Charleston and Newtown–A Familiar Pattern?

Bill Evans head shot

While the racial animus displayed by Dylann Roof in the Charleston killings distinguishes this episode from the school killings at Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, nevertheless the pattern seems oddly familiar–a disaffected young white man engaging in callous and brutal mass murder involving the use of firearms.  Discussion of the killing of nine people attending a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. by the 21 year old white male with white supremacist tendencies has followed a predictable course–focusing especially on the need for more gun control and the problem of mental illness.  The problem of racism as a persistent evil in this instance is also obvious (and we certainly don’t want to minimize that!), but what seems to be lacking once again is a moral vocabulary that gets at some of the other issues involved.

The following article was posted on TheAquilaReport on December 22, 2012 in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and it is reposted here by permission.

A Particular Sort of Depravity

The tragic shootings and murders of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut continue to generate profound grief at the horrifying loss of life as well as calls for legislative action seeking to prevent such events in the future.  Unfortunately, the responses to the tragedy have for the most part been rather predictable.

Those on the statist left have, not unexpectedly, seized this event as an opportunity to push for more legal restrictions on gun ownership.  As a non-gun owner, I’m not existentially involved in this particular debate, although I find the arguments for more restrictions rather less than convincing.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, David Kopel rightly pointed out the “assault weapons” canard.  In point of fact, so-called “assault weapons” like the AR-15 are functionally just semi-automatic guns like most other firearms today (although they may look like military assault rifles like the M-16).  He also notes that the gun homicide rate has actually gone down markedly since the 1960s.  Kopel goes on with some plausibility to attribute the rise of random mass murders to the media-induced copycat syndrome, the decline in availability of appropriate mental-health care for the profoundly disturbed, and to the fact that such killings often take place in “gun-free zones” which keep law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves.  So far so good, though there seems to be something going on today culturally that Kopel’s arguments miss.

Others have reiterated the classic “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” argument.  The problem, they say, is human depravity, and no amount of gun restrictions will stop sinful people from behaving like, well, sinful people.  Thus the answer to the problem of mass random killings, according to many conservative evangelical Christians, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  All that is true, although once again, there are aspects of the current situation that are missed, and, moreover, evangelism is not public policy.

Still others have properly pointed to the lack of the normative dimension in our culture.  Wanting to move beyond what they view as the onerous restrictive morality of the past, the influential movers and shakers in America today have decided that there is no transcendent truth with a capital “T.”  The great “sin” is intolerance, imposing one’s morality on someone else.  It was gratifying to hear the word “evil” deployed by some public figures in the wake of the recent tragedy, but it was done without much fluency and they quickly returned to the more familiar conceptual terrain of gun control and mental health.   This is not at all surprising—one cannot spend one’s time time denying the existence of absolute moral truth in general and then trot out the concept of evil in exceptional instances without a measure of embarrassment.  Nevertheless, this argument regarding the absence of moral normativity does not explain why some people are much more likely to commit such violence than others.

Kopel helpfully notes that the number of random mass murders has increased steadily: from 18 in the 1980s, to 54 in the 1990s, and to 87 in the 2000s.  The real question, however, is why.  While “profiling” is an unpopular thing these days, in fact the profile of such killers is depressingly familiar.  Overwhelmingly they are young white males who have demonstrated a lack of socialization and an inability to function well in modern society.  The picture that is emerging of the Newtown killer fits this pattern perfectly—a young, white, disturbed, male individual from a broken home who, according to some reports, spent much of his time playing violent video games.

It seems increasingly clear that we face a crisis of masculinity in American culture today.  Males are wired to use power, to exercise control over their environment, to accomplish things of significance, to provide for those who depend upon them, but in a host of ways our society sends the message that this traditional masculinity is not a good thing.  Furthermore, many young men are deprived of appropriate contexts for the development of their God-given masculinity, such as positive role models who exemplify the righteous exercise of masculinity and a transcendent moral framework of right and wrong within which the power of masculinity is to be exercised.  It is little wonder that many lonely young men find solace in virtual reality as they exercise a measure of “power” in the context of the brutally violent military and paramilitary video games.  And it is little wonder that some of these young males descend further into the darkness and decide to act out their fantasies of power by killing defenseless children and adults before often turning their weapons on themselves in a last act of defiance against the society they believe has emasculated them.

In short, the depravity evident at Columbine, and Aurora, and Newtown is of a particular sort involving distorted masculinity and the misuse of power.  There is tremendous truth in St. Augustine’s contention that evil is not a thing in itself but rather the distortion and misdirection of God’s good creation.  Even as we talk about various public policy initiatives in the wake of Newtown, this particularity needs to be addressed.  Yes, young males need the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they also need role models, structures of accountability, and a moral framework that will enable them to channel their masculinity in productive and appropriate ways.