FORT LAUDERDALE SHOOTING RAISES QUESTIONS OF MORAL RESPONSIBILITY, SIN, AND THE RATIONALITY OF EVIL
By now the major contours of the crime that took place in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday afternoon are well-known. It comes down to this: a man got on a plane in Alaska flying from Alaska to Minnesota. In Minnesota he changed planes and flew from that state to Fort Lauderdale. Once he landed in Fort Lauderdale, he got the gun that he had checked in his baggage, went into a bathroom in the airport and loaded the gun, and then he came out of the bathroom, walking among fellow passengers until he eventually decided to fire the gun. Then he let loose 10 to 15 rounds of his weapon, killing five people in cold blood and wounding another six. That much is well-known. What we also know is that there is no reasonable explanation at this point for this crime, and that raises a host of issues from the Christian worldview.
Much of this is raised in an article that appeared yesterday on the front page of the Sun Sentinel, the local Fort Lauderdale paper. Megan O’Matz, Deborah Ramirez, and Paula McMahon report this:
“Authorities in Anchorage confiscated a gun from the accused Fort Lauderdale airport shooter after he came to an FBI office in November acting bizarrely and speaking of ‘terroristic thoughts.’ But police gave the weapon back to him less than one month ago, authorities in Alaska said Saturday.
“Emerging details raise ever-more troubling questions about why Esteban Santiago was allowed to have and keep a gun, then check it on a flight.
“Red flags were many in the months leading up to Friday’s massacre and even on the day Esteban boarded a plane to begin his journey to Fort Lauderdale. He bought a one-way ticket. Though traveling from the wintry northwest to balmy South Florida, he stowed no luggage, checking only one item: a hard case containing a gun.
“No gate agent or security official stood in his way.
“Just two months earlier, he had told authorities he was delusional.”
The police chief of Anchorage explained,
“Mr. Santiago had arrived at the FBI building asking for help. Santiago was having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS [that is the Islamic State].”
“Yet, Santiago was not on a government list of people prohibited from flying, set up after 9-11.”
When news of this kind of massacre, this kind of crime, begins to capture the public imagination, the first thing we naturally want to know are the facts. We want to know what happened. And on Friday afternoon, news media internationally were scrambling to explain just that. And in this story, the facts became rather clear rather quickly.
But the second question we have is not just the question about the facts, it is the question about the rationale. Why did this happen? This was an action undertaken by a human being. Why did that human being, in this case Esteban Santiago, take this action? Why did he make the plans to do what he did? Almost immediately the public imagination goes to some really big questions. Is the explanation for this kind of murderous behavior somehow linked to a mental illness? Is this a form of irrationality? Is this some kind of psychotic behavior? What underlies this kind of murderous impulse, much less someone actually carrying it out?
In terms of the Christian worldview, the huge questions that confront us are questions that come down to this: what is the very nature of evil, or to use the even more Biblical term, sin? Where does it come from?
Moral evil, it is explained in Scripture, is a matter of our human responsibility. We come to understand that we also want to rationalize that behavior; we want to rationalize human moral evil. Somehow evil becomes easier for us to understand, or perhaps at least easier for us to cope with, if we can somehow come up with a rational, a reasonable explanation for why someone would do something, even something this horrifying. The Christian worldview then warns us that even though it’s not exactly wrong to say in one sense that evil is irrational, that is hardly a sufficient explanation. Consider the limitations. By calling sin merely irrational, we act as if the main problem is just rationality, that somehow just bringing increased reason or rational ability to the equation might somehow reduce the evil. But the Bible and the Biblical worldview simply do not allow us that means of escape from human moral responsibility.
The Bible does clearly recognize an irrationality to sin. By its very nature, sin is an act that should run directly contrary to the very image in which we are made, the image of God. It is a denial of what we should see in our right minds, we might say, as our proper obedience to God. What took place in the Garden of Eden, therefore, in the first sin by Adam and Eve was an act that was irrational in that sense, but it was an act for which they were absolutely responsible and, as we understand, there was a rationality to that sin.
