When The Times invited essays on the topic, “What’s wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton in a letter offered his famous terse response, “I am.” We applaud his reply — and presumably the world has not changed. So if someone were to ask you, what was wrong about Newtown last week, will you reply similarly? A blog post entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” has gone viral, but I do not see anyone yet claiming to be Adam Lanza.
I don’t know why Lanza went to the school. Assuredly he went there to kill, shooting each victim multiple times with a rifle from close range using frangible bullets. Perhaps he flipped out, or perhaps he was getting revenge or covering up another crime. But until I know that, not of his own fault, he became like a zombie and lost responsibility, I’ll hold that he did something evil. So I won’t yet say that the shootings were a “tragedy.” A suffering which befalls a great hero by fate is a tragedy. The German invasion of Poland was not a “tragedy.” A rape is not a “tragedy.” To shoot first graders systematically is not a tragedy.
Likewise I refuse so far to view Lanza as a conduit for the abstract force of “Violence.” President Obama came near to saying so in his otherwise admirable reflections at the vigil: “The causes of such violence are complex” and “no set of laws can . . . prevent every senseless act of violence in our society;” yet for all that we shouldn’t say that “the politics is too hard.” Keeping guns from conduits of Violence is an obvious first step.
I rather side with Plato in The Republic: “In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature,” and “there is no conceivable folly or crime which . . . when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit.” Christians call it Original Sin, the inheritance of Cain. “We are all equal, all of us are children of Adam and Eve, weak creatures with virtues and defects, and capable all of us, if Our Lord abandons us, of committing the worst crimes imaginable,” says St. Josemaria Escriva.
Is it so unbelievable that you and I are Adam Lanza? If you are one of those few readers who has not procured an abortion, betrayed a spouse, abandoned your child through divorce, made yourself bestial with porn, or simply indulged a hatred of your fellow man, it’s only by the grace of God that you have not.
I know that that is a moralistic conclusion. But I’m a Catholic, in the “minor penitential season of Advent,” which should elicit self-directed moralism. My practical advice is therefore: Let us examine our lives, repent in sackcloth and ashes, be as medieval as possible in “doing reparation” for others, and repeat, after Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!”
— Michael Pakaluk is professor and chairman of philosophy at Ave Maria University.