It is the challenge of every civilized society to establish and maintain a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the collective society of individuals so formed. Throughout the historical arc of all societies, there occur moments when the balance between individual and societal liberties is disturbed. Such disturbances arise both from external and internal sources. When internally sourced, these moments of disturbance can be the product of weaknesses within the society or their origins can be shrouded by the complexity of human interaction.
Irrespective of origin, such moments are defined by two shared characteristics. First, the societal disruption is of a scale and scope that it reaches the lives, the hearts, the very souls of every member of the society. Second, after reflection, discussion and debate, the society that has been disrupted chooses to establish a new and better balance between individual and societal liberty.
It is both possible and proper to attempt to understand the events of Dec. 14 by recognizing that each student and teacher killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School was an individual, a friend, a family member, a loved one, a cherished member of their community and of our society. The preciousness and promise of those lost lives demands that we grapple with this tragedy at the individual scale. Only by so doing can we then begin the more daunting task of recognizing that the tragedy of Newtown, Conn., like so many similar events that have come before it, transcends the individual. Our society has been harmed.
The senselessness of this tragedy, the normalcy of the setting, and the innocence of the victims has touched all of us. The question remains, however, will we have the collective courage to go beyond the sorrow that has swept across our nation? Will we, after an appropriate period of mourning and reflection, begin to consider more deeply our society, its great strengths and its lingering flaws? Will we have the fortitude to re-examine the full range of rights and responsibilities we share? Will we strike a new and better balance of liberty?
If we fail to meet two critical challenges, I am certain we will again and again be shocked and saddened by events of ever more horrifying proportion than even those of Dec. 14. First, we must recognize and then begin to address our national epidemic of mental illness. We must reach out to those we have been too quick to cast aside. Only by acknowledging the humanity, the dignity and the value of all members of our society can we ever hope to turn despair into hope, anger into love and pain into the promise of a better future. We can no longer push to the margins those whom we find too difficult, too distant and too disillusioned to accept.
Second, and equally importantly, we must end our silent acceptance of the pervasiveness of violence in our society. America of the 21st century is a more complex, more diverse, more urban and more densely populated nation than the 18th century America experienced by the founders and framers of our nation. We must acknowledge those vast differences and their implications. Only by recognizing that each act of mass violence harms all of us, only by recognizing that collectively and collaboratively we – not the nameless and faceless mass of rules and laws we dismissively refer to as the government – can make reasoned and fair decisions on the accessibility of firearms; only by recognizing that the frequency and scope of gun violence in the United States is within our power to control will we be able to strike a new and better balance between individual and societal rights and in so doing establish a greater level of safety and security for us all.
If we cannot do these things, if we cannot find the will to improve our society, the lives lost will stand in silent testimony to our societal impotency and we will once again be haunted by the lingering thought If only we would have
CARL N. DRUMMOND
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne