Political Animal


December 18, 2012 3:55 PM Words to the wise about the Newtown tragedy

By Kathleen Geier

There are a couple of other pieces about Newtown that I thought were worthy of your eyeballs.

First, on the New York Times editorial page, Priscilla Gilman, the mother of a child with autism, urges us not to blame autism for Newtown. She sets the record straight about this type of disorder: autism and Asperger’s are not mental illnesses, they are developmental disabilities. Contrary to stereotype, people on the autistic spectrum do not lack empathy. In addition, being mentally ill is not the same thing as having “a psychopathic, sociopathic or homicidal tendency.” The mentally ill and people with autism are no more likely to commit acts of violence than are people without such illnesses or disabilities.

In another life, I was a caseworker for kids with disabilities, many of whom were on the autism spectrum, and what Gilman says in this essay is consistent with my observations and my training. These kids have enough challenges as it is and they don’t need an extra dose of damaging stereotypes and stigma.

Secondly, Amanda Marcotte has written a post arguing that Nancy Lanza, the killer’s mother and victim, is, like the other Newtown victims, deserving of our sympathy. Sadly, this is a controversial argument, since it has been reported that the guns that her son used in the massacre were her guns, and that she had trained him to shoot. I think it’s always a bad idea to keep guns in the home. Less controversially, I think pretty much everyone but the gun nuts will agree that it’s a terrible idea to allow mentally unstable to have access to guns and/or to teach them how to shoot.

That said, we are not sure exactly what happened here. I just started reading David Cullen’s highly acclaimed book about Columbine. I’ve had it on my shelf for a while and had been meaning to get to it; I finally picked it up two days ago, for obvious reasons. I haven’t gotten far into it yet, but one thing that is already apparent is how very wrong much of the initial reporting about Columbine and the two killers turned out to be. Already with Newtown, we’ve learned that a lot of what we thought initially — even basic info, such as that Nancy Lanza taught at the school, or that Ryan Lanza was the killer — turned out not to be the case. So let’s not assume, yet, that she didn’t lock up her guns, or that she did teach Adam to shoot.

So, first of all, we’re still not sure what role Nancy Lanza may have inadvertently played in this tragedy. But beyond that, she was a human being who died a miserable death. No one deserves to die that way, no matter what kind of horrific misjudgments and tragic mistakes she might have committed concerning her son. I have heard people saying some extraordinarily nasty things about this woman, but none of us know what it was like to be in her shoes. Let this poor woman rest in peace, and may the rest of us try to learn from her mistakes — once we know enough to find out what they were.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • MuddyLee on December 18, 2012 4:40 PM:

    Thanks Kathleen for a sensible and compassionate post.

  • Stetson Kennedy on December 18, 2012 4:44 PM:

    I can have empathy for Nancy Lanza without having sympathy for her. It is true that we do not know how exactly the guns were stored in her home, and if Adam had access to them. In any case, I do think it is incredibly shortsighted to keep powerful weapons in the home of a young man who Nancy allegedly told friends was emotionally unstable.

    Her dying a horrific death does not necessarily negate any responsibility in this tragedy. If she made weapons available to her son, she has the blood of dead children on her hands.

  • rdale on December 18, 2012 4:51 PM:

    Sorry, no sympathy from me. She might have had a hard row to hoe, but leaving high-powered human-killers accessible to a son she told others was emotionally unstable cancels any empathy I might have had for her. She's as much at fault as the son who pulled the trigger.

  • c u n d gulag on December 18, 2012 4:56 PM:

    You direct us towards some sensible articles.

    Let me now take you into the realm of surrealism and theater of the absurd - Megan McArdle!

    Prepare yourselves, folks, for a dose of "TEH STOOOOOOPID!!!" so great, that this is what probably really caused all of the Great Extinctions in the Earth’s history - a tsunami of stupid so monumental, that I'm not sure I can survive even writing about it:

    If you though arming the teachers and kids in schools was a really bad idea, here's Megan McArdle, on what we can do about gun killings.

    Is it gun or ammo control?
    NO! Well, maybe it'll probably, might, happen - but Meg has a better solution!
    It's to teach unarmed children to bum-rush the shooter, BONZAI-style!, and overcome the shooter with their unarmed bodies!

    I SH*T YOU NOT!!!

    In her words"
    "My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity. I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once. Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips."

    To her credit, 8-12 unarmed dead children IS less than the 20 killed in Newtown – sometimes (almost always - oh, hell - ALWAYS!), her math skills leave a lot to be desired, so we should give her some dap when she finally gets something right.

    So, in Meg’s twisted Libertarian mind, 8-12 dead, unarmed children, is an acceptable price for stopping a killing spree.

