Affixing Blame

It’s a fact that we learn more from our failures and tragedies than we do from our victories. 

When something goes right, we usually high-five each other and then sit around the proverbial campfire rehashing our brilliance and everything we did right. What we don’t do is learn anything. We’re too happy with the way things went.

But when something goes wrong; when we lose, when tragedy strikes, we go into paroxysms of self-analysis as we struggle to learn what went wrong and how we can fix it. This impulse to think tragedy through to ideas for avoiding another tragedy in the future is intelligent and useful. It’s the basis for things like painfully reconstructing crashed airliners to try to learn what broke or what happened to bring the bird down. It’s the reason for medical review boards. It’s why police go over and over an officer’s death.

Done this way, the self-analysis that comes after our painful flops and falters is good, productive and wise.

But there is another side. The aftermath of tragedy, the first quick take of emotion, is usually a blur of pain and confusion. Especially with something like the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there is a desire to avoid and blur both the questions and the answers to the omnipresent “Why?” that haunts us. We don’t want to face any part of it. So, we are tempted to go out searching for someone or something else to take the load of responsibility for facing up to what it all means. We want a scapegoat.

In truth, there are potential scapegoats aplenty in the aftermath of a mass murder, especially one so incomprehensible as these mass shootings and bombings by anti-social young men. But we have to be careful how we chose these scapegoats. We don’t want to pick something that would require us to change. We don’t want to point our fingers at ourselves.

No, we are looking for something or someone easy, outside our normal activities and unable to defend themselves. That’s the impetus behind the outrage of much of the pundit class against Mike Huckabee’s hapless comment. While most people are shocked into silence by these horrors, some people talk uncontrollably. They react to their own internal confusion in the face of tragedy beyond comprehension with cravings for a quick fix of faux outrage. If it hadn’t been Mike Huckabee, it would have been someone else. Every time we have a tragedy, the faux outrage crowd latches onto something some person says. They need a quickie scapegoat.

Of course, faux outrage at accidental verbal missteps wears thin after a time. It is about such a nothing and it is so completely devoid of significance that it simply uses up its own oxygen and goes out like a match.

This leaves the rest of us with the question of what slot we can fit these dysfunctional young men with murder in their hearts into. In truth, they are such bizarre little monsters that we find it difficult to identify with them enough to really have a good go at scapegoating them. Where’s the “out” for the rest of us in looking at people who are so emotionally ugly that they are flat and one-dimensional to the point of incomprehensibility?

We tend to exalt our mass murderers in this country. Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, the BTK Killer and Ted Bundy get more television coverage than any legitimate celebrity I know of. We hype serial killers into evil gods in our entertainment, making them not only glamorous, but in many ways better — more talented, intelligent and purposeful — than the rest of us.

But somehow, these one-off killers who go to our schools, our movies, our workplaces and just start killing don’t seem so interesting. Killing little Amish girls, blowing up day care centers and murdering first graders just doesn’t seem so much the effort of an evil god as it does the work of plain, unvarnished evil in all its ugliness and banality. More to the point, when someone goes into a movie theater and shoots people, it could have been us they killed.

Still, we do need our scapegoats. Otherwise, we might have to take an honest look at our whole suicidal society and acknowledge that we have become a people that raises up sociopaths in abundance. We would have to admit that there’s more wrong here than gun laws that are over 200 years old and never produced this mayhem before. We might have to see that our many excesses on numerous levels are so dysfunctional that they’ve turned our homes and our society into monster factories.

This lends an especially frantic quality to the search for scapegoats. We need someone to blame; someone who isn’t us.

Unfortunately for us, these young men often come from backgrounds and situations that we’ve been taught to admire and seek for ourselves. These aren’t ghetto kids. They aren’t minorities. They aren’t poor, uneducated or stupid. They aren’t even physically ugly.

Are we supposed to scapegoat the upper middle class? Are we expected to decry family life in our best neighborhoods, our wealthiest school districts and among our most well-educated and successful citizenry?

This is what we all want to be: Rich, successful, going to the best schools, regarded as brilliant.

No wonder we look at young men who kill and blame the guns they are holding. If we don’t, we’re going to have to take a look at something that not only comes from the abyss, but that defies all our well-oiled aspirations.

Blame is our game and we need something to hook that blame onto. We need an object, an idea, a reason that will answer the why of these killings without confronting us with ourselves. The problem with this approach is that it is the antithesis of the painstaking reconstruction that happens after an airliner crashes. It has nothing to do with the honesty and learning process of medical and police review boards.

Rather than helping us come to a true understanding of what is wrong so that we can begin the process of fixing it, the blame game and its hurry-up urgency to do something simple, makes sure we will never understand. If we can affix blame on inanimate objects and then rush, rush, rush to do something about them, then we will be able to avoid doing the painful self-analysis of a legitimate search for answers.

