Newtown Aftermath: Gun Worship and Compassion Fatigue

Newtown Aftermath: Gun Worship and Compassion Fatigue

Kevin C. Madigan

Kevin Madigan is a senior reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

"Newtown" director Kim Snyder speaks at the Lovett School on Dec. 7. (Photo by Kevin Madigan)
"Newtown" director Kim Snyder speaks at the Lovett School on Dec. 7. (Photo by Kevin Madigan)

“The way we worship guns in our society is a form of idolatry,” Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple said after a screening of the documentary “Newtown,” a searing look at the shooting of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut four years ago.   

Joining Rabbi Berg at the screening and panel discussion Wednesday, Dec. 7, at the Lovett School were the film’s director, Kim Snyder, Imam Plemon El-Amin of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam and adjunct behavioral sciences professor Linda Degutis of Emory University. Interfaith Community Initiatives and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation sponsored the event.

“The only response is sustained moral outrage,” the rabbi said. “Everybody has to come together and see this film and stand strong against idolatry.”

Rabbi Berg and Imam El-Amin are both part of OutCry Georgia, an interfaith advocacy group formed after Sandy Hook that aims to “stem the ceaseless tide of violence that plagues too many communities,” according to its website.  

“We have to bring sanity to an insane movement that is just taking lives for no reason,” the imam said. “It cuts across any belief system. All of us have to feel the depth of this tragedy and take some kind of stand. We come together for many reasons, but one of them should be social justice for human lives and investment in our children.”

“I believe the tide is beginning to change, and most people understand that carrying an AK weapon into a school” is wrong, Rabbi Berg said. “The status quo cannot be; that’s why religious leaders are so involved.”

He said gun control initiatives at The Temple are complicated. “In one sense, the congregation is saying, ‘There’s nothing more important than preventing gun violence.’ On the other hand, it’s difficult to program because there’s a shooting incident every single day in the United States. We develop compassion fatigue. We feel like it’s just going to happen over and over again. We hear about another shooting, and we say, ‘It’s Tuesday.’ That’s a terrible place to be.”

The film focuses on three families affected by the shooting rampage and avoids any mention of the killer’s name.

“I tried to be true and honest to the idea that you can’t put this into a neat little package and tie it up. You just have to be present, sit in silence and let the camera roll, and not cut,” director Snyder said. “We have all had to learn to do that with people we love who are in grief and pain.”

Snyder said she wanted to portray “the emotional power that’s left in the wake of this kind of gun violence. I did want to make an advocacy film, but I was more compelled to look at a story of collective grief and trauma.”

Degutis, who led the Injury Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the Newtown massacre occurred, said: “There are multiple sides to this issue. First, we have to acknowledge we’re not going to eliminate guns. It’s just not going to happen. But we can talk about things we can do, given that there are guns: responsible gun ownership and responsible gun owners. It’s a small proportion of them we have problems with.”

About 33,000 people a year are killed by guns, she said, and most of those are suicides. “Most people don’t realize the risk of keeping a gun at home when somebody might be depressed. A teenager might be prone to a more impulsive act after getting in a fight or receiving a bad grade. You worry about what might happen in that home.”

Degutis added: “Since there are a lot of people from different congregations here, we need to pray that Congress will have the courage to do something. People still feel bullied by the gun lobby and the NRA. As with anything else, we have to stand up to the bullies and say, ‘We’re not going to let you prevent us from keeping our children safe.’ ”

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