Newtown, Connecticut December 14, 2012.

Not a parent in America got through that day with dry eyes.

Our poets and artists will find ways to express the grief and outrage, but most of us will grasp at some sort of political solution. This is natural. Tragedies are often political opportunities. And they tend to follow a certain pattern.

It is already unfolding before our eyes. President Obama has mobilized a crack political team to find a legal solution, though its more important purpose is to reassure the people that our best men are on the job and everything isn’t spinning out of control. They will likely come out shortly with a proposal to ban assault rifles, or regulate the number of bullets a person can buy or some such thing.

The people themselves begin to mobilize for or against some solution, throwing out catch-phrases like “Guns do Kill People!” or “Does the Next Bullet Have Your Child’s Name On It?” There will be significant opposition.

There will be marches, people with signs, opinion pieces, calls to “Bring God back into schools,” vilification of those with opposing viewpoints, and many will lament the loss of our society’s moral center. Debates will rage via Facebook memes and tweets.

Finally, our most eloquent will rise above the chaos to offer us inspiration, but no real solutions that don’t require some work on our part.

Or, perhaps as this is the fourth such incident in as many years, we’ll write it off as a normal part of our society and go about our lives as usual, blaming the whole thing on some lunatic whose insanity got the better of him.

Kenneth Burke, literary critic and philosopher, conceived an extensive philosophy using the world of drama as a metaphor, complete with stages, curtains, actors, and narrative.

 One of his metaphors that applies now is what he calls “terministic screens.” It begs the question: “How will social discussions be framed?”

A tragic screen finds a scapegoat—in our case the man with the gun—lays all the blame on him, achieves social redemption and moves on.

A comedic screen asks things like: How am I to blame? What’s going on in the culture, the larger social structure, that encourages this horrific behavior? Where are we failing? Where am I failing?

President Obama gave a moving speech. He’s quite good with words.

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.” 

Obama, in a show of wisdom, is encouraging us to adopt a comedic screen. And he’s being honest—not something I thought I’d ever write about a politician! (Though, if he had said 'I have to change,' it would have been so much more powerful.) Can the rest of us cast off our age-old habits, do something uncharacteristic of ourselves, and be honest too?

We find ourselves at a point in history in the West where forward progress is only possible if we start assuming personal responsibility for the actions of our entire society. This is understandably difficult, may seem impossible. But anything that has yet to exist seems incapable of ever existing.

“It was one man with a gun,” we rationalize. “It happened in a far-off state, I’ve never even been to Connecticut,” we continue. “I don’t even have kids,” say the younger generations.

Not good enough. Ask yourself why you bought a ticket to that gory movie, or gave your kid a shooting video game for Christmas, or voted for that politician over and over again even though nothing seemed to get fixed. Those are easy ones, but any real social change must happen with individuals. We’re going to have to get tough on ourselves.

 I’ll start.
  • I find myself, at times, proud to be in a nation with the largest and most powerful military in history. 
  • Every election, I outwardly eschew the political rhetoric and proclaim that all politicians are the same, while inwardly I dread the possibility of a Republican president and vote accordingly. 
  • For a time in my life, I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. 
  • When my daughter came back from school, complaining about a boy that bullies her, I told her to hit him back. I’m particularly ashamed of that one. In fact, I’ll stop there for now. 
How about you?

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