gun_cultureI had originally planned on writing something lighthearted for Christmas. But with the tragic school shooting in Newtown coming right in the middle of the holiday season, it seemed trite to pen a screed offering little more than best wishes and good tidings. Instead, I began to consider how we became a nation where young men feel so alienated that they decide to mass murder children as some deranged cry for attention.

I can’t help but wonder how much responsibility modern society has for creating the Adam Lanzas and James Holmeses of the world. I’m not excusing them nor am I suggesting that “the world is cold” is in any way an acceptable defense. But when mass shootings have become almost commonplace, I think it’s worth asking if something more is breaking down than just the unstable minds of a few angry men.

Several months ago, while visiting Machu Picchu, I was struck by the general happiness of the Peruvian people. I asked my tour guide if there was hunger in Peru, and he said there was hunger in Lima, the comparatively wealthy capital, but not in Cusco where we were staying. He explained that the community and family bonds in the Sacred Valley area kept people from falling through the cracks but that in Lima people were largely on their own.

This made me wonder if there was something about the modern world that is incompatible with compassion. Why are people left to go hungry in Lima but not in Cusco? Similarly, why in America, an extraordinarily wealthy nation, do we still have beggars on the street? It raises the question: “Is alienation the price of progress?”

Many will dismiss Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Seung Hui-Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold as lone deranged lunatics, but the rising frequency of mass shootings points to a bigger trend. While there is no doubt they were mentally unstable, all of them also shared the traits of being alienated from society. More and more, these killers look like the canaries in the coal mine of an increasingly selfish and isolated world. Instead of dismissing them as one off nut cases, I believe we can learn something by considering the reasons they cracked. In doing so, we may find as many flaws in our declining societal values as in their deranged reasoning.

Watching the outpouring of compassion over the Newtown rampage also made me wonder why it takes such a tragedy to bring out our best nature. Compared to the months of caustic vitriol leading up to the election, it has been almost reassuring to see that we can still come together, that people still care about one another. But the fact that it took such horrific circumstances to make that happen is a far more ominous sign than the goodwill it produced. Can it be that we can only find our humanity when things are at their darkest?

If we really have reached the point of only being able to show compassion when people die, then the question must be asked, “Do we need tragedy?” We certainly seem unable to come together as a people or a nation without it. In the most recent case, the slaughter at Sandy Hook appears to be serving as a catalyst for change. Is tragedy the price we have to pay for action? Would gun control even be a topic of discussion if 26 children and teachers hadn’t given their lives to make us think about it?

It might be blasphemous to ask, but if tragedy is the only thing that will spark us to change, then perhaps we really do need it to move us forward.

I’m not suggesting that murder is a good thing, and, frankly, I don’t have answers for the questions I pose. I seek to understand these killers not out of misplaced sympathy, but because I believe there is a bigger message in the madness. Adam Lanza and the other shooters before him were screaming for attention in the worst way. They were telling us “Look at me. I am here. Don’t forget me.” I can’t help but think that they are part of a bigger trend of forgotten people in a society that only pays attention to its stars.

I wonder how many more will spill blood in order to get noticed. I wonder how many more innocent people will lose their lives. Most of all I wonder why we, the supposedly sane ones, only pay attention when the bullets rain down.

[Image courtesy CHRISTOPHER DOMBRES]