Yet another massacre of innocents in a public place — it’s become all too common in this country. The shock of it, that staggering horror we all felt back in the Nineties, has proven evanescent. There is now a routine to it: the television networks have their “Tragedy in Omaha” graphics ready within a half hour. A few witnesses are interviewed, the horror retold briefly; the police repeat some platitudes, perhaps a distant accomplice or collaborator is questioned and released; a few psychologists or criminal profilers utter their usual tedium — and then it’s back to coverage of the Iowa caucuses.
What are the chances that there will be a real effort of self-reflection following this latest mass murder/suicide in a public place? As David Kopel wrote (subscription only) on the first anniversary of the Columbine massacre (in a Weekly Standard article that made a vivid impression on me at the time): “the real lesson of Columbine is that very few people care enough about the horrible events of April 20, 1999, to try to prevent their recurrence.”
He continued, “That the year after Columbine has been spent on trivial and irrelevant debates — instead of on serious proposals to save lives — is a sign of the degeneracy of our political culture.”
Kopel’s essay amounts to a searing arraignment of the social state of the country: passive, baffled, mute in the face of the swagger of nihilism: in short, morally paralyzed. Others have built upon these arguments. After the VA Tech massacre last April, a few commentators were so bold as to wonder aloud why so few of the young men present at that holocaust dared to confront the killer. Most choose to flee. Self-interest ruled. Only an aging Israeli professor resisted.
In a private conversation with some friends, someone made a trenchant point. Our paralysis is, as it were, preemptive. We are so baffled by evil that we just don’t think about it; thus, we are invariably stunned into inaction when it appears. But actions in a crisis require mental preparation; a fortiori if the actions must be coordinated to be effective. A single shooter, even armed with an assault rifle, can be quickly overpowered if men band together against him. This is a fact. It is a fact affirmed dramatically by the courageous collective action of the Flight 93 passengers in September 11.
Even going just this far in the discussion is to leave behind the standard narrative of “tragedy” (a word rendered meaningless in our age), victimhood, and bewilderment at the brazenness of evil. Who would dare to argue that, since we are manifestly a society that rears up among us young men whose depravity issues in murder-suicide in schools and malls, we must perforce become a society that trains other men to resist? In short, who among us will argue that wickedness must be resisted, and that our young men must be trained up in a tradition which honors those who will resist? Not so long ago, as James Bowman has documented, this tradition remained in force. The classical Western in film was its exemplar. In recent years the tradition has nearly vanished. What are we to make of this astonishing fact?
What, to speak more uncomfortably, are we to make of the fact of our passivity in the face of evil? What will be the verdict of history, once some objective distance is achieved, on a society that has cultivated an actual tradition of this depravity, and emasculated the tradition of resistance to it?
My first instinct here is to consider this part of the wages of removing the fear of God from the hearts of men. The fear of God issues in a sense of duty. The only Righteous Judge is a more fearsome prospect for the God-fearing man than all the schemes of men. The God-fearing man has a hard time thinking of anything more terrifying than standing before His Throne of Judgment, hard on the heels of massacring 10 or 12 innocents and then taking my own life; or of standing before that same Throne, having fled the field of danger when decisive action may have saved the weak.
We have ourselves a violent society; but there is little courage. Our streets teem with braggarts; whose quintessential test of strength has become, How many unarmed innocents can I slaughter?
This latest shooter said he wanted to “go out in style,” and indeed he did: the style of cowards and nihilists, which is becoming the American popular tradition.