The situation in Friday’s awful scene from Fort Lauderdale is made even more complex as was explained in another article yesterday in the Sun Sentinel, this one by Paula McMahon. She writes,
“Airport shooting suspect Esteban Santiago told investigators he planned the carnage and purchased a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale to carry it out.
“But it is still unclear why he came to South Florida to do it.
“Federal prosecutors filed court documents Saturday detailing airport violence, gun and murder allegations against Santiago.”
The explanation made by FBI agent Michael Ferlazzo is this,
“Santiago fired approximately 10 to 15 rounds of ammunition from his firearm, aiming at his victims’ heads. He was described as walking while shooting in a methodical manner.”
Now as we know, five people died, another six were wounded, but the big question that many people are now asking is, why Fort Lauderdale? To understand why that question is so urgent, just consider the fact that this man began his trip in Alaska. He traveled from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale. He could have conceivably gone anywhere. Many places were a lot closer, Fort Lauderdale appears to have no particular rational explanation at this point.
Step back for a moment and consider the predicament of law enforcement officials, especially those with the FBI in Anchorage. We are now told that this man went to them and as he went to them along with other law enforcement agencies, he made very clear that he was troubled by what he thought were delusional thoughts in which someone was trying to control his mind.
Now you had a man who was also understood by law enforcement officials to be at least some kind of threat, because his gun was taken away from him to be returned to him shortly before he made the murderous trip to Fort Lauderdale. Now the rationality equation begins to get really complex. How rational was it for law enforcement officials in Alaska to give this man his gun back after he’d reported these kinds of dangerous and delusional thoughts? How rational was it for the FBI to have a man walk into their office and announce his troubled state, only to have them decide he wasn’t that much of a threat after all? How rational is it for us to demand an answer to why Fort Lauderdale? All of these questions are extremely complex. Naturally, they come to every single one of us. But the rationality of evil is a monumental question, and we have to recognize that in the end we will never be able to have an adequate, rational explanation for why Esteban Santiago carried out this crime.
Even if some link to Fort Lauderdale is found, it will not explain in any sense that can even intellectually justify why he would plot, much less carry out, this crime. And before we leave the question about the rationality of evil and the evildoer, just keep in mind all the reasoned acts that this man had to carry out quite successfully before he would even have the opportunity to perform the crime that so murderously unfolded in the baggage claim section of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He had to devise the plan; he had to make preparations in terms of his equipment; he had to buy a ticket; he had to successfully navigate the airline system in order to arrive in Fort Lauderdale. This was a series of rational acts. This was very clearly a premeditated crime of some complexity.
You’ll also note that even as questions of the rationality of evil and the evildoer have emerged almost immediately, virtually no one has claimed, at least publicly, that this man is anything less than morally responsible for his actions. Sin and its very essence is irrational in that it should be irrational to do anything that would break the law of God and would rob Him of his glory. But the human creature in our sinful state, well, it’s abundantly clear that we are rational sinners.
Just consider something of an even more horrifying scale, such as the Holocaust by Nazi Germany. Understand the scale of the rationality of the series of rational acts they took in order to carry out the horrifying murder of over 6 million people. And then consider how irrational it is to ask the question, could this be rationally explained in terms of its moral nature? It can’t be. But then consider sin in an altogether more familiar context. Let’s consider a six-year-old child who disobeys his parents. Was that a rational act? Well, in terms of its sinfulness, in its very essence, it wasn’t rational, but it was undertaken by a rational creature who has to be held morally responsible. The genuine scale of human evil and depravity does stagger the imagination. But it cannot lessen to any degree the moral responsibility.
ARE WE NOW AT THE POINT WHERE ABORTION HAS BECOME ORDINARY TO THE AMERICAN CONSCIENCE?
Next, shifting to the issue of abortion and the sanctity of human life, just before the end of the year the New York Times ran a headline like this,
“Abortion Is Found to Have Few Psychological Effects.”
