For Me, These Shootings Are Personal

I heard a quote recently about how every experience of grief brings back every grief that preceded it. That’s the case for me when these mass shootings happen. The hardest part for me is when the talk, invariably, turns to motive.


Why did he/she/they do it?

The question implies that there is a logical answer, that we can fit this into a category. Then we can pretend to understand and return to our pre-existing condition, usually one of opposition to something: Islam, Islamic extremism, terrorism, white supremacy, guns, gun controls, atheism, organized religion, health insurance companies, prayer in schools, absence of prayer in schools, Jews, homophobia, the gay “lifestyle,” and on and on. Whatever we oppose. that’s the problem. That’s the condition leading to these mass killings. It’s so logical to us, we have trouble understanding why everyone doesn’t see the connection.

Mel Pine, Barry Pinsky, Marilyn KaplanWith the Las Vegas massacre, as I write this, no one has a clue as to what was going on in Stephen Paddock’s mind, and that’s good.

Let me tell you about my cousin Barry. That’s him, the little guy with the big ears, in a 1954 family photo. He was about 9 and I was about 8, standing alongside him and wearing glasses. Behind him is my sister, Marilyn. Barry was a great kid, easy to be with, and we were always paired up at family gatherings because we were close in age.

A decade later, Barry began exhibiting signs of paranoid schizophrenia that eventually led to hospitalization. When we were in our thirties, improved psychotropic drugs enabled him to live independently, with help from his parents, my Uncle Eddie and Aunt Marge.

Then one Saturday night in 1983 I got a midnight phone call from my brother.

“Uncle Eddie and Aunt Marge have been shot to death.”

“What! Who would kill them?”

“Well, [Pause] $400 in cash was found in a dresser drawer, untouched, so robbery wasn’t the motive.”

“I don’t get it. How could they have enemies?”

[Pause] “Well, it could have been Barry.”

It could have been Barry… And it was. Five days later he confessed and was arrested. He agreed to plead guilty to fourth-degree murder. And ten years later he hung himself in his prison cell.

In his confession, Barry said he heard the voices of nuns telling him to kill his parents. His act would be considered a mass shooting if there were two more victims. So when I read about massacres like the one in Newtown, Connecticut, I see Barry, a cousin I loved, in Adam Lanza. I wonder how I would feel if the voices in Barry’s head had told him to shoot up a school full of young children.

Even though my family knew of Barry’s mental illness and his confession, some still looked for an “answer.”

He was under the control of his Indian guru.

He was angry because his father ordered him to get rid of his gun.

He thought his parents were preventing him from getting supplemental benefits from Social Security.

He believed he’d inherit money from his parents.

When faced with the unbelievable, like mass killings or patricide and matricide, we react by not believing the obvious: This was an insane act and can’t be explained with logic. To me, applying some version of logic only intensifies the pain.

I’m not talking about the legal or the medical definition of insanity, so let’s call it a moral definition. When people knowingly engage in behavior destructive to others who have not harmed them in some explainable way, that’s insane. And it can’t be understood by our concept of logic.

Perhaps the only way to explain it is as a tear in the fabric of our humanity, of what our species is. A spiritual disease.

Note about gun controls: The gun culture in the United States is, perhaps, an aggravating symptom of the disease(s) I’m describing, but I don’t see it as the cause. I favor improving gun controls and will answer here a question I suspect you may have. My cousin Barry bought his gun legally. Because he had never been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he could pass a background check. That would have changed under proposed legislation that was voted down earlier this year in the House of Representatives.

— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)

Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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