Shootings lift the veil on America's tragic flaw

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart: Gun control and mental health services will not fix the problem.
Submitted photo

The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska and a source in the Public Insight Network for MPR News.

If philosophical parsing of the meaning of Sandy Hook was inappropriate just a few days ago, it is mandatory now.

The slaughter of these dear little ones and their teachers was a moment of terrible and terrifying insanity. When Adam Lanza put on his body armor and turned his mother's guns on his own mother and Sandy Hook Elementary School, insanity broke out to bring grief and to chill the bones of everyone in America.

Today there are calls for gun control and mental health services, and those calls make perfect sense as practical responses. But they will not fix the problem.

There is a more profound collective insanity that pervades our culture and our nation. It's a tragedy in the sense of the old Greek and Shakespearean theater: a fatal flaw that is doing us in.

Sandy Hook was a symptom of the American tragedy: our worship of safety — arming ourselves to the nines — turns out to be the death of us. The idolatry of safety is the worship of death itself.

A five year old boy in Minneapolis is playing with his two-year-old brother in their parents' bedroom. He finds a loaded pistol, points it at his brother as one would point a toy gun. His brother is dead. The surviving five-year-old and his parents will never be the same — because a father sought to keep his family safe with the pistol under his pillow.

A mother in Newtown has guns in the home she shares with the disturbed son she loves and seeks to protect from a cruel world. Like so many others in America, the guns were purchased either for safety or for sport, but the results are the antitheses of safety or fun.

Whether in our bedroom at home or in the nation's Capitol, when the assurance of safety rises to the top of the pyramid of values, death ascends as the power that destroys. It is the fatal flaw in a natural human instinct toward safety and security.

Freedom and safety are basic human needs. They are American values. Each is important. But neither freedom nor safety is God. Neither one is worthy of enshrinement by itself. The two of them together make for a Molotov cocktail thrown back into our own bedrooms and schools — or any place the concern for safety unleashes the tragic flaw of Greek drama, or Shakespeare, or the American theater of the absurd.

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