Until it happens again.

Which it will.

Because we didn’t do anything useful with our blame-game and quick fix.

Here’s a for instance. It is a fact that people with red hair are more likely to get skin cancer. So, in the blame-game way of thinking, we would blame the red hair. Ergo, what we should do to avoid skin cancer is to dye our hair black.

That’s the kind of thinking we are trying to employ in our dealings with these mass murdering young men. Maybe we should take away assault rifles. That may be one of the things we need to do. But if that’s all we do, I can promise you, it won’t stop these mass murderers from mass murdering.

Since I will have to vote on at least some of these issues, those are more than words, much more than a political pose to me. How to save lives and preserve freedom, how to convert a culture that finds offense in the idea that it needs conversion; those are the questions. I don’t believe that the answers lie entirely in political battles and legislation. Neither do I believe that the people of this nation are ready to hear that.

I’m not so sure that a nation of people who are addicted to pointing fingers at other people and who refuse to give even one inch in any of their personal opinions and shibboleths can deal with these murderers among us. I question whether we have the honesty and the will to save ourselves from ourselves.

I do know that these young men did not spring fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. They were made over long periods of time, partly by their heredity, partly by their homes, but mostly by our society. We are teaching them to kill.

Until we face that, we will never “do something” that will end this long nightmare of violence.

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  • Dave

    Thank you, Rebecca. That was brilliant. Have a very blessed Christmas!

  • neenergyobserver

    Yes, I completely agree, we’ll go through the motions of things like assault weapons bans (which haven’t even a working definition beyond a flash hider and a bayonet lug) and then we’ll wonder why it keeps happening. We do need to do a lot of work in the mental health area-we don’t want to (any of us) put people away who can live amongst us, but how do we know.

    The best short term answers are defensive, armed guard, police, or teachers in the schools and an end to pseudo gun free zones, pseudo means there is no control, such as metal detectors. Long term, I don’t know and I don’t think anybody else objectively does either.

  • http:/ D. Justine

    Happy Christmas to You.

  • lewis chamness

    Very astute and powerfully worded. Our responses are always superficial and will continue to be until we address the spiritual emptiness of our culture.

    our spiritual

  • Bill S

    All I know is that this country is in love with guns. The second amendment has long since served it purpose. The NRA is just so powerful that something like this will be the only way to overcome them and even that might not be enough. I imagine that the NRA was crucial in the politicians failing (or better still, refusing) to extend the 1994 assault weapons ban when the sunset provision kicked in in 2004 (why did it even have a sunset provision). As expedient as it seems to be (and that might not be a bad thing), this tragedy will put the gun control advocates over the top in their battle against the right wing gun advocates. It’s too bad that they won’t be able to go to a firing range and pump 20 rounds into a paper target. That should have never been their right in the first place.

  • Jeanne Schmelzer

    I liked that red hair/black hair analogy. But one of the killer’s prior acquaintances said that he had been dabbling with satanic websites. Now some people may not believe in Satan but he is very real and very destructive and is alive and well in the world. We really need God’s protection in our country through prayer. You posted about St. Michael the Archangel. We should take him seriously.

  • Bill S

    So, instead of this being about a mentally disturbed person with an irresponsible mother along with lax gun laws as a perfect storm for a disaster, we are going to blame this on Satan and pray to St. Michael. Great!

  • Nicole

    Bill, I’m sure Jeanne didn’t mean Americans (I don’t live in the USA so I don’t count) should blame everything on the devil. We all agree people have free will. So even if tempted by a devil or bad acquaintance it doesn’t mean a person is going to turn into a sociopath. I’m supposing Jeanne mean it could have been a trigger (his interest in some websites) in his already unstable position. It can be Satan or Nicki Minaj, in some positions you fall for anything. Let’s hope we’ll find solutions for people with unhealthy environment and/or habits.

  • Bill S

    “I’m supposing Jeanne mean it could have been a trigger (his interest in some websites) in his already unstable position.”

    I appologize if that is what she meant. But people like my own wife believe in Spiritual Warfare and see life a an unending struggle between good and evil. I would like to continue to live my life as a cultural Catholic, but I can’t stand all of the superstitous mumbo jumbo.

