Writing from the UK, reader Roger McCarthy points out that one reason the Newtown massacre shocks us so profoundly is that thanks to medical advances, better technology, and other examples of progress, we live in a society that is no longer nearly as acquainted with death:

In 1927 every human being was an order of magnitude closer to death and tragedy – few children would graduate from school without having lost one or several classmates to diseases and accidents, any male over 28 was quite likely to have seen unimaginable horrors in the trenches, factory fires and mine disasters and train crashes and shipwrecks claimed not single but tens and hundreds of lives with depressing regularity….

To lose a child is now an almost unimaginable nightmare for every parent – but you only need to take a walk around an old graveyard or investigate your own family history to see that for our great grand-parents generation losing one, more or even all of one’s children was horribly common.

Those people back in 1927 were in no sense better than us morally -in many respects they were much worse in their tolerance for racism and bigotry of all kinds – but they were more callous (in the literal sense of being spiritually calloused by loss after loss and injury after injury), more fatalistic and above all more realistic about what human beings could and could not do and even if they had never heard of Doctor Johnson had his words imprinted on their souls:

‘How small of all that human hearts endure. That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!’

We cannot ban evil by decree. And this truth, says Roger, should temper our response to Newtown:

The idea that ‘we’ (all of us? 99.999% of whom never have or will entertain even for a second the idea of slaughtering a school-full of small children) would or should be driven to ‘reform ourselves’ in answer to every public tragedy would have seemed completely absurd to forefathers who knew that there had always and would always be true monsters living amongst us who no pious platitudes could preach away.

And lets face it nothing will be done – and even if as in Europe you had a political system that allowed for instant kneejerk responses (here in Britain a dog can’t savage a child without media clamour for yet another Dangerous Dogs Act even though unaccountably stupid people continue to breed vicious dogs and they continue to bite irrespective of how many times Parliament forbids them) nothing that would be done would prevent a clever or just determined psychopath from periodically doing what psychopaths do.

This, of course, is cold comfort to the grieving people of Newtown. But it’s true, isn’t it?

As I’ve mentioned here, in 2010, Trevor Reese, a teenage boy from a well-off family living in a country-club housing development near my town jumped out of the bushes with a knife in his hand, set upon an eight-year-old boy pedaling his bike behind his parents, and butchered the child. The killer, who has pled not guilty by reason of insanity (his trial begins in early 2013 — and I was told by someone who had visited him in jail that he appears to be quite insane), made good grades, and came from a churchgoing, upper-middle class family. Though we perhaps will learn more in the trial, it seems as this point that nobody could have foreseen this coming; a (likely) mentally ill teenager snapped, with devastating consequences for an innocent child, his family, and (to be fair) to the family of the killer.

The lawyer representing the killer concedes that his client did it, saying that the case has never been about what happened, but why it happened. In the Adam Lanza case, there may not be a why, other than mental illness, in which case establishing a line of causation is difficult. Are we going to outlaw insanity? Are we going to prevent law-abiding people from owning weapons because someone in their family might go insane and kill others? Should the Reeses not have been allowed to have knives?