A Time to Grieve. A Time to Act.

We must act. We must change. We must try to prevent more tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. That was the gist of President Obama’s powerful sermon before the grieving community of Newtown Sunday night. It was the fourth deadly rampage during his four years as president, horrifying experiences for towns across the nation, and for him.

Visibly moved by the tragic loss of young lives, he declared, “We must be willing to try to stop it. … In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”

We can expect much discussion over the next few months about guns, about curbing assault weapons and improving background checks and gun sale authorizations. Let’s hope that the new Congress has the impetus and the guts to get it done. But beyond the guns, we also should look closely at mental health issues – not just the monsters who lash out and kill innocents, but also the culture that spawns the violence and hate.

ImageWhat do we need to do – as a society and as a nation – to protect ourselves from the “Abby Normals”? And I don’t mean to make light by using the “Young Frankenstein” reference, but to make a point that Adam Lanza was an extreme case, the aberration. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School just before Christmas – a cowardly and dastardly act – was the act of a mentally deranged individual who slipped through the cracks of our society.

How else can we explain it? A young man, not yet 21, kills his mother and assaults an elementary school, blasting away at the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers and supervisors – as if he is reveling in the horror of this moment, his complete control and mastery of this “game.” Perhaps it was also a cry of anguish and desperation from an individual adrift in American society, but it was crazy. Abby Normal.

Mental health experts don’t like us to use words like “crazy,” but someone who becomes unhinged and strikes indiscriminately at innocents is not sane.  Even if he were acting in the name of some God of vengeance – committing an act of political terrorism – he would still be mentally unbalanced, in my view. The pieties and spiritual allusions in President Obama’s speech, so necessary to soothe the wounded community at church, cannot obscure the fact that the fervor of religion is the basis for most wars and terror throughout history.

It would help, obviously, if Adam Lanza – or his mother – had sought professional help, and a psychiatrist could come forward with an educated diagnosis and opinion about his state of mind. We do know, based on every report I’ve seen, that there is no link between Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and violence. And there’s no confirmation that Lanza was even diagnosed with Asperger’s.

As we look to find a solution to this outbreak of violence against innocents, I think it is worthwhile to look beyond this murderer to see his unspeakable crime through the prism of the society in which we live – this violent, dangerous world that is also projected through our arts and culture. Yes, guns are a big part of this miasma, and so also may be the games we play. I think it’s fair to ask if this commando-style assault was modeled on violent video games, as they were with the boys at Columbine.

And there is the chicken and egg question. Who is modeling whom exactly in this boy marketing game? How does a young man tune out the real world, numb himself to the brutality and humanity of actions that kill and maim? Amanda Palmer reflects on this sad phenomenon through the eyes of a Columbine killer:

Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and chairman of the Forensic Panel, who works on more than 20 homicide cases a year, told The Washington Post, “I point the finger unreservedly at the entertainment industry, which has spawned and cultivated gaming that by design is increasingly real, geared to action as the shooter’s point of view, increasingly dehumanizes victims, and increasingly rewards players by how many they kill.”

Violent video games are just one of the sources of disturbing images we are exposed to daily in our society – in movies, TV, the daily news. But they are expressions of the world we live in. Kids are routinely assaulted at school and, sadly, in their homes. Young women are physically and verbally assaulted just simply walking down the street. We are all exposed to images, and individuals, at the edge of culture and propriety in modern society.

Most of us handle it just fine and move on. We live in a free society and we are not going to restrict speech, but we can limit the exposure to the young and impressionable – including those who have mental health issues. But we need help in our communities to reach out and touch the vulnerable ones. This is where Obama’s call for our society to take responsibility “for others’ kids, for each other” should be answered. The social safety net is genuinely frayed and needs serious repair. How do we begin?

Let’s heed the president’s call to act. In case you missed the president’s moving presentation in Newtown, here it is: