“People speak sometimes about the ‘bestial’ cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts. No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky
Carnage and horror disrupted the lives of Americans on the first weekend of August as lone gunmen committed senseless acts of mass murder in public spaces, first in El Paso, and then in Dayton, Ohio.
Sadly, we’ve been through this many times before; the mass shooting haunts the postmodern psyche.
For many commentators, this carnage is primarily due to the toxicity of our politics. David Leonhardt of The New York Times has declared that “conservatism has a violence problem,” thus striking a characteristic pose for an urban progressive journalist. It would be more accurate to say that humanity has a violence problem, traceable back to Cain in the book of Genesis.
It is true that the young man from Allen who drove hundreds of miles west to El Paso to kill a couple of dozen people he did not know was angered by what he called the “invasion” of illegal immigrants. But he also appears to be a self-described “eco-fascist” who seems to have borrowed the title of his manifesto, “The Inconvenient Truth,” from former Vice President Al Gore. Meanwhile, the Dayton killer, whose victims included his own sister, was a self-described leftist and devil-worshiper whose high-school classmates claimed was suspended for compiling both a “hit list” of those he desired to kill, and also a “rape list.” He also belonged to a “pornogrind” band.
What both of these young men appear to have in common was an extreme isolation and a preference to live inside “social media” as opposed to interacting with the real world of human beings. Many other mass shooters have had similar traits, not the least of which is family dysfunction.
In response to these tragedies, numerous politicians and other Americans will, like a broken record player, once again tout more political solutions, but I fear we are seeking answers in all the wrong places. The deeper problem is the autonomous individualism-on-steroids that appears to be the reigning philosophy of 21st-century America. This was powerfully enunciated in the notorious “mystery passage” of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision (1992), which I have quoted before but will quote again: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is extreme subjectivism, which denies the reality of truth and morality shared in common.
Today we will occasionally hear well-meaning voices decry the division in our land and plead that both sides of the political aisle come together to pass legislation we can all agree on. Much as I would like to agree, if we all start from a point of view of “I have my truth and you have yours,” real progress seems doubtful. Perhaps the El Paso and Dayton killers felt they were merely exercising their “right to define one’s own concept of existence,” et cetera. The all-encompassing ideology of our age devalues human life, and these young men exemplified the lack of respect for it in spades.
What can be done? A deep nihilism infects our society at every level. Ultimately, our only way forward lies in repentance and in saying “no” to the spiritual cyanide that has corroded the common good as well as the individual soul. Over the past several decades, we have, overall, gradually lost the sense of a deep obligation to God, to our families and our neighbors. We must regain that sense of duty. The timeless biblical admonition to die to self and to take up one’s cross has never seemed more urgent than it does in this troubled, sensate age. May we heed the call.