Following the terrible tragedy of a few days ago in Connecticut, so many are asking why. They are searching for some semblance of reason, a motive perhaps. We long to understand that which is so patently senseless. We desire an explanation in the hope that we might avert a recurring scenario that could personally involve us or a loved one.
The classic motive for homicide used to involve easily understood emotions like jealousy, envy, or uncontrolled rage. There were circumstances that connected victim with perpetrator. A marriage. A love triangle. A business venture steeped in greed and excess. They were the kinds of crimes that served as entertaining fodder for mystery and romance novels or motion pictures. Back then, the search for a motive was akin to finding a reason for the act of taking the life of another. It might not excuse the crime, but it helped those charged with determining the fate of the killer to come to a rational conviction or acquittal.
Like so many other social institutions, the face of homicide as we’ve known it has changed, perhaps permanently. The mass shootings that abound our malls, movie theaters, and schools are utterly irrational, disconnected, and cold, not unlike the lifestyles of large segments of people who we mingle with on a day to day basis. We may fail to notice that the tone and themes of our social culture at any given point in time have far reaching effects and touch every aspect of our existence. Like our present notion of sports or entertainment, even the way murder is committed has evolved into an inexplicable and incomprehensible extreme act.
Once upon a time, we were a nation of morals and etiquette. We valued behavior that was appropriate for the circumstances at hand. We even dressed accordingly. There was a moral code that defined decency and civility among us. A gentlemen treated a lady with deference and respect. Now, such gender-specific designations seem archaic and antiquated due in large part to the triumphs of feminism. Many women are reactive when a man merely opens a door to permit her to enter ahead of him. We now teach our children that gender doesn’t matter under any circumstances, from career choices to marriage and sexuality. We are taught to accept all deviations from the norm and not to judge them.
There was a time when we wore specific clothes depending on the formality of the occasion. Not so much anymore. It’s anything goes. Come as you are. Keep it casual. Why bother and run the risk of feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable even for a matter of a few hours. It’s acceptable to be lazy with our appearance. Individualism is encouraged. Pierce and tattoo yourself to your heart’s content. Wield wildly brazen hair colors and outrageous styles. The goal was shock and awe. The result? Boredom and indifference. Nowadays, even the young female clerk at the chain grocery store has limbs covered in ink to accompany the ring in her nose and stud in her tongue. No big deal.
Instead of focusing on our common ground in order to foster genuine integration, we continue to pigeonhole and separate more and more alleged minorities, affording them special protection and unique names. Today, you might be an unemployed, African-American, lesbian single mother instead of just a mother of a child living in America in need of work. We used to be a melting pot of cultures, but we’ve become a seething stew of incongruous ingredients that rarely meld together into a delectable serving of unity and cooperation.
At this time of year, we used to see public displays of the real reason for this blessed season. Nativities and likenesses of baby Jesus were easy to find in malls and even public schools. During the rest of the year, student children were free to talk about God and pray. No one seemed to object to “one nation under God” or “in God we trust.” Nowadays, just the right number of people are offended to justify legislated utter silence or minimization of Our Lord and Creator in public places.
Marriage and family have been under attack for decades, seen as yet another vestige of weary values and irrelevant institutions. My generation pioneered the open declaration of shacking up making it easy to swallow with the concurrent dismissal of traditional religion and morals. “Question authority” was our supposedly peaceful battle cry. It could have been “question everything” because we did. We thought we were non-conformists, but we unwittingly conformed along with our peers and were as easy to spot as a card-carrying member of the establishment.
We questioned drug laws. We questioned the relevance of our government. We questioned any rule that we thought unduly regulated or restricted our freedom to be ourselves. It was the beginning of a new culture that focused on me instead of we. Paradoxically, it initially expressed great disdain for material possessions or wealth in favor of living a simple life steeped in nature and relative spiritual beliefs. It was the beginning of the undoing of the social contract.
Somewhere along the way, the very economic system that was being castigated for its greed succeeded in luring us young social rebels into the fold by creating a ferocious appetite for the accumulation of high tech gadgets, designer clothing, and seductive cars. Dual income families became the norm. Living the high life in the right neighborhood and enrolling our kids in the right school dominated our lives. How much one had amassed became more important than cultivating meaningful relationships.
A few years before his death, Pope John Paul II aptly noted that we live in a culture of death, a way of life that justifies abortion, euthanasia, and violence. Our society has a seemingly unquenchable thirst for cinematic reproductions of bloody murders. Even some among us who oppose abortion still support the death penalty. We too condone the taking of people’s lives, ostensibly to teach them not to take the lives of others, a social paradox of a most irrational nature. Like a parent trying to teach a child not to hit other children, the parent thinks nothing of striking the child to teach them a lesson.
Horrific massacres like those of the past few years get the media’s attention. They are sensationalized and televised not just into our homes like the days of old but instantly to our personal communication devices like smart phones and electronic notepads. Those events are high profile violence. How much more daily violence goes unnoticed, unacknowledged in the inner cities among blacks or in white suburban homes filled with neglect, selfishness, and physical or sexual abuse?
We’re a nation of addicts with dependence on and devotion to everything from food to pornography. Even shopping has its devotees who find obtaining the latest before others the driving force for their existence. We drink. We take drugs, legal and illegal, so we don’t have to feel our emotions. We have affairs because we’re unsatisfied with our mates when they fail to meet our expectations of who they should be. We skip church to watch Sunday football or to attend our child’s weekly soccer tournament. Then for good measure, we attend violent movies in droves thirsting for extreme acts of carnage, often in the name of eliminating the enemy or a nemesis. We revel as spectators of extreme sports where the safety (and often the very lives) of competitors are exposed to unreasonable risks of grievous injury or even death. Think X-Games and it’s precursors.
