The horrible killings of last Friday in Newtown, Conn. instantly elicited a huge range of responses, as it should. It is a tribute to our collective psyche that we continue to be shocked, outraged, stunned by such events. In spite of their frequency we are not yet inured to them, but their frequency is growing. In a Dec.17 editorial in the Wall Street Journal David Kopel cited the grim statistics: there were 18 random mass shootings in the 1980s, 54 in the 1990s, and 87 in the 2000s, a five-fold increase over just three 10-year increments. In addition to the usual arguments that break out over the effectiveness of gun control laws, some of the commentary is now focused on mental health diagnosis and treatment. It is preposterous to argue, as the NRA does, that the number of guns and the ease of getting them have nothing to do with these killings, and it is certain that were we to invest a lot more in mental health counseling more people would be properly diagnosed and treated. But I remain convinced that these arguments are red herrings — albeit accidental ones — arguments whose deeper unconscious purpose is to divert us from dealing with the real issue, which is that we have a diseased culture. The number of unregulated, easily obtainable guns we have is a symptom of this disease, not the cause of it. For it isn’t that we kill people because we have so many guns, it is that we have so many guns because as a culture we believe violence is the answer, we believe in killing.
This is a terrible accusation to make, but there isn’t really any other conclusion to draw when comparing the number of random mass shootings that occur here and in other countries. They happen elsewhere, but they are so much rarer that any dispassionate observer would say that this sort of thing is not really the product of normal human nature; something has to go wrong in a whole culture before these sorts of things become as frequent as they are here. Mike Huckabee’s statement that they happen because we kicked God out of school is simply wrong — that is the most charitable thing anyone could say about it. The highly secularized countries of Europe hardly ever see this happen. By Huckabee’s standards God was kicked out of their schools decades ago. We do have a spiritual problem, but it isn’t that we are not religious enough; it is that we really do believe killing people solves problems, makes the world better, and the mentally unstable people of this society are getting that message every day in scores of ways.
What needs to happen is not that we start praying in school more. What needs to happen is that we admit as a people that we love violence, and that the deaths of school children are the natural and inevitable consequence of that spiritual disorder, and that then, over time, we repent of that particular form of idolatry. I don’t know what it will take to get us to that point, how many more deaths of 5-year-olds will have to happen, but unless we do repent, those deaths will continue. William Stafford, Oregon’s poet Laureate for a time had an aphorism that fits this moment: “Every war has two losers.” He offered no commentary on it, but its meaning is clear enough. One loser is the obvious one, the people whose cities are destroyed, whose culture and people are traumatized by defeat. The other loser is the people who, in getting their way by violence and death, become convinced that inflicting violence and death on those who trouble us is noble and good and even righteous. They are the greater and more pathetic of the two losers. Every year, over and over again, we are proving Stafford right.