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December 17, 2012

MAUREEN HAYDEN: For now, collective grief is most appropriate way to respond to tragedy

INDIANAPOLIS — Last Friday afternoon, in the wake of the unfathomable tragedy that struck the community of Newtown, Conn., Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels directed that flags throughout the state be lowered to half-staff until sunset Tuesday.

I live near the Indiana Statehouse, in a small apartment with a clear view of the building. As I watched the flag that sits atop the Statehouse lowered that afternoon, I felt a convulsion of grief.  

It must have felt that way for so many Americans.

The flag on our state capitol was lowered in accordance with a directive from President Barack Obama. As a sign of respect for the 20 schoolchildren and seven adults who were, as the president’s proclamation stated, “victims of the senseless acts of violence” of a gunman, the flags on public buildings and grounds across the land came down, down, down before finally resting at half-staff.

So, too — in a collective act of grief — came down the flags at all U.S. embassies, consulates, military bases, naval stations and other American government facilities around the world.  

The tradition of the half-staff flag is rich and deep, dating back centuries. There are procedures and protocols for how and when it should be done — hoisting it to the peak before lowering it; leaving it lowered for 30 days on the death of a president, for example — but mostly it’s about symbolism: It is a sign of national mourning.

Collective grief seems the right thing now. Before the rush to judgment about gun laws, before the calls to arm every schoolteacher or disarm every American, before the inevitably ugly political debates that will soon ensue, we need to feel the grief.

I suspect like so many Americans, I spent most of my weekend parceling out time for the news, dipping in for minutes at a time before turning away from the television, putting away the newspaper and turning off my computer.

We needn’t turn away from it for long. The real tragedy of Newtown would be to ignore the hard things we need to talk about, both in our homes and in our Statehouse. Among them: our easy access to guns, our culture of violence, our ignorance of mental illness that leads to such lethal craziness.

I don’t how know the conversation should be shaped, but here are two things that seem right to include:

First, we pride ourselves in Indiana on our fiscal conservatism, but the dollars we spend on mental health services are well below the national average. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Indiana’s per capita spending on mental health services is about $80; the national average in $120.

Second, here’s another statistic: Gun deaths in Indiana outpace motor vehicle deaths. We’re one of 10 states where that’s occurred in recent years. One major reason, of course, is how intentional we’ve been as a state and nation to bring down the number of traffic-related deaths. We’ve supported a range of fatality-prevention initiatives, such as mandatory seatbelt use, better highway design and intolerance for drunk driving. In short, we treated traffic deaths like a major public health problem.

Shouldn’t we be treating gun deaths the same way?

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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