Mental and emotional illnesses, especially depression are rampant. The use of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are equally prevalent and are often effective, especially in conjunction with therapy or counseling to treat the underlying causes. Regretfully, a lot of these maladies are left untreated or even undiagnosed. When those circumstances collide with society’s dysfunction, the result is too often incomprehensible carnage.
We are surrounded by the new killing fields. Unlike the sites in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered and buried thousands of citizens seen as enemies to their regime during the late 70’s, these new killing fields have no rhyme or reason. There are no politics involved. Indeed, there is often no connection whatsoever between the death of completely innocent fellow humans and the monsters who slaughter them. The only reason for killing them is because they are alive and the murderer has the ability and desire to end those lives.
I do not speak with much authority on this topic as I have not done exhaustive research to determine the typical profile (if there is such a thing) of the shooters. Judging from the news reports, most of them seem to be males in their early twenties, often they are white with a smattering of ethnicity here and there, and they all have had some history of mental or emotional illness. According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were indeed white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). They are often described by friends and family as brilliant but remote, or quiet and nice. People seem surprised that they were capable of such indifference and horrific violence. Most kill themselves before taking dozens of innocent lives. The Sandy Hook massacre included very young children. another new benchmark of the increasing extremeness of the violence among us
John Lund, a columnist for National Review Online, offers a differing viewpoint. His focus is primarily on mental illness and the perceived need to loosen laws that make it difficult to locate and control mentally ill individuals. He also offers some impressive statistics that indicate that the lion’s share of mass shootings typically occur at locations where weapons are prohibited, leaving the unwitting public as defenseless sitting ducks. Neither he nor the studies he cites offer any opinion or facts concerning the motives of the assailants.
What could possibly move these individuals to act in such an ultra-violent manner? We don’t really want an answer to that question because it might cause us to have to have some stake in changing the paradigm that helped create these killers. We might have to assume responsibility for speaking out in favor of right and wrong and moral behavior. We might have to be willing to reject non-conforming behavior by requiring adherence to respect and standards of decency. Worse yet, we might have to risk loving the unlovable, hugging the un-huggable, or helping the one in dire need who has no one. We might have to move from our comfort zone of apathy and emotional emptiness to one of action by helping the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk.
I am a great fan of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”. During the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, he implores Mr. Scrooge to be mindful of the two emaciated children who appear from behind his robes, describing the boy as Ignorance and girl as Want. The spirit warns Scrooge: “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”, underscoring the book’s social message of injustice and widespread poverty.
Today, our children labor under different circumstances; and instead of wanting for creature comforts, many are spiritually poor, lacking any semblance of formal religious education or instruction. Today’s children endlessly work video games and instruments of technology, distancing themselves from human, real time interaction. Instead of laboring under distressful conditions, they recreate with exhausting intensity. The Doom on the brow of the boy known as Ignorance remains, even though it has taken the form of indifference, unfamiliarity, obliviousness, and unawareness. The Doom on the brow of Ignorance has yet to be erased. It has merely taken a different form. Today’s Doom is born out of false bravado, neglect, selfishness, and a lack of faith.
Just as the Ghost of Christmas Present prophesied the need for action to erase the Doom of that generation, we must do the same if we are to affect any real change in the hearts and minds of our children, especially those wanting for love or emotional support. It’s easier and imminently more convenient to blame these unspeakable massacres on the need for more gun control. Unfettered access to arms has always been the go-to whipping boy to control violence. It has nothing to do with controlling who has guns and who doesn’t. It’s all about love and feeling connected to others and them feeling connected to us. When there is a short in the circuit of love, and even one light fails to illuminate, all the others will eventually burn out from a voltage overload; and there will be darkness. It’s getting darker already.
I challenge you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Visit a shut in. Spend some time helping a local food pantry. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Share your faith and religious knowledge. Be an example of moral decency. Call out unacceptable behavior, and constructively redirect it. Avoid violent movies and television shows. Support wholesome entertainment and family activities. Spend memorable time with your kids and grandchildren. Involve them with your extended family and friends. Join a church group. Sing songs. Play board games. Eat ice cream together. Make time for children; and most of all, have faith and be a living example of the joy of living and giving to others.
There is a story about a man seeking sobriety from alcohol. He began to regularly attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. He immersed himself into its program of recovery by finding a good sponsor. He faithfully read the Big Book and applied the principles of the Twelve Steps to his life. He achieved long-term sobriety but was not happy. He told his sponsor. His sponsor explained that it was not his purpose to be happy. Rather, he told him, your purpose is to help others achieve happiness. Go out and help others find their happiness by being of service. Doing so may not have any immediate or noticeable effects curbing the unspeakable violence of the new killing fields, but it might be a small step in beginning to reverse decades of mounting separation from our fellow humans. Merry Christmas.
Russell Moker is a retired lawyer and amateur political scientist. He resides in Sedona, AZ with his family and is active in various non-profit groups including Catholic Education Arizona, Arizona Special Olympics, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He also sits on the board for St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Cottonwood, AZ.
Photo credit: INABA Tomoaki (Creative Commons)