Why I Get Obama's Response to Newtown

Newtown, Conn., residents cope with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (Mario Tama/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — As the horrors at Sandy Hooks Elementary School continued to unfold, I could feel Barack Obama's agony as his eyes watered and his voice quavered during his presidential statement just hours after last Friday's mass shootings.

I know I saw tears of sorrow. I suspect that I also saw tears of anger and anxiety.

There he stood, the most powerful man on the planet, knowing that he had done nothing that might have prevented the deaths of 20 first-graders and the six adults who tried to protect them; hoping that he might be able to do enough to make sure the horror never happened again.

There are no pat answers as to how, as the president said in his White House statement, "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this."

It will not be easy. There's the politics of the NRA and gun control. There's the American culture of violence glorification. There's the insidious lure of illegal street drugs. And there are the mental-health care issues that we've ignored for a generation.

This I know. Personally. Painfully. And witnessing President Obama's first real steps toward grappling with the nation's challenges of guns, violence and mental health took me back to review what could have been, what was and what is in my own family.


In the late 1970s Dariek Anderson, my kid brother, lured by the recruiting slogan "Be all that you can be," dropped out of Indiana University, on a promise that he could become a photographer in the U.S. Army. Halfway through his tour of duty, while he was guarding a Nike missile silo in Germany, our parents began wondering if something was wrong.

The letters they were receiving from my brother were getting harder and harder to decipher. Suddenly the letters stopped. Then, out of the blue, our parents got a call from Washington, D.C. Dariek had been hospitalized for a year. He had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He also suffered from manic depression. He would be getting a medical discharge. Weeks later my 22-year-old brother was back home in Gary, Ind., living with our mother and father.


When my brother took his meds, he was a bit lethargic but basically his old kind and insightful self again. But after a few weeks or months on the drugs, he'd go off of them, and his conversation would become hard to follow.

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 "The CIA tried to brainwash me," he'd say.

"Why you?" I'd ask.

"They knew I was going to run the world, so they started drugging me."

Our parents had other concerns. When their baby boy wasn't himself, they knew he wasn't safe to be near. They took to hiding the kitchen knives when he was around and sleeping lightly. A few years in, the stress took a toll on our father. He died from a massive heart attack, just six months before he had hoped to retire at age 62.


We all took his sudden death hard. Dariek took it worse, increasingly mixing the drugs he could buy at liquor stores or on the streets with the prescribed ones he bought at the pharmacy.

The voices got worse. The trips to the Veterans Administration office became more frequent. One day he told me he'd had a bad night. The voices were talking to him through his stereo speakers, telling him to go to the mother of his children — a second-generation welfare dependent with few good habits — and blow her brains out. He pulled out the .357 Magnum he'd bought from a pawnshop not long before.


"I need to borrow the gun," I said, using my most authoritative big-brother voice.

"Why?" he asked.

"There's a rapist running around in Lincoln Park," I told him. My wife, Joyce, needed it to protect herself.


That made sense to him, so Dariek handed the canon-sized revolver over to me. He never got it back.

Years later, as my brother lay in a hospital bed in a deep coma, I questioned the wisdom of disarming him. He had been attacked, savagely stomped nearly to death by several teenage boys who lived a couple of blocks away. He never came out of the coma, and after four months, he was gone. He was 39.


At my brother's funeral, my 14-year-old nephew, Dariek Jr., was so angry and distraught that he had to be physically restrained. In black-and-poor Gary, there's a dearth of grievance counselors to help a child cope. Six months later, Dariek Jr. had his own gun. He used it in a robbery, killing the 71-year-old owner of the shop.

He was tried as an adult. He's been locked up for half his young life, hoping to be released from prison three years from now. Dariek Jr. has made the most of the 14 years he has spent in prison. He's done a lot of reading and reflecting. The man he is now would never have made the fatal choices of the child back then.


Back in the late 1960s, H. Rap Brown said, "Violence is as American as apple pie."

On a grotesquely grand scale, the Newtown, Conn., mass shootings underscore that point. Of course, when it happens in an affluent, idyllic small town, it's reported as a national tragedy. When it happens one violent act at a time, day in and day out, from coast to coast, in big cities and, yes, small towns, it's merely a personal one. In more situations than we'd like to admit, it's a tragedy for the families of both the victim and the villain.


As our mourner-in-chief said when he spoke in Newtown to the families of the 20 first-graders and of the adult educators who died trying to protect them, "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies have to end."

Toward that end, the president announced yesterday that he was charging Vice President Joe Biden with leading an administrationwide effort to come up with new recommendations. President Obama also promised to push for their implementation ASAP.


Guns should be one part of the solution. So should better mental-health care and a saner approach to illegal drugs. Those are the obvious ones, and none will come easily. Still, here's hoping they'll find a way.

Cybercolumnist Monroe Anderson is a veteran Chicago journalist who has written signed op-ed-page columns for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and executive-produced and hosted his own local CBS TV show. He was also the editor of Savoy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.


Cybercolumnist Monroe Anderson is a veteran Chicago journalist who has written signed op-ed-page columns for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and executive-produced and hosted his own local CBS TV show. He was also the editor of Savoy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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