    Here, if you’re brave enough to walk into a fusillade of stupid that would shame the 'World Village Idiot's Convention,' is the link:


    And if you're ever with her when some armed loon starts shooting, you can say to her, "Ok. You first, Meg!!!"


  • RollaMO on December 18, 2012 4:56 PM:

    She needed the semi-automatics and assualt rifle to fend off the criminals on the mean streets of Newtown.

  • Al on December 18, 2012 5:16 PM:

    Maybe she had them to protect herself FROM HER OWN SON?

    It can't be easy to raise a young Michael Myers without Dr. Loomis around with his pistol ready in hand...

  • Bacon on December 18, 2012 5:16 PM:

    "The mentally ill and people with autism are no more likely to commit acts of violence than are people without such illnesses or disabilities."

    This statement is a bit too broad regarding the mentally ill. People with severe bipolar disorder, for example, definitely have higher rates of violence than a random population sample. It is still a minority of cases, but there is a correlation.

    I think you understand this implicitly when you go on to state "I think pretty much everyone but the gun nuts will agree that it’s a terrible idea to allow mentally unstable to have access to guns and/or to teach them how to shoot."

  • Unholy Moses on December 18, 2012 5:42 PM:

    My son is on the autism spectrum (also called "spectrumy"). Luckily, he's high functioning enough that he's doing okay.

    But I do have to note that some with autism do, in fact, lack empathy.

    My son is more than capable of sympathy -- being sad that something bad has happened to others. Heck, he cried at the end of The Hobbit (the book, not the movie) when **SPOILER ALER** Thorin died.

    But what he cannot do is put himself in someone else's shoes and try to feel what they feel. He just can't do it. At all. He can't even play Tic Tac Toe because he simply cannot imagine what the other person might do.

    So, just wanted to note that fact.

    Oh, and anyone who goes into a public place and opens fire is "mentally ill." Maybe not in a clinically definable way, but ... they are.

  • rk21 on December 18, 2012 5:52 PM:

    If they were her guns that were used in the shootings, she deserves no sympathy. Her sister in law said that the guns were for protection when the "economy collapses". I heard that interview myself (not some second rate rumor). Whoever is responsible for facilitating the carnage whether it's the NRA (#1 culprit), or the mother, has to face the music. In case of the mother she'll forever be remembered as the idiot who allowed her mentally disturbed child access to guns. She may have died a miserable death, but so did the poor kids. I'm all out of sympathy for morons.

  • emjayay on December 18, 2012 6:15 PM:

    rk21: Well, that's interesting. Scratch any recreational target shooter with a semi-automatic at the shooting range and you will probably find a paranoid survivalist underneath. Or a wantabe Rambo. Or both. And in this case, to make things wierder, a very well off unmarried middle aged woman. It's not like her redneck husband got her into it or anything.

    I know, judging and generalizing on not much information. But hearing from people talking about shooting semi-automatics as a "sport" in the past few days etc. - well, it's not. It's pulling a little lever with one finger while pointing a piece of powerful mechanical technology at a paper imaginary human (do they use those human outlines like on cop shows or just a target?) and watching the holes erupt. Sorry, not a sport.

    On NPR today I heard a bit of a speech from the head of the NRA, no doubt to members, saying how Obama has all kinds of secret plans to destroy our freedom or something like that. That's the real NRA, and the real feelings of a lot of our fellow citizens, as we've been seeing for four years at Tea Party rallies (and of course Yahoo News and other online comments) not the PR crap the NRA came out with today about supporting meaningful effective ways to protect our children, or whatever.

    Having said all that, what to do? Require a liberal arts degree in the humanities from a real non-Christian (Catholic doesn't count) college of every American? Mandatory daily yoga and Tai Chi and Buddhist meditation classes for all?

  • Anonymous on December 18, 2012 6:37 PM:

    Bullshit. The mother was an apocalyptic wingnut who got what she deserved. I have no sympathy and less empathy for a deranged lunatic who taught an unstable kid the proficiency with firearms that he used to kill her. If he had killed her and then himself, it would have amounted to chlorine in the gene pool, but the way it went down? No way. As I read somewhere else today 'she has the blood of 26 people on her cold, dead hands.' Good riddance to her, as far as I'm concerned.

  • Crissa on December 18, 2012 6:49 PM:

    Even if you buy the argument that violent behavior is a sign of mental illness or injury - and our definition of what is mental illness is kinda vague on what it is or not - the number of people with depression (the most common type of mental illness associated with homicide) outnumber murderers by a huge ratio.

