John Havelock: Don't respond to Newtown in haste

John Havelock

Lets not "do a 9/11" on Newtown. To do "something," when you don't know what to do, is a mistake. The president's call for immediate action applies to one or two proposals that have been around a long time but the total circumstances really do deserve more careful in-depth study. Risk-benefit analysis must replace "I don't care what the costs are, if it makes me feel safer."

In the wake of the surprise 9/11 hijacking of commercial planes for use as suicide missiles, our politicians saddled the economy with billions of dollars of annual investment in "Homeland Security," adding little to actual security and moving America ever closer to a national security state engaged in a permanent war. The level of security actually required was in place a week later as cockpits were locked, external intelligence woke up and passengers realized a hijacking was no longer a trip to Cuba. The fear implanted has become the terrorists' greatest success, inflicting permanent, continuing social and economic damage on the American people.

Now, in the wake of Newtown, we hear muttered demands for increased police presence in schools as well as investment in elaborate security devices, procedures and guns. The answer to guns is not more guns. Such measures will make our schools, already feeling like a prison to some students, less inviting and will daily imply a constant overstatement of lethal risks associated with learning. We have plenty of policy issues with public education without bringing security higher up the list.

That being said, there is no suggestion here that the Newtown massacre is anything but the most heartbreaking of events, deserving moments of sad reflection as well as disciplined thinking. Consider also how Newtown touches the far greater number of Americans who lost a small child the same week to preventable disease or accident, including gun accidents, which take 60 or so children of the annual 600 accidental gun deaths. These individual deaths of children, escaping national attention, can be just as painful to the parents and family experiencing the loss. For them, Newtown amplifies the pain.

School massacres, over the years, have now accumulated as a list, recited by the president in his feeling and thoughtful Newtown responses. These insane attacks deserve more attention and careful study of causes and "not-causes," sorting the many subjects that have been identified as potential factors. Uninhibited study should be followed by action, even while weighing the externalities (incidental impacts) suggesting limits.

While hugging our children, we can also consider the policy implications arising from the 10 small children killed by a leftover bomb in Afghanistan this week. Within the last half year, additional children have died as "collateral damage" in acts like a mistaken attack on a wedding party and in killing designated enemy leaders visiting with family. Hundreds of small children have also died incidental to the "Arab Spring" in Libya and now Syria and in attempts to impose order on the Gaza Strip. These numbers suggest that mass violence should be the last, desperate resort in protecting national interest -- not the first, just because we have the guns and ammo.

Closer to home, we can consider preventive measures to reduce the rate at which children die by auto accident and drowning, without expanding the role of Big Brother. Surely we can do more to reduce the number of child suicides, a special Alaska crisis. The Newtown shooter decided first that he was to die.

The deaths of children carve a large hole in the future. Every 80 years or so, every active person on the Earth is new. Today's children carry forward all hopes for the human race. Each child is a seed for limitless possibilities, including, yes, in a minute number of cases, the possibility of warp leading to incomprehensible evil. Inevitably, among deceased children were great leaders, artists, scientists whose time never came. For this reason, as well as common humanity, we need every day to bring to the top, in the matrix of problems calling for action, the safety and development of children.

John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general.

John Havelock