x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tragedy in the US has lessons for every nation

Lax gun laws make the US the world's worst country for school shootings, but these tragedies also happen elsewhere. Some things can be done to reduce the risk.

In gun-obsessed, politically polarised America, school shootings recur with a frequency that makes each new horror seem even worse.

On Friday, in tranquil, prosperous Newtown, Connecticut, a 20-year-old killed his mother and then unleashed a reign of terror at a local elementary school. Most of the victims, as President Barack Obama said in expressing the nation's pity and grief, were "beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them - birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." At least 28 people were killed, including the gunman.

Given US politics, grief and horror will give way all too soon to yet another debate over gun control. On right-wing news broadcasts, some zealots even argue that arming teachers and fortifying schools could prevent such disasters, a notion of unsurpassed, surreal lunacy.

And yet mass shootings are not only a US phenomenon, although loopholes in US gun laws make such assaults worse. (In China's Henan province on Friday, a man with a knife injured 22 at a primary school; all survived.) But even though the US appears to have recorded far more such killings than the rest of the world combined, deranged "lone wolves" have killed students and teachers in comparable attacks in Scotland, Canada, Norway, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Azerbaijan, among others, in the last two decades; many of those jurisdictions have restrictive gun laws.

The phenomenon appears, then, to involve something more universal than slack gun control. In the 1920s, Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents that modern life, for all its benefits, imposes a conformity that can drive individuals to neurosis - and beyond. No place can think itself exempt.

As in other aspects of life, full security is illusory. But a society can take some steps to reduce the risk of attacks like Friday's. Gun laws are a good place to start, but are not sufficient. While schools cannot be "hardened" like army bases, teachers can be trained in emergency-response methods. Police quick-response plans can be fine-tuned.

As usual, however, prevention is the best cure. Studies done after such attacks often find that somebody knew the killer was in a bad way psychologically, but remained silent out of family loyalty, friendship, misplaced "honour" or fear. Sophisticated vigilance in schools, public education and an unashamed understanding of mental health issues could help reduce the frequency, if not the horror, of these attacks on the innocent.