In the wake of the breathtaking tragedy in Newtown, Conn., much has been written and even more has been said. It is impossible to comprehend our shock to such horror, let alone understand its causes.

But yet as human beings, understand it we must. Surely a discussion of gun violence in our society is needed. Security in our schools should be vigorously debated. However, let us not fail to try to mine the deep and dark recesses of the human psyche as well. While guns and films and games can all be linked to the tragedy, it is the harrowing, disturbed thoughts of people which lead to these ultimate tragedies.

Joseph Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness said, “The mind of man is capable of anything.”  Unfortunately, we know all too well by our history that we as humans are capable of anything. Is one of the prices of being human to live with the specter of violence at all times?  Can we overcome our very human tendencies toward evil? What are the acceptable limits of violent human behavior? Do our darkest thoughts and feelings deserve to be aired? What are the limits to decency and common sense that should not be exceeded?

When mass shootings occur, can blame be cast on the families of shooters? Certainly there are and will remain evil individuals in all societies. But if that alone were the case, issues of violence would be rare. But violence is not rare and these individuals embody it in an extreme way. Is the violence in their hearts born there, or is it developed through close encounters with the culture? What do we accept in the name of art, free expression, or free speech?

Does not every blatant and selfish act of violence which we commit to paper or film in some way ingrain in our minds the reality of that violence? We actually praise the work of the most graphic and realistic portrayers of gore. They celebrate their “art”, and collect awards (and paychecks) for their work. To shrink away from this imagery is to be somehow old fashioned or naïve. Where do we see the celebration for reconciliation and avoidance? Is the violence that is portrayed done so to entertain or to educate? The next time you see an act of violence acted out on a screen, ask yourself that question. This doesn’t even begin to explore the effect of these images on a young and developing mind.

We also have created a warrior culture where war is a justified action of an aggrieved people, with little real debate about the long term impact it will have on our nation. Although war is always the right of a nation in self defense, have we considered its reach into the hearts of the millions of soldiers we have trained to kill?

Why does every use of violence not shock and outrage us? Why does the noble act take second place to the bold and violent act? Ironically, when we couldn’t depict violence visually as realistically as we can now, it was much less graphic. As our abilities to enhance the reality of the experience increases, our tolerance for it seems to increase as well. Are these just a reflection of perverse human tendencies? Is the potential for these acts buried deep within us all? Does a civilized society control these ancient yearnings under the guise of culture?

As we try to come to grips with what should be an appropriate response to the tragic situation in Newtown, Conn., we should not forget to plumb the depths of our own psyche. Are the darkest reaches of our minds a curse of being human? Do they reflect an inevitable dark side of the human experience? Are they a rare, but sad part of a damaged mind? Or, rather, are these the self taught eccentricities of our own making? Have we mortgaged our very humanity to the bank of thrills, emphasizing the very worst attributes of human tendencies? Before we look into the heart of a killer, we should explore our own collective hearts; what darkness do we allow to thrive there?

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