What the CO shooting “says about us”

Jack Shafer with a thoughtful piece:

. . . attempts at pattern recognition are as inevitable as they are necessary. Philosophers may be capable of throwing the null set at a suburban bloodbath. For the rest of us, attempts at finding causation – however tenuous – helps settle the mind. The shooter did it because he was crazy, we say. He did it because he was evil. He did it because we (or somebody else) made him that way. He did it because guns make it possible. Any explanation that will help us cope will do.

As a Michigander who grew up reading grisly accounts about the 1927 Bath Consolidated School mass murder, I find little solace in today’s discussion. In that small-town slaughter, a disgruntled school board treasurer named Andrew Kehoe (pdf) detonated the explosives he had secretly planted in the basement of the school, killing 38 children and four adults. Kehoe’s other targets: his wife, whom he bludgeoned to death at his farm before he torched the place and blew it sky-high; and the school superintendent, whom he pulped in a suicide car-bombing. The little town buried its dead over the course of several days, and the story gained national notoriety.

You can’t blame Kehoe’s spree on the mass availability of guns. He relied on another killing agent. You can’t blame Batman, Hollywood or midnight screenings, either. I’m sure Kehoe was crazy – according to historical sources, he was angry at authorities about the property taxes levied to support the school, taxes to which he attributed his financial troubles. The impulse to kill irrationally, and to use whatever means accessible to do so, resides deep in the American grain, perhaps integral to being human. That doesn’t mean our situation is hopeless. As Noel Perrin wrote in Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, cultures can change their violent ways, but building such a cultural consensus takes more effort and persuasion that just passing new gun-control laws.
The human reflex to find cause, meaning and lessons in the detritus of a massacre – and to impose a solution on the chaos based on those findings – should be trusted only to the extent that it allows us to muddle through the confusion churned up by such a crazed act. As we recover from the initial shock, we revert to our fundamental and irresolvable arguments about freedom and individuality, which aren’t very good at explaining why people shoot or dynamite innocents – or at stopping them from doing so.

As I say, a thoughtful piece worth reading in full. His line about the impulse to kill irrationally, being in the “American grain” or perhaps integral to our humanness is interesting to me. It was only last year that we saw 80 people shot by a gunman in Norway, and we have seen mass killings in Scotland, Russia and elsewhere in Europe.

There is a brokenness in the human soul, and it gives access to evil. And maybe it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • kevin

    The “impulse to kill irrationally resides deep in the american grain”? This is why no one take Reuters or AP seriously as a news source anymore. The impulse to evil resides deep in the human race, not america.

  • Diane S.

    Had not heard the Kehoe story before – shows how fleeting front page stories can be as well as what we choose to remember. In any case, Solzhenitsyn should be required reading in high school.

  • http://opey124.wordpress.com/ Mrs. O

    The difference to me, between Kehoe and this one is that Kehoe was angry over taxes. What is this guys reason? Although in reading through our history, we find similarities, I am left with impression that what is different now is that they are doing because they can not to oppose something. That is disturbing.

  • http://www.stblogustine.com Matt Cassens

    Narcissism, not a lack of gun laws, is the common link in all these shootings. In each of these scenarios the perp thought very highly of himself, as if he were the center of the universe. The increasing secularization of society is the cause of this, IMHO, as people think of themselves as their own God, filling their minds with such self-importance as to have enormous contempt and/or disregard for the value of others. These are common trends in all of the advanced, industrialized societies that have moved toward secularization, pushing the Church out of the main stream.

  • David Davies

    Japan’s ‘Reversion to the Sword’ was not a rejection of violence. It was a rejection of firearms which allowed just any old peasant to kill a highly trained Samurai. The violence of the Sword continued, legally restricted to the Samurai class.

  • jem

    After any event such as these, people begin to search for “the reason”. Why would anyone do such a thing? The mistake we make is trying to come up with a rational explanation for what is basically an irrational act. It is a facet of human nature that we assume that most people think more or less as we do, and it is very hard to accept that there are some out there whose thoughts are so radically different from the norm that we just can’t understand them. Looking for causation in such an event is a futile effort–it is a deviation from the norm that makes no more sense to you or I than shooting John Lennon to impress Jody Foster. I can understand why John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln–it was a stupid and horrible thing to do, but I can understand it. I can even understand the reasons why the terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. At least they had a stated reason–certainly not an excuse for that horrible act, but a goal to be achieved by the crime. I can’t understand why such an event as this happened. Maybe we just feel like when people die it should be for a reason, or have some kind of meaning. It is outside the ability of the average person to comprehend how someone who exists on the ragged edge of sanity can simply decide to end the lives of fellow humans for no rational motive. This incident will be discussed ad nauseum and we will try to figure it out, if for no other goal than to prevent similar happenings in the future. However, I don’t think most of us will ever be able to rationally explain such a thing. Our minds just don’t work that way–and thank God for that.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I don’t mind that guy saying that the impulse to kill is engrained in the human condition, but when he says it “resides deep in the American condition,” then he loses all credibility. The rest of what he says is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.