A Crime for Our Times

Growing up in the Colombia of the ’80s and ’90s, I find among the memories of my formative years numerous episodes that shock my American friends. While my day-to-day life in Colombia largely resembled that of an upper middle-class American kid—bus to school in the morning, tennis at the club in the afternoon, Saved by the Bell and homework to wrap up the day—it was impossible, hard as one’s family might try, not to be touched by the violent reality of those decades. There was the time my dad was almost blown up by a car-bomb, the guerrilla attack, the kidnapping of one of my classmates, the two or three bombs I heard go off with my own ears, the “guerrilla drills” we had at school in place of what Americans call fire drills—I could go on.


I have been thinking a lot about those experiences recently in light of the mass-shootings that seem to plague the United States every few months. Because though I grew up in a place where for a while one literally couldn’t turn on the nightly news without hearing about some bomb, kidnapping, or assassination, there’s something about these shootings that leaves me cold. In Colombia, I had grown so desensitized that on one night when five bombs exploded around the city—the closest of which had gone off less than a mile away—I not only felt no urge to cower under my bed, but actually went out on the town with my friends (I mean, it was a Friday, after all). I saw during my time there (through the TV) a woman murdered with a necklace-bomb—along with the heroic explosives agents who tried to save her—buildings full of people blown to nothing, and who knows how many of my personal heroes shot to death. Yet I doubt if anything I have witnessed chills me as much as the thought of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Navy Yards, and all the rest.

So I’ve been wondering why. What is it about this brand of atrocities that makes them so grossly disturbing?

The first thing that strikes me is that, disgusting as it sounds, the random-shooting-concluding-with-the-perpetrator’s-suicide has become by now a fixture of our culture—one could almost call it a motif. Like the fanatical suicide bomber in other parts of the world, the random mass shooting is a very particular type of crime, one that outside the United States and parts of Europe is almost unheard of. And like a sickening art or ritual, this kind of crime follows a set of conventions, a form that we’ve come to recognize and even expect. It won’t do to simply point out the mental imbalance of the perpetrators. There have always been madmen—why do ours lash out in this particular way?

They say every country deserves the kind of government it gets, and I am tempted to say the same about the kind of crimes that devastate a people. Recently, while discussing the topic with some friends, the conversation immediately turned to politics, gun-control in particular. Personally, I care little for that debate, one that is itself also a facet of American culture. As a relative outsider to the whole thing, not having grown up with an emotional investment on either side of the question, I’ve come to sympathize with both sides. While at first I found the ease of purchasing a gun in the United States frankly shocking, understanding the nation’s unique history with regard to individual liberties and its tradition of robustly resisting any encroachment by the government—the same attitudes that have preserved in this country a range for freedom of speech such as is known in few other places—has made me appreciate much more than I used to the position of Second Amendment advocates. But in the end, whatever policy is right, I tend to think of the whole debate as almost beside the question. Because to look at this pageant of horrors—to see a man entering a crowded building, shooting at people for no particular reason, and finally killing himself—and see in it little more than a set of bad laws, is to miss the point entirely. No doubt we should do what we can to prevent senseless murders. But if we remain a society where a significant number of people nurture a desire to commit this sort of atrocity, even if as a matter of fact they can’t, to what extent can we really call that progress? There is something much darker at work here than what mere policies can fix.

I see it when I think of all the kinds of violence that I knew in Colombia. Whatever makes the US shootings so disturbing is not at the level of the objective acts: in both cases we have people killing people in cold blood, and just as in the US, in Colombia it was often kids doing the shooting. The violence there was often also perpetrated in a perfectly nonchalant manner, as if snuffing out a life were a mere errand, an item to check off from a to-do list. But horrible as they might be, one thing about all the crimes I knew of in Colombia was that they were intelligible. All of them, in other words, where committed for a purpose, all in the twisted pursuit of some apparent good. Most often it was easy money, or a sense of power or status, or at least a misguided attempt at retribution against some perceived personal or social injustice. However paltry the motives, one could recognize in them the twisted logic that usually attends human evil, the same we have known since Cain murdered his brother. When it is greed or revenge or the lust for power that leads to a crime, there remains something recognizably human in the very way the moral law is violated. The pursuit of some end, no matter how twisted in reality, makes the criminal follow a familiar pattern of human striving after the good, even if only as mockery. These kinds of crime attest to the moral law even as they violate it.

