Demolishing the Cycle of Hate
The city of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, recently razed the home of the infamous 20-year-old gunman who in 2012 murdered 20 first-graders, one for each year of his life, as if he were doing nothing more grievous than blowing out candles on a birthday cake, plus six teachers and his own mother. At first glance, the demolition doesn’t seem like that big a deal. An extreme horror spawned an extreme response, case closed.
However, the act of erasing this killer’s home points to the larger issue of how reactionary our society has become. We are quick to hate anyone and everyone: mass murderers, police who must all be racists, African-Americans who all must have been up to no good being in the street at that time of night or playing in the park at that time of day, Muslims, gay people, conservative Christians, people who pay cash in grocery store lines and take too long to count out their change, and even people who dislike a fictional TV character we love. (I’m looking at you, fans of The Walking Dead.) When we hate, our standard response is to attack and destroy what bothers us—whether our tools of choice are bulldozers, guns, or words.
Often, we’re so busy speaking—expressing the righteousness of our own polarized opinions—that we don’t take the time to listen, to see the other side. In Sandy Hook, citizens and town officials debated an earlier decision to demolish and rebuild the school where the shootings took place, due to concerns about the potential impact on the schoolchildren. No such debate took place about the destruction of the killer’s home, according to reports in The Danbury (CT) News-Times and other media outlets. The town apparently didn’t consider, for example, turning the house into an office for a nonprofit; such a thoughtful response would require humanizing the object of hate, acknowledging the killer as more than an evil monster whose entire life history deserved wholesale dismantling.
Town officials described the demolition as “a step” in the healing process. In nature, destruction can be cleansing, providing an opportunity for the earth to rebalance and send out shoots of new growth. But destruction itself isn’t a source of healing; new life has to fight past obstacles of destruction. The Sandy Hook killer’s bullets carved an inescapable chasm into the families of everyone he attacked or murdered, including his own. The razing of his home won’t ever be the catalyst for bridging that chasm.
We hate, we attack, we destroy—and we absolve ourselves of any responsibility for a thoughtful response. We put ourselves at risk of dehumanizing everyone we dislike, not just the mass murderers of the world.
My mother is a progressive Christian. She goes to church with a woman who isn’t. That woman has often taken my mother’s beliefs as a personal attack on her own conservative values, making her prone to outbursts even on mundane topics. That’s a nice way of saying she yells at Mama something regular. For example, she became very angry when Mama offered her a cough drop, mistaking an attempt to provide succor as a healthcare mandate.
My first response was to advise my mother, “She’s a complete psycho. Don’t go near her if you can help it, and if she attacks you, tell her to shut up.”
However, Mama made a point to continue to offer small kindnesses to the woman and, whenever the woman got upset about their differing beliefs, explain that she was expressing opinions, not asking the woman to change her beliefs.
Last week, in a stunning development of “As the Church Turns,” the woman called my mother to tell her about something because “I knew you’d be interested in it.” Mama doesn’t necessarily have a new bestie who’ll never scream at her again, but the common ground and generosity generated by this small sequence of events does give me hope—hope that we can step out of hate-and-attack mode, we can offer the thoughtfulness of a considered response, and we can find opportunities for new growth in the face of whatever troubles scorch our lives.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C. She works as a freelance writer/editor and is a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Superstition Review. Her fiction has appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Monkeybicycle, Relief Journal, Deep South, The Drum, and other publications.