At lunch today the café was buzzing with talk about the shooting in Newtown, CT. The conversation was muted and sad, and our grief was palpable. The question “Why?” came up over and again.
Gun control was hardly mentioned, and not only because almost everyone in the room was probably armed, but because it seemed beside the point. Maybe you think differently, and I welcome your thoughts, but here I want to share the three answers to the question “Why?” that dominated the conversation.
Mental illness. There was something wrong with the shooter that led him to do this, and if we wish to stop this kind of event we have to improve our capacity to identify and treat mental illness.
American Culture. There is something wrong with our culture that celebrates the use of violence to settle scores real and imaginary. If we want to put an end to this kind of killing we have to delegitimize violence in our society.
Evil. There is something called Evil that drives people to commit such horror. Some people thought this Evil is conscious and deliberative—more like a Devil—and some saw it as an unconscious and haphazard force like a virus. Those who spoke of the former sought help from an equally conscious and deliberate Power for Good, call it Jesus or God. Those who spoke of the latter sought help from a more earthly power, cultivating compassion rather than competition, and community rather than class warfare.All agreed that if we want to put an end to this kind of violence, we will have to admit the existence of this Evil and learn to immunize ourselves against it.
I said very little, suggesting only that if Evil is a virus it may be that it might more easily infect people with certain kinds of mental illness, that a society that celebrates and romanticizes killing may make its citizens more vulnerable to Evil’s infection, and that if Evil is spreading like pandemic in our society, I don’t see a way to immunize ourselves against it, or at least not a way that we Americans could or would accept. We worship violence to the point of imagining gods who sanction it in this life and revel in it in the next life. I fear that we are reaching a tipping point where Evil defines us and nothing defends us.
Just a moment ago Speaker of the House John Boehner ordered that all flags on Capitol Hill be lowered in memory of the victims of Newtown. Well done. But I wonder if they should be lowered for America as well.