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.