  • Nicole

    Well, I do feel like it’s more cultural than the belief itself. People can be superstitious and irreligious. Some people believe in supernatural (black cat, 13 etc.) and even in evil forces, but not God. And I don’t think that every bad things which happen in my life are the devil work (that and the fact I consider some situations and suffering as necessary – but it’s another story). Even better, I don’t think the devil have as powerful some people want him to be; « The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked. » (Thomas More). They see him as another god, he’s a joke in comparison to Him. A tempter and a liar, sure, but if we live well, take care of yourselves and our neighbors, don’t lose our temper, he won’t bother us (he couldn’t even if he wanted) – he’s only powerful if you invite him to be. I’ll admit it, when I abuse from coffee, sugar and bad company, I do like to think he’s playing with our minds. But after an healthy lunch and some time I can see that if I balance it all with good thoughts, prayers and good behaviors, I’m regenerated.
    Bill, I know it’s biased but I would greatly suggest you to continue to keep some Catholic behaviors; don’t let yourself do crazy things just because you feel « free from religion ». Just by defiance, people hurt themselves (I know that from friends who are self-destructrive just because « we are young ! » – but they are gifted with kind families so I hope they’ll know better).
    I feel I’m not really supposed to say this because, well, between the two of us you’re the adult. But as someone who used to be indifferent to God before, I can tell you I wish I had been Catholic earlier (and not just in a nominal way). Maybe your wife feel some pressure in her life which make her see things in such a dramatic light right know (thought it’s not a reason to see everything gray; I don’t preach relativism) ? Or maybe I’m a little optimistic (and I’m young so I guess it’s a characteristic and being religious made me more proactive). Oh and Merry Christmas to you and your family :) !

    • Bill S

      Merry Christmas to you as well, Nicole. You are obviously well grounded in your faith and I hate to tell nice people like you what I really believe. In a way, I could say that I was truly saved by faith. I was not living a good life and I turned it around by going to confession and receiving the sacraments. However, after doing more research, I came to the conclusion that there is nothing real about the supernatural. I won’t get into the details, but where I now stand is that I continue to practice the Catholic faith but don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of it. The Church still has meaning to me for it’s role in society but I see things like the devil as mere myths. I can live with believing in the good things that come from faith, but I can also disagree with things like papal infallability, the inerrancy of the Bible, etc.

      • Dave

        Seriously? Have you researched Lanciano, Guadalupe, Fatima, Padre Pio? I don’t have enough faith to believe that there are no miracles.

        • Bill S

          Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and there are explanations for most of these so called miracles. Padre Pio was my great grandmother’s cousin. I’ve read a lot about him by followers and skeptics.

          • Dave

            I guess depends on the eye of the beholder whether there is sufficient evidence for these miracles. It is true that there are alternate explanations for most of them, but in many cases, I find the alternate explanations to be more strained and unlikely than simply admitting that a miracle occurred. Plus, I’ve seen miracles happen myself, so I know that they occur. Not that I expect you to believe on my say-so.

            • Bill S

              Yes. I agree. Some things happen that defy explanation. Christians, and Catholics in particular, use these unexplainable events as proof that what they claim or believe is true. In most cases, there is no connection between an unexplainable occurrence and a certain hypothesis. The scientific method seeks to connect cause and effect to prove a hypothesis and has never been able to attribute any occurrence directly to a supernatural cause. Merry Christmas.

              • Dave

                There is no way for a miracle to be proven to be supernatural. There is always a choice between miraculous and something scientific that has not yet been explained. But often it is the timing of the occurrence that makes the choice of “miracle” more logical, in my assessment.

                Merry Christmas, Bill. I hope you have a good one!

      • Nicole

        Ah it’s fun that your using the word « myth », because we studied the terms and the use of myths in the past, modern and postmodern days in one of my class this year. Contrary to popular beliefs, the term myth isn’t necessary synonym of ” false story “, but the embodiment of values and points of reference. A great example for our days is Steve Jobs: the myth of the visionary and futurist hippie. Steve Jobs is a reference of success for the young wannabe-CEO in technology. Not Steve Jobs the man with a loving father, family problems etc, but « STEVE JOBS: Father of the Digital Revolution, master of innovation and design perfectionist » (say Wikipedia). Mythical stories can be true OR false (Steve Jobs was an android ! ” Steve ” was in fact ” Bernadette ” !), it’s not really important in their impact and what they say about our values and actions (as myths). Think about urban legends: maybe there is no ghost of a crazy-cat-lady in that decrepit house, but you still shouldn’t go in that house decrepit house, that’s the whole point of the myth (true or false, you never know with cat ladies). I’m tempted to enter in a long discussion about it, but it’s a vast subject and I only know the details about some professions. My point is: even if you don’t believe in the devil, we agree in the sinfulness and evilness of his character and shouldn’t follow is example (and that even if the Mythbusters say your car won’t explode when you put coca-cola in your motor, you still shouldn’t do it ! ).

  • Bill S

    Yes. The timing of things can appear to be miraculous. I have sent comments on NCR but they are in moderation.

  • Bill S

    ” Contrary to popular beliefs, the term myth isn’t necessary synonym of ” false story “, but the embodiment of values and points of reference.”

    Nicole: if you are still following this thread, I appreciate your response. In my case, I did mean the kind of myth that is non-factual. Hope you had a good Christmas and that you are enjoying your winter break. Have a Happy New Year.