gathered to hear a country music concert is one of those events that should burn itself into our memory and wake us up to the need for change.

Since the news broke on night of Oct. 1, the details of the story have been accumulating quickly – 22,000 people enjoying a country and western music concert while a lone gunman with an arsenal of 24 automatic and semi-automatic rifles took aim from a perch, 400 hundred yards away on the 32nd floor of a resort hotel.

Who could be capable of such an atrocity? We learned quickly that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, was a 64-year-old professional gambler with no history of criminal behavior or mental illness.

Paddock had a pilot’s license, owned two airplanes, and a secret cache of firearms that he accumulated legally, piece by piece, over time. He was one of four boys raised by a single mother. His father was a convicted bank robber who, according to a “wanted” poster, had been “diagnosed as psychopathic” and had “suicidal tendencies.” He did not have ties to any known terrorist groups though the survivors of his attack can attest to the terror he inflicted.

More details will doubtlessly come to light as time goes on and profilers will build a picture of the shooter that will either confirm known risk factors for this kind of violence or identify others.

Some elected officials and advocates for stricter gun control will lobby for tighter regulation while others will echo President Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and say it’s too soon to act.

The NRA and its supporters will continue to interpret our second amendment rights to block sensible controls on the sale and distribution of firearms and everyone will send their thoughts and prayers. There comes a time when thoughts and prayers are not enough.

I am no expert on threat assessment or public policy but if my 40-year career as a clinical psychologist has taught me anything, it has been to look at issues in the context of the systems in which they are embedded.

What happened in Las Vegas is not an isolated incident. In the last five years since the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school claimed the lives of 26 children and teachers, 209 people have been killed and another 658 injured in 13 separate incidents in the United States.

While we still have much to learn about what can lead a person to such catastrophic acts of violence, we know enough about what people need to live peaceably with their neighbors to support those factors at every level of societal organization.

My list would begin with values that honor and respect the dignity of every person and supporting structures to teach, reinforce, safeguard and exemplify those values. These would include family, community and institutions of government, religion, education, law, healthcare and an economic system where everyone has the opportunity to earn a living wage by contributing their talents to the good of society.

Developmental achievements like the ability to tolerate frustration and distress, to regulate emotions, resolve conflict and cooperate with others would be fostered and personal qualities, or what used to be called virtues, nurtured.

Finally, we need role models, men and women who exemplify what we admire and strive to achieve. They don’t have to be perfect. No one is and their ability to strive for excellence in spite of their failings can inspire us to persevere in the face of our own.

This is not an empirically validated protocol proven to reduce violence when applied as prescribed in a detailed instruction manual. It is not a GPS screen that will show us the way, turn for turn, to a nonviolent society. It’s more like a rough sketch of the known world. It is one psychologist’s attempt to locate us among the sea monsters and terra incognita of our times.

When a road sign warns us to seek an alternate route, we need a bigger map, a wider view of the world to show us that there is more than one way, more than one level of action, to work for peace and justice.

There is no aspect of our daily lives, professional or personal, that does not present the opportunity to create a safer and saner world. The father comforting his crying son, the therapist helping her patient to understand and control his angry feelings, the political activist lobbying for better gun control – all of them, all of us, are contributing to the cause of peace and security.

Yet, in the face of still another mass murder, hope languishes. Perhaps the events in Las Vegas will spur some of us on to political action and encourage us all to re-dedicate ourselves to what we are already doing in our everyday lives to further the cause of peace.

We know what it takes and, as psychologists, we have the tools to help ourselves and others build a nonviolent society. Our research, consultation, clinical work, civic engagement and efforts to live the changes we want to see in this broken world are our strongest assets. We need to use them well for it is only when our thoughts and prayers are joined to action that we can ever hope to end the scourge of violence in our land.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

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