After Newtown, a call for hard work and careful thinking

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I stopped the child’s parents outside her doorway. The air was antiseptic, the hallway cool and dim. It was the first time that I had to tell anyone that their baby was dying.

I was an intern at Walter Reed Army Hospital. Those faces have remained burned in my memory for 50 years. The tears we shed followed a stunned moment of shock. I’ve revisited those faces in the images from Newtown.

The media have probed the issues and fed greedily on the grief of parents and a stunned nation. They described the innocents, without showing the bodies, but we’ve been told how many bullets tore into them.

The inquiry that has been repeated in the days since is, “Why did it happen?”

Even the television announcers who ask the question must know that there is no one solution. We will never comprehend what was in the young man’s head, nor whether he would have found another way to express his probable depression, in the absence of easily available murder weapons.

Some important conclusions are possible. The part of the killer’s brain that controls emotions wasn’t doing its job. Genetics plays some role and epigenetics rewired the kid’s noggin in response to the way he was treated or saw other people treated.

If there is a message from science, a caveat, it must tell us that our responses to fear and tragedy make us act in goofy, irresponsible ways.

We may not be ready to kill in anger, but there will be some who think those thoughts. If we hope to make a difference, we have to wait until the reactive juices wash out of our systems.

Pro-gun control arguments play on our fear, while billions stuff the pockets of manufacturers who devised ways of eluding existing laws.

Some of us demonize them and the system that make them rich. The loudest voices demand retribution, not reason.

Gentler arguments plead for solutions that seem more reasonable and caring. They say that we need to spend more on mental health, without challenging whether money will fix a problem.

There are few solutions that are supported by reliable science. Most kids who are referred to mental health programs in the U.S. are treated with medicines that work no better than placebos.

The drug industry controls much of what you have come to believe. Science has developed ways of changing attitudes faster than techniques of improving them.

Chemistry that effectively treats depression, personality disorder or psychosis is less effective than we are led to believe.

Moving deliberately isn’t the same as rushing into something that makes us feel good.

The violence issue shares a great deal with our gang problem. We have evidence that supports good mentoring, assisting ineffective mothers and having the police clean up the mess that is left over where society has failed.

It seems to be the perfect time of year for each of us to reach out. Mutual caring provides the first step in problem solving.

We can move go forward by discussing what is likely to make our communities better. What are the best models? The job won’t be done until we critically evaluate the results and keep improving on them.

It’s hard work, not an explosion of emotional fervor that will improve our chances of developing a happier, more empathetic neighborhood.

Merry Christmas.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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