Each time the tragedy of a mass shooting takes place we see the same responses from the same people.
Politicians rush to the stage and wring their hands, phoning condolences and otherwise mugging for the cameras. Members of the clergy and psychology profession yammer about survivors talking things out, emotionally distraught young people erect crosses and pile flowers somewhere, and everyone immediately begins to speak of "healing."
Long before the funerals an historical and psychological post mortem begins on the deceased shooter’s life in a ritualistic search for cause or meaning, animated by a desire to identify common themes that could presumably lead to some sort of screening for future gun-wielding nuts. Imagine a bizarre kind of Rorschach test administered in grade school where passing means walking out the door and failing means needles and pills and chemical lobotomy.
This is based on the idea that life can be planned, controlled, professionally managed by a central authority. If many people believe the economy can be "planned" by experts in New York and Washington DC when they study economic data long enough, then why can’t tax-paid medical and behavioral scientists prevent the future acts of deranged persons by studying abnormal people?
Unfortunately this mechanistic model of the world is not remotely parallel to reality. Reality is non-linear and full of surprises, and human social behavior is demonstrably non-mechanistic. One time a blackout in a big city results in riots, looting, and chaos, the next time it results in cookouts and camaraderie. Same input, different output…history brims full of examples of this. If reality can be steered by our masters, then why are home prices plunging and exotic debt securities collapsing after the past chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank lauded the stability-inducing attributes of such instruments? No, any suggestion that there’s important data to be mined in the shooter’s past leads down a blind alley. It asks questions whose answers are meaningless.
The urge to find reason where none exists is a way to avoid the burden of personally preparing for the unexpected. It’s easier to repeat platitudes like, "everything happens for a reason," because it means there’s no burden to bear, no adjustments to make. Whether I choose to believe I live in a crime-free bubble or am afraid of personally handling a firearm, going through the process of understanding the shooter’s inscrutable motives allows me to avoid confronting my own fears.
Others of us perhaps "over-confront" them by using every opportunity to argue in favor of eliminating gun prohibitions. Gun magazines and Internet forums are filled with debates over one caliber vs. another, or what holster rigs are better for fast presentation of the gun in a fight, and which bullet design is the most destructive to flesh and bone. Those who avoid their fears see us as borderline psychotics or tantamount to sex offenders, almost lumping us into the same bin as the disturbed persons who shoot down innocent people in their blazing exit from Earth. Many people associate a fascination with guns with a desire to shoot people instead of just a different reaction to the same input. They seek to control future events from the top down, collectively, through words on paper that presumably alter the real world. They think the rules of human nature can be rewritten by state legislators and seek to manage individuals as bees in a hive by one-size-fits-all regulations.
Most LRC readers conclude otherwise. We see words as powerless against the inviolability of nature, a fact demonstrated every single time a killer’s brain tells him to ignore the words written on parchment and carry the prohibited tools into a gun-free place to harvest a fresh crop of defenseless souls. We conclude that nothing our fellows in state capitols can write will alter our burden of responsibility to our loved ones, our neighbors, and ourselves. We don’t understand why our neighbors believe in what we think is fantasy, yet this fantasy is the central religion of our times. It is ultimately a belief in the demonstrably unreal that underpins the entire regulatory and prohibitionist muscle of the state. Many gun enthusiasts even participate in the fantasy through their support of the same monopoly organization (government) when it supposedly spreads peace at home by directing military occupation and slaughter across the globe.
Just as America’s rulers use its military might to threaten most of the world’s nations, we here live under near universal threat of punishment. Teachers are threatened with unemployment by No Child Left Behind if their students don’t excel on a standardized test, business owners are threatened with fines or jail if they fail to meticulously observe a raft of often contradictory regulatory demands, physicians are threatened with fines or jail for miscoding a diagnosis on a bill, and self-sufficient gun owners are threatened with the personal and family catastrophe (to a typical middle-class person) of jail if caught carrying a gun where one is prohibited (except to tax-paid agents of the state). These are but a tiny few of the swords that dangle above each of our heads, and more are added each year by legislators anxious to solve every real and imagined problem with another rule backed by a threat of violent enforcement.
Today the central belief is in the efficacy of threats and violence to make a better world. This lunacy writ large seems to trouble few people. They only seem surprised when someone takes their belief another step beyond the realm of sanity and engages in slaughter that happens not to be sanctioned by a high politician or legislative edict.
My hope lies in the non-linearity of our world. Trends often turn without apparent warning, reversing processes that once looked implacable and permanent. Our society’s obsession with control and punishment has grown mountain-like especially during the past four decades, with domestic and foreign wars declared on one subset of people after another, producing no victories…only casualties. Yet this history has no guarantee of continuity; one day we will reach apogee on this government-administered insanity and the change will likely surprise us all.
At least I hope so. The alternative is full realization of Orwell’s perfect totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a condition that implies the stasis of a dead system.
In the meantime we must maintain our own steadfast grip on reality as it is, pointing out to our children how wrong is this fantasy belief in the utility of violence, awaiting our fellowman’s return to his (or her) senses. We who believe in the supreme value of the individual must be exemplars of how we think people can and should live, as individuals in peace with one another, while we await an idea whose time has yet to come.
February 19, 2008