Tread gingerly

National dialogue in wake of shooting must be thoughtful, honest

President Obama’s address to the heartbroken hamlet of Newtown, Conn., could scarcely have been more elegant or eloquent. It was a desperately needed salve on an aching, open wound.

In the modern age, the nation’s commander in chief has also become, de facto, the comforter in chief. Mr. Obama stepped into that role Sunday with grace and warmth.

As delicately as he tiptoed around the fresh pain of Friday’s mass shooting of 20 elementary school children and six adults, we hope he is no less discreet and assiduous in guiding the government’s response to the massacre. He will need as steady and calm a hand then as he exhibited on Sunday.

The emotional reflex for many, even as we cry for the children, has been to cry for the guns.

We understand the sentiment. But in truth, even in the grip of staggering grief, we’re hard-pressed to think of any new gun law acceptable to a free nation that would have prevented this tragedy. Indeed, a store in Connecticut, which boasts some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, reportedly denied the young suspect in this case the purchase of a rifle just days before the carnage.

On the contrary, perhaps there are laws surrounding mental illness that can be looked at. Critics note that the nation became so appalled at its inpatient treatment of those with mental illnesses – and so repulsed by the costs – that we may have gone too far in the other direction.

Are there enough community-based services available to parents and other relatives of those with mental illness? Are the laws regarding that treatment, or inpatient treatment, sufficient?

Again, this is a most treacherous area to trod. America has come light years from its past in terms of how it looks at and cares for people with mental illness, and we cannot go back. But we do no one any favor if we are too timid to explore whether we’ve been so cautious with them that we’ve abandoned them.

We talk endlessly today about children with special needs.

We don’t talk so much about to what extent those needs are being met.

A woman with a mentally ill son in Idaho wrote this weekend that, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.”

“I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me,” Liza Long wrote, in a blog that has gone viral and even inspired NBC News to interview her.

After repeated violent episodes with the boy, and a social worker’s lame advice that she needed to get him charged with a crime in order to get him in jail, Long writes that she took him, again, to a mental health facility.

“On the intake form, under the question, ‘What are your expectations for treatment?’ I wrote, ‘I need help.’ And I do. ...

“In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness. ... It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.”

We don’t know how these issues play into the Newtown tragedy. But the suspect appears to have been clearly troubled – as did his predecessors in Tucson, Aurora and elsewhere. And these issues surely must play a central role in the coming national dialogue.

We may need an apolitical commission to delve into all these issues. Political expediency and poorly thought-out reactions to the Newtown massacre won’t do anything to honor the dead or prevent others.

Thoughtful and honest action just might.

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