In a statement following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of twenty children and six adults, President Obama made a decided shift. He chose not to use the words “random” and “senseless”—terms that civic leaders deploy after incidents such as this to cover for our collective speechlessness, terms that suggest inexplicable forces. In the hours after the shooting, the president seemed to be saying that the inexplicable was no longer good enough. “We’ve been through this too many times,” he asserted, calling for something different: “meaningful action.”
Most will assume that “meaningful action” refers exclusively to gun control policy. But I’d like to propose that the president was really calling for better explanations. What happened last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut has played out far too many times to be reduced to the random and the senseless. We owe it to the victims and their loved ones to delve deeper, to find answers beyond oversimplified motives and unknowable madness.
Nearly 24 years ago, a shooting similar to the one in Newtown took place in Stockton, California. On January 17, 1989, one Edward Patrick Purdy, age 24, entered the grounds of the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton and opened fire on a schoolyard full of small children. He murdered five and wounded 30. The ages of those killed ranged from 6 to 9 years old. Like Adam Lanza, Purdy used a high-powered assault rifle, in Purdy’s case an AK-47, emptying 105 rounds. He was also dressed in full military fatigues. And Purdy took his own life before the authorities arrived.
All five victims in Stockton were either Cambodian or Vietnamese, the children of refugees who had resettled to the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian genocide, and this led many to conclude that Purdy’s motive was racial hatred. Some even speculated that Purdy was a Vietnam War veteran whose contempt for the enemy had made its way “back home,” forgetting that Purdy was only 24. But when the investigation yielded no clear evidence of particular hatred for Southeast Asians, much less ties to white supremacist groups, people focused instead on Purdy’s history of mental illness, arguing that he was a “psychotic”—plain and simple. He was a “psychotic” who did something “random” and “senseless.” But “psychotic” didn’t answer much of anything; it was merely another word for something we don’t understand. And so the narrative around the shooting became politically charged, and to this day there is no clear agreement on why Purdy did it.
I first became familiar with the Stockton shooting when I worked for the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence during the late-1990s. I read all the investigative reports and secondary literature on the case, and one thing that struck me about these many writings was that they consistently excluded the views of the family members of those killed and the survivors of the shooting. So, years later, while conducting doctoral research on Cambodian refugees in the urban United States, I set out to hear from those who had been dropped from the record. (My interviews with them will be featured in a forthcoming book project on anti-Asian violence in the United States.)
To my surprise, none of those I interviewed had much interest in the killer, Edward Patrick Purdy. I spoke with Rann Chun, who was a student at Cleveland Elementary when the shooting took place. He survived, but his little sister, Ram Chun, did not. Twenty years after his sister’s death, Chun returned to Cleveland Elementary to teach first and third grades. Chun had always wanted to be a teacher, but coming back to this particular school was deliberate. “I chose to be here. Being here helps me let go of the tragedy, but still hold on to her,” he said.
Chun had long ago decided that the details of the shooter were irrelevant. He did not care to waste his time or future by fixating on Purdy. Others expressed similar views. Family members of the dead were largely uninterested in the facts uncovered by the California State Attorney General’s investigation—about Purdy’s personal past, his history of mental illness, or his occasional run-ins with the law. Family members also had little to say about gun control.
But none of this means they were uninterested in an explanation. Each person I spoke with believed that there was nothing random about the shooting. Each, in his or her own way, believed that the deaths of these children had been caused by a force greater than the psychotic behavior of a lone gunman. This larger force could best be described as a spirit of violence that pervaded their adopted homeland. America, they believed, had created a culture in which the broader public’s fascination with militarism, domination, and destruction can feed into and heighten a person’s disease and inner torment.
The Attorney General’s investigation into Purdy claimed that Purdy despised authority, that he hated those who had pushed him around all of his life. But this hatred also caused him to covet the very power that he felt rendered him powerless. And so he followed the lead of his perceived tormentors. He mimed them: Dressed in full military fatigues, Prudy went on a mission to obliterate the innocent.
Of course, none of this amounts to clear motive—at least not the kind demanded by prosecutors and other legal experts. But I suspect that, for the bereaved in Newtown, such motives soon will not matter, and Adam Lanza will not be the focus of their enduring questions. Instead, I think they are more likely to ask questions like these: Why have there been so many similarly horrific incidents in so few years? What is it about this particular time and place that has made the unimaginable, time and again, into horrific reality? One can only hope that the tragedy of Newtown will produce new legions of Americans who, like Chunn, will work each day to ensure that we never stop asking.