The mass shooting at Virginia Tech University will certainly bring a long and laborious discussion of causes and suggestions for averting such incidents in the future. That is necessary and good, but if history is any guide, most of the suggestions will be thoroughly ineffectual.
What is most important to bear in mind is that America has a long history of violence. It is our way. Yet in the past, the violence was largely political in nature—unions rioting, anarchists setting off bombs to terrorize the population, fights among racial groups, and the like.
Such violence, while wrong, at least makes some sense. Those who engage in it—such as early twentieth-century anarchists and Timothy McVey and his helpers in the Oklahoma City bombings—at least believe that their activities are meant to result in some ultimate good, however repugnant and evil their chosen means of achieving it.
What is new in the past half-century is the rise of mass violence caused by personal problems. The deadliest such rampage previous to yesterday’s was that of Charles Whitman at the University of Texas at Austin, in which he killed sixteen people by shooting at them with a sniper rifle from a campus clock tower.
Like many such subsequent events, this was an act of personal violence toward strangers. Whitman had no real agenda other than a desire to kill a lot of other people before taking his own life.
One suspects that yesterday’s rampage will turn out to have similar origins.
How, then, to prevent such incidents?
Reducing the number of guns in circulation will not accomplish this. Madmen will always be able to get guns—or make bombs, or use poisons, or spread diseases, or use other, more inventive means—to kill others if they wish.
In fact, a greater presence of guns in the hands of law-abiding people would prevent or at least greatly reduce the number of innocents killed in situations such as yesterday’s.
But of course no one is going to offer that as a simple, common-sense solution.
No, guns will be blamed, and the psychological causes of this sort of violence will be wrongly indentified and dissected endlessly, resulting in even greater confusion and inanity.
What, then, is at the root of such mad acts as yesterday’s?
Only a powerful egomania, in which the destruction of oneself represents the destruction of the entire world, can explain it.
The question then becomes, is there something about the past half-century of American society and culture that fosters an increase of such egomania?
I believe that there is, and that it is a natural outcome of the Omniculture, the devaluation of all values. Such killings are occurring in increasing frequency in other nations as well, most of which have developed similarly individualistic, self-regarding cultures in the past half-century—Scotland, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Japan, Italy, etc.
The self-esteem movement and its roots in the hyperindividualism of post-World War II America, particularly the decline of family closeness, are clear contributors to the kind of egomania that leads to such killings and multitudes of other unhappy things about modern America.
Those values must be replaced by ones that work to create real communities and a greater sense of voluntary commitment to one another. And the voluntary nature of such commitments must be a point of emphasis.
The only real way to reduce the number of such incidents both large and small will be for the society to agree on a common set of values that place the individual in his or her proper context as a member of society, and for those values to be taught in the schools and reinforced throughout the culture.
That proper place can only be found in the Judeo-Christian roots of our society.
Until our schools and culture teach those values, we will continue, as a society, to have to resort to force, instead of consent, in keeping such order as is possible among a people of increasing self-regard and disregard for others.
This is evident in the recent case of radio host Don Imus, whose incessant verbal cruelty ultimately resulted in widespread public disapprobation and dismissal from his job. Imus was only doing what is increasingly common in American society today, and shouldn’t be.
A society cannot be held together by force. It must cohere by consent of the governed, and that consent is possible only if people accept the premise that their behavior should be governed.
Until we get to the roots of the problem, in what our schools teach our children, conditions will not impove.
This is a good time to have that discussion and make that choice.