The headline itself is contentious, but we need to understand the history of the controversy behind it. For the last 40 or more years as America has been embroiled in the great controversy over abortion, pro-life activists have continually claimed that abortion brings about stress and other forms of psychological harm to the women who undergo an abortion. Those who are pro-abortion, on the other hand, and stalwartly defend abortion rights, as they characterize them, have argued that abortion causes no real psychological harm to the woman. The New York Times, avowedly pro-abortion, trumpets this particular new research with this headline saying that abortion really doesn’t have that many psychological effects. Pam Belluck is the reporter, she writes,
“It’s an idea that has long been used as an argument against abortion — that terminating a pregnancy causes women to experience emotional and psychological trauma.”“Some states require women seeking abortions to be counseled that they might develop mental health problems. Now a new study, considered to be the most rigorous to look at the question in the United States, undermines that claim. Researchers followed nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions nationwide for five years and found that those who had the procedure did not experience more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or dissatisfaction with life than those who were denied it.”
“The findings come as the abortion debate intensifies in the United States, with President-elect Donald J. Trump promising to nominate an abortion opponent to the Supreme Court after taking office next month. The question of the effect of the procedure [that is abortion rights] on women’s health, both physical and mental, has been an effective argument in recent years, used by states to enact a number of regulations and restrictions, and is likely to be a continuing part of the debate.”
So what does this tell us so far? It tells us that in the aftermath of this kind of release of a major report—in this case it was released in the Journal Psychiatry by the Journal of the American Medical Association—the argument made by pro-abortion forces is that this is exactly what they wanted to hear, that abortion doesn’t come with any long-term psychological effects on a woman, at least as those effects might be defined and measured by the psychological establishment. Pro-life advocates, on the other hand, are deeply troubled by this kind of report simply because it flies in the very face of the reality of abortion.
But I want to raise a different question, a question that actually comes to mind later in this article in a statement that is made by Katie Watson, she’s identified as a bioethicist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Though not personally involved in the research, she explained it to the New York Times saying,
“What this study tells us about is resilience and people making the best of their circumstances and moving on,” she said. “What’s sort of a revelation is the ordinariness of it.”
To me, arguments about the merits or demerits of this particular research set aside for a moment, the really troubling question is one that is raised perhaps inadvertently by this bioethicist. Has abortion now in terms of our conscience or our consciousness now become simply ordinary? Is this something that no longer is understood even to be a matter of major moral consequence? I fear that this might be the result of the numbing of the American conscience over a period of decades in terms of the abortion question. The abortion question really arose in terms of widespread American concern only after the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Since then, decade by decade, we have fought a great battle in this country, a pitched moral battle over the sanctity of human life, over the question of the actual ontological status, that is the actual being status of the inhabitant of the womb. Is it just some mixture of cells, or is it a human being made in the image of God?
I think perhaps the most troubling question is whether or not this bioethicist is right. If so, it might go a long way in explaining why so many women apparently do not have deep psychological trauma in the aftermath of even caring about the intentional killing of the unborn life within them. It would make moral sense, profound moral sense that this would be deeply troubling psychologically. What might it tell us if it’s actually not, or at least in the case of many women, apparently is not?
Christians simply have to remember that the argument over whether or not abortion is psychologically traumatic to the woman who has the abortion is nowhere near a significant of a question as the question of the morality of the abortion itself, the question of the sanctity of the unborn life within the womb. That is the major question.
LENA DUNHAM AND THE RISE OF EXPRESSIVE ABORTION: “I WISH I HAVE HAD AN ABORTION”
Next, this raises another issue related to abortion, this time due to a remark by a celebrity just before Christmas. As Alexandra DeSanctis reports for National Review,
“In case there wasn’t already enough proof that abortion is the sacrament of the Left, actress Lena Dunham has offered the latest grotesque example. During the most recent episode of her podcast ‘Women of the Hour,’ Dunham said she wishes she had procured an abortion so that she could more fully advocate ‘abortion rights.’”
Dunham claims that she was raised by her mother to be pro-abortion, in her words, pro-choice.
