Scapegoating in the Aftermath of Newtown

Another school shooting—this one particularly unthinkable because it involved the slaughter of six and seven year-old children.

Mixed with the mourning, Americans began looking for something or someone to blame in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy. This is what happens after tragedies: we look for a scapegoat. Right now, we seem to have two competing scapegoats being batted about: guns and mental health services. It appears now that guns are going to be the favored target of reformers.

According to Stanford literary critic René Girard, the scapegoating we see in the news testifies to a deep-seated tendency of human nature. Girard reads history as a series of ongoing cycles of violence. Human beings are competing for the same goods in life, and this competition leads to increasing tensions and violence. But this increase cannot go on forever, otherwise society would collapse. Therefore, Girard claims that society feels a need to periodically “release” these tensions through projecting them onto something else.  

Girard calls this “something else” a “scapegoat”—a term that refers to the goat on which the ancient Israelites symbolically placed their sins once a year (on the Day of Atonement, or, Yom Kippur). This goat would then be sacrificed through being led out into the desert to die.  

Unlike the Israelites, however, Girard clarifies that societies are not under the impression that their symbolic scapegoat is innocent. Instead, they consider it in some way responsible for the violence.  Thus we hear, “If assault weapons were illegal, or, if Adam Lanza had received more adequate psychological help, then those children at Sandy Hook would be alive today.” Many (perhaps unconsciously) see this tragedy as an opportunity to release this country’s tensions and divisions, which were on display in the recent election. Banning assault weapons and/or beefing up mental health services will be seen as a way to unite previously disparate groups.  

By pointing out this societal pattern of scapegoating, I do not mean to dismiss the idea of more extensive gun control and mental health services. But we should beware of proceeding hastily and unwisely in our desire to “release” the tensions that culminated in the latest tragedy of the Newtown shooting.

Scapegoating is easy, but it only perpetuates the cycle of violence by attacking certain groups. Patient thought about the root causes of this violence is more difficult, but it might prevent enactment of potentially unjust policy.