But things look very different when we look at Columbine-style shootings. They are crimes that attest only to the utter meaninglessness of everything—that, and the apparent narcissism of the perpetrators. The murderer seeks nothing from the victims, very often has never even seen them before. Whenever some perceived grievance does exist, is it usually of the most tenuous kind—not so much a motive as an excuse.  And what does it all conclude with? With the only crime that, as Chesterton puts it, allows the perpetrator to wipe out the whole world: suicide. The whole point of the entire act is that there is no point.

John Paul II’s description of ours as a culture of death has, unfortunately, descended almost to the level of a cliché. Events like these bring into focus the full horror hidden within those words. If these crimes are a facet of our culture, if they disturb us like few other forms of violence, it is because they are a stark image of the meaninglessness that pervades so many aspects of life—and so many individual lives—in the modern industrialized West. The mass shooting is truly a crime for our times. And no politics, no policies, no law is going to save us from it—unless it is the law of Love, the only antidote we’ve been given to the pandemic of nihilism that is killing us.


    • Patrick R. Beaty says

      This article is an insult to all of the families and friends who have suffered from any sort of school shootings, it really is. You speak without any understanding as to why they occur, nor do you understand why its such a shock to our culture. These shootings are neither random nor meaningless. The shooters are most certainly not being nonchalant about any of it, and you need to step off your high horse and start putting yourself in their situation, and understand the psychology of why they choose to do what they do. They are not evil; they are often individuals who deserve better but are treated very poorly by society; by their peers and/or their families. Your statement that the murderer seeks nothing from the victims is an outright false and ignorant statement. What the individual seeks from their victims is an end to the bullying or perhaps to be recognized as something to be remembered. Although their logic is most certainly flawed, it is in absolute desperation because they don’t know what else to do and they are too young to better think things through. Many victims of bullying often end up becoming forms of bullies or violent; school shootings are the extreme end of that situation. Do you know what I find the most unintelligible part about this article? That you would criticize this situation and then claim that you care little for the debate of gun-control. Its as if you think its OK for you be judgmental of society but to actually take part in any meaningful discussion towards resolutions of these kinds of shootings is not worth your time. This article is judgmental and yet contains no meaningful insight into improving the situation. You are an insult to what it means to be a Christian.

  1. Bernardo Aparicio García says

    “You are an insult to what it means to be a Christian.” “Get off your high horse.” “Judgemental.”

    Look, I appreciate if you have serious issues with what I’m saying, but besides the fact that you totally miss the point, you’re not helping your case with a string of insults, including an unqualified proclamation the state of my soul, when you know next to zero about me, what I personally have experienced, etc. I don’t know if it’s even worth responding to such blatant trolling, which I expect will result in further insults, but for the sake of other readers I’ll point it out once again: there are disturbed and violent individuals in all places of the world, in every culture, in every age of the world. But the disturbed and violent individuals in the US in recent decades have begun to lash out in a very particular way that to many an outsider is very strange to comprehend. I agree with much of what you are saying about the mental/emotional conditions of the shooters, the experiences that drove them to desperation, etc. Nevertheless, why that particular way of lashing out? Getting a gun and shooting little kids who the assailant had barely ever seen? Or how about the DC snipers, shooting random people going about their business? Or Navy Yards? Etc., etc., etc. The violence has many causes, as violence usually does, but my point is that this sort of violence has a particular *form* which reference to gun laws, to bullying, etc., simply does not account for. And I think it points to something that’s rotten in our culture at large. To that extent yes, the article is extremely judgmental. I intend it as a judgment on our society and our culture. Which, by the way, is my point about gun control laws, which in the end, even if effective, seem to me like treating symptoms while leaving the cause untouched. I’m not intending to avoid a “meaningful discussion towards resolutions of these kinds of shootings,” but rather contributing what by my lights I consider needs to be considered. You seem to have a very definite idea of what counts toward that discussion and what does not, but perhaps you should examine whether by “contribute to a meaningful discussion” you simply mean “agree with my point of view.”