“From an early age, she taught my younger sibling and me to say ‘anti-choice’ instead of ‘pro-life’ because she wanted to make sure that we knew that everyone is pro-life. Some people are anti-choice.”
Now just take that at face value. Assuming that it actually happened, what does that tell us about this mother’s worldview and the worldview that she inflicted upon her own daughters? In the transcript of her podcast, Lena Dunham says,
“One day, when I was visiting a Planned Parenthood in Texas a few years ago, a young girl walked up to me and asked me if I’d like to be a part of her project in which women share their stories of abortions. I sort of jumped. ‘I haven’t had an abortion,’ I told her. I wanted to make it really clear to her that as much as I was going out and fighting for other women’s options, I myself had never had an abortion. And I realized then that even I was carrying within myself stigma around this issue. Even I, the woman who cares as much as anybody about a woman’s right to choose, felt it was important that people know I was unblemished in this department.”
She concluded in the podcast,
“Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.”
Here we have a young celebrity who is known for grabbing headlines wherever she can, but now she’s gathered a headline for saying that she wishes she had an abortion. And what makes this story particularly troubling is the clear understanding that she is honest when she says this.
Back during the 1950s and 60s, when there arose concern about a consumerist society, some economists and sociologists began to warn that people were buying things—they meant consumer objects—because they wanted to express themselves. These became known as expressive purchases. Similarly, at some point this was transferred to marriage, explaining why people marry or marry the person whom they married. The argument was that we now have reached the point of expressive marriage: not only am I the kind of person who buys this kind of item, but I’m the kind of person who marries this kind of person. During the 1990s, some observers of what was taking place in the breakdown of the marital culture and the rise of no-fault divorce suggested that some Americans were practicing what was called expressive divorce. They were divorcing and then claiming that it was a moral good because this divorce allowed them to finally describe or to express themselves. But now we have the rise in Lena Dunham of what we can only call expressive abortion. Only she really hasn’t had an abortion, she just wishes that she had, because she wants to be the kind of person who would express herself as being the kind of person who would have an abortion. She feels, if anything, very clearly morally left out because she doesn’t have the credibility in terms of her pro-abortion arguments that she might have if she had actually had an abortion. And then in this podcast she also reflects the fact that she is embarrassed, because she of all people claiming all of her pro-abortion bona fides, actually felt the moral instinct to try to tell this girl who was undertaking a film project that she herself had not had an abortion. She wouldn’t be embarrassed by having an abortion; she’s clearly embarrassed that she hasn’t had an abortion.
It should be of interest to us that in the aftermath of making this appalling statement, Lena Dunham found herself under fire from both the right and the left, from both pro-life activists and from those who had had an abortion and didn’t consider it an insignificant matter. Dunham then sought to offer an apology of sorts for her statement saying,
“My latest podcast episode was meant to tell a multifaceted story about reproductive choice in America, to explain the many reasons women do or don’t choose to have children and what bodily autonomy really means. I truly hope a distasteful joke on my part won’t diminish the amazing work of all the women who participated.”
But that apology not only rings hollow, it rings absolutely false, because listening to the podcast it’s very clear it wasn’t meant as a joke. But at the end of this statement, it becomes very apparent that what Lena Dunham wants us all to know, wants everyone to know, is that she is for, very much for, unconditionally for, abortion. Indeed she considers abortion to be evidently the most important issue in terms of the planet. She says,
“I take reproductive choice in America more seriously than I take literally anything else, and therefore own full responsibility for any words I speak that don’t convey this truth clearly. I know plenty of people will never like a thing that leaves my lips, mea culpa’s or no, but this apology is for the women who have placed their trust in me, you mean everything to me.”
I will simply let her own words speak for themselves. When she says that she takes reproductive choice in America “more seriously than I take literally anything else.”
That statement, crystal-clear and troubling as it is, underlines the fact that for many in America today, abortion has become the only central doctrine they actually believe, the one issue more important than anything else: the unconditional right to kill an unborn baby.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
(This podcast is by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Discovered by e2 media network and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not e2 media network, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)