    The number of people living with some mental illness or injory condition exceeds 80,000,000 in the US, with 20,000,000 diagnoses each year (according to the CDC). There were about 17,000 murders last year. Heck, there were nearly 400,000 hospitalizations for depression!

    Caring for mental illness and injury is important, but it's by no means a sign of violence.

  • rpg on December 18, 2012 7:13 PM:

    To put it bluntly, I have serious questions about the mother's mental status considering she purchased these guns whose only purpose is to kill human beings in not small numbers.

  • Robert on December 18, 2012 7:56 PM:

    By all accounts, this woman worshiped her weaponry. And that idolatry paid her terrible, but predictable dividends. Did she die such a miserable death? Imagine a confused and terrified child lined up and waiting for execution. Hold that image as you search for deserved sympathy.

  • nancy Snow on December 18, 2012 8:07 PM:

    Not metioned, as far as I can tell, in any information regarding the shooter is whether or not he was on adhd medication. Some of the previous young men involved in school (and other) mass killings have been on this medication. As a juvenile attorney, mental health attorney, parent and grandparent, I have personal experience that shows that side effects of adhd meds are paranoia and aggression. I've also researched the side effects and these are two. I think the drug companies that manufacture and sell these drugs should also be held accountable. If you're interested, check the side effects and was Lanza on medication. Adhd med is an amphetimine. And because it helps a person to focus, it also can cause extreme focusing or obsession. Please check it out. Often, parents, medical personnel, school personnel, counselors, etc think the solution to mental illness is medication. Psychiatrists don't counsel anymore-they just prescribe. They are only treating the symptoms, and often with meds that cause worse effects, rather than trying to get at the root cause.

  • Yellow dog on December 18, 2012 10:37 PM:

    I appreciate this post. It is easy to make assumptions about mental illness and developmental disorders that are not warranted. Thanks for offering a different perspective.

  • Elie on December 18, 2012 11:47 PM:

    While I can question Nancy Lanza's decisions at some level, I still have sympathy and empathy for her. Most of our commenters upstring do not know how humans live with aberration.

    Nancy probably accomodated and "normalized" living with her "different" son over time. She stretched the boundaries of what she should allow him to do because, probably (and I do not know but speculate from reports), that he did not act out all the time. He had "issues" -- he was introverted and weird. Maybe lately he was starting to get more aggressive as he got older or as his psychological pathology got worse -- but I imagine it happened either too fast for her to keep up or slow enough for her to "keep moving the goalposts" to assure herself that things were ok. I imagine that somehow in her affluent life, she never saw the guns associated with the potential for real violence anymore than the average person looks at their carving knives as murder weapons. Maybe she liked the sense of power guns gave her. I am fairly sure she never linked the posibility that the power in guns could bond to the power in her childs evolving psychological problems. If we understand this correctly, the woman was shot in bed in her pajamas, never knowing, literally - what hit her.. not just that morning, apparently, but in total for this sad saga.

    No one talks much about the parents of these accursed souls who are mass murderers. Most of them live on to contemplate the horror and how to make sense of their lives anymore I am sure. I think that I would rather have Nancy's outcome, frankly.

  • Elie on December 18, 2012 11:59 PM:

    ..and Nancy snow upstring-- while I can agree with some of your comment about the very real side effects of psychoactive drugs and children, I do think you overstate the assumption that some children (or adults) are best treated through talk therapy alone. I think that is provably wrong. Some kids and adults have brain chemistry anomalies and you can't even begin to get traction on these without meds. That said, getting the right med or frequently, MEDS, is a nightmare of trial and error, false starts and horror where some side effects turn one's life upside down. With work, however, and for, thankfully the majority for some conditions (at least for a while), you can get a "cocktail" that will allow you to live a somewhat normal life. Without these meds, people are frankly dangerous many times. Have you lived with an unmedicated bipolar personality? Do you know what it means to sleep with one eye open?

  • Renai on December 19, 2012 3:44 PM:

    In reading the comments above, I seriously am asking how exactly do we differentiate ourselves from conservatives? Such hard boiled judgement and anger cannot be the way we meet this sad issue.

    I'm not condemning, I'm just asking if we can't be the ones to approach this issue with rationality and sanity and a greater measure of humanity. Otherwise, it won't get any resolution, because you know the other side is too busy passing out judgement and anger to even pretend to act.

    Please don't let that be us...


  • alcatraz on December 19, 2012 5:00 PM:

    It could be the case that Adam Lanza, being both hyper-sensitive and extremely smart, was merely holding up a mirror to the society he found himself in. That is, a society stoked with fear of economic collapse and apocalypse, where people buy and shoot assault weapons in order to feel a sense of power and pleasure. Maybe in a psychotic and delusional way, he thought he was saving us from ourselves.