This morning, as I begin this column, ten people at a community college in Oregon were killed by yet-another loner gunman, seeking some kind of notoriety and/or settling some ill-defined grievance; the ultimate motive is really yours to choose. We will never really know, besides the killer’s confused on-line postings, for he was shot to death by the police, and has now been judged by God. Apparently he asked at least some of his victims whether they were Christian, after which, if they answered in the affirmative, he shot them in the head.
I wonder if God asked him the same question?
Some readers may have heard of another recent mass murder, three women killed in and around the town of Wilno, not far from where I live, by a deranged individual seeking vengeance, a former paramour, apparently, of two of the women. This is an unheard-of event for this rural area, where a big news story is where all the missing town water went to.
I don’t often agree with President Obama, but he is correct that we are getting sort of numb to this. Not as numb, one may presume, as those in places like Nigeria, where another bombing took place; the suicides who strapped, or had strapped, the explosives to themselves were apparently young girls. The perpetrators and victims of Islamic terrorism are rather indiscriminate.
However, I do not agree with the American president that this is primarily about guns. Or, at least, I propose that it is only accidentally so. As the glam-rock band Queen sang a few decades ago, ‘there are plenty of ways that you can hurt a man’, guns just being a rather effective means to inflict harm. The question really is about the root causes of violence, the anger caused by the increasing isolation of the modern individual, especially modern man, and by that, I mean today’s male, who finds himself more and more alienated from who he is meant to be.
A large part of that isolation and alienation stems from what men are meant to do with their passions, with all the roiling energy within them, whence arise these acts of violence. Saint Thomas enumerates eleven passions in the human soul, all deriving from the fundamental passions of ‘love’ and ‘hate’, the proper response to perceived ‘good’ and ‘evil’ respectively. Other emotions, such as desire, hope, daring, and fear help us achieve the good we want, or avoid the evil we do not.
In more normal (and by that, I mean past) civilizations, male passions were channelled into hard work and family life. This turned these otherwise-unruly energies into virtues, which allowed our hardy forebears to clear forests, move rocks, clear the land for farms, dominate the animals, build homes, study, investigate and explore the world, raise children, and, when necessary, fight wars. Religion further helped purify and elevate all these natural endeavours. Passions, especially sexual desire and anger (two dominant and connected passions in man) can be purified, moderated and channelled into good uses, and, to some degree, always have been.
I need not even state that most of this has gone by the wayside. We now have untold millions of angry and sexually unfulfilled young men throughout this planet listless and undirected. Many of them perceive that they have been ‘hard done by’ in the world, by family, by women, by authorities, by whomever. Religion is either gone, or used as a veneer for violence and sexual dominance. The natural energy-releasing outlets are also by and large gone: Farms, factories, guilds, trades, any real sense of purpose or direction.
Thus these modern men channel their passions into vicarious violent video games, pornography, and sports, but these are not really outlets. They are not actually fighting the wars, having sex, or playing the games on the pixilated screens. They are sitting on a couch in their shorts, eating crisps and burgers. But the anger and their desires remain unresolved, undirected…
Thankfully, it is the rare individual whose anger and lust spill over into the violence we have witnessed. Most people just want to lay low and be quiet, especially if they consider the perceived ‘evil’ (the grievance or whatever) impossible to overcome, in which case anger turns into sorrow, listlessness, passive acceptance (which explains, at one level, the basis of ‘depression’ and ultimate mental illness).
But in how many men does the anger continue to simmer in their ruminations? How many nurse their resentments, playing over violent and sexually deviant scenarios in their addled and unformed minds? How many would do what these murderers have done if given the chance, the right set of circumstances, if freed from the thin and fragile constraints of civilization and authority?
Of course, in any society, virtue, and the ‘right way’ of being a man, are still possible to some extent. But this becomes more difficult the less it is supported by the surrounding culture. As George Weigl wrote recently in First Things, there is a crisis of loneliness, self-centeredness, abandonment of family prayer, and a loss of a vibrant cultural life is the crisis that leads to the more obvious signs of social and family breakdown.
Or, as the Holy Father put it in his homily for the opening Mass of the Synod on the Family,
The number of people who feel lonely keeps growing, as does the number of those who are caught up in selfishness, gloominess, destructive violence and slavery to pleasure and money.
The murderers are almost always themselves ‘victims’ (if one wants to call them such) of these cultural phenomena: Divorce, family breakdown, increasing isolation, loneliness, along with perhaps reactionary sense of misplaced righteousness and self-importance.
Some think these murders can be prevented by stricter gun control laws. There is some truth in this; we may see fewer victims. But there are also difficulties. Yes, the government does have a duty to control what weapons can be held by the public, at least to some extent. We don’t want people with personal nuclear bombs, and I am not sure why someone would need a fully automatic assault rifle. Unless of course, he is expecting a civil war or societal collapse, but that is another story, with another whole set of problems.
But, in the meantime, a strict gun control policy, in the United States at least, would be perceived as punishing the 99.999% of innocent, law-abiding gun owners, who claim to have the constitutional right to bear arms (but there is dispute about the nature of this amendment), to hunt and defend themselves.
Even if the government went ahead with a stricter gun-control policy, what to do with the weapons already in the hands of the people? There are already far more guns in the U.S. than people (but it is nearly impossible to count them all, and there may be far more than statistics say), so that genie is pretty much out of the bottle. It would be a hard and bloody struggle to disarm the entire population, or a good majority of it, and would probably lead to more deaths than many years of the still-rather-rare mass murders.
But the main difficulty is that gun control does not get at the root of the problem, the unrootedness of the modern male who has no idea how to be a ‘man’. They remain immature boys in fully grown male bodies. I find it curious that these murderers choose victims who cannot fight back, unarmed women, defenceless students in class, even children. It is as though, unable or unwilling to face the real, and difficult, evil within them, to mature and overcome their own deficiencies, they lash out at false, and easy, ‘evils’ outside, thinking, this will make things better, this will make me who I am…
Of course, it does not, but only exponentially compounds the evil, which, I think, is why many mass murderers commit suicide, or bring about their own death in some way. The myriad of police officers showing up in their army gear is, alas, too often too little, too late. All they find are dead bodies, the murderer amongst them…
Perhaps, the violence could be prevented a long time before if someone had confronted them earlier as they drifted towards such demonic delusion. But that, ultimately, is the duty of their parents, their fathers, and those who stand in their place, teachers, employers, and even friends, who will bring them to task, even forcibly. Alas, that whole system, that whole culture, has just about irrevocably broken down. Fathers abandon their families, mothers are at work, divorce is rife, many children are raised alone, or by strangers.
Even outside the family, we stay away from each other, especially those most troubled. Many, perhaps most, of us seem to be on our own, and society cannot operate on the basis of loners. We need community, and all that entails.
I just read an article about the future automation of many manual labour jobs, already far in progress. How will society absorb millions of young men sitting around all day with nothing to do? Do you think they will be content sipping coffee in cafes, playing foosball, practising the cello? (I will write more on this).
What we should do, as I will never tire of repeating in these columns, is strive to rebuild culture, so that men do have a chance to ‘be men’, to find their place in society, to be called to account for misbehaviour before it becomes violent, to treat women with respect, to strive for virtue, qua vir, as a man, to found families, and take responsibility for their life and their actions.
Otherwise, our society will descend further into chaos, into the individualistic dog-eat-dog, nature red-in-tooth-and-claw insanity that we have recently witnessed, and, sadly will likely witness again all too soon…
In the meantime, may God grand eternal rest to the souls of the victims, and repentance to those who so tragically took their lives.