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Mass-Murder Group Therapy

by David Gelernter

Let’s not pretend we can make sense of what happened in Aurora

I don’t care what the Colorado murderer’s message is, or what his goals were, and for my part he can rot in hell: Forgiveness is central to Judaism but is the prerogative of the injured and grieving — and is the proper response to repentance. But since immediate action is called for in a moment of national mourning, how’s this. Let’s ban “counselors” from anywhere within 50 miles of the injured or bereaved. Likewise “therapists,” social workers, psychologists, the lot. Friends and family are needed in such a crisis; so are ministers, priests, rabbis. Americans are not in the habit (thank God) of developing lifelong relations with their “counselors.” Do you want a social worker delivering the eulogy at your funeral? (Let her read the service too, while she’s at it, or make up her own! After all, she’s the professional.)

The idea that grief can be assuaged by experts who know and care nothing about the grief-stricken or the dead is loathsome. No doubt many religious leaders are partly responsible, insofar as they encourage their congregants to think of and address them as if they were social workers. In any case, conservatives must come to grips with this deep problem they have largely avoided: the secularization, professionalization, trivialization of grief. It corrodes human dignity like rust eating steel. The antecedent state of mind, which makes grief a “condition” to be treated by therapists, happens to resemble the worldview in which criminality is likewise an illness; in which mass murderers are crazy automatically, by definition, and there is no such thing as evil.

For those who are bereaved or badly hurt, there is no possible compensation. The one external fact that might ease this sort of suffering, just a little, is penitence — the criminal’s coming to grips, in dead earnest, with the misery he has created. It’s sad that apologies have become so degraded in modern society: Public figures routinely demand them from each other like sulky children. (“Apologize!” “I will not! You apologize!”) And so the market is flooded with two-bit phony apologies, crude knock-offs of the real thing. “If anyone was offended, I’m sorry.” That sort of repentance is squeezed out grudgingly like toothpaste to cover the bristles, by a penitent who makes clear that if you did in fact choose to take offense, that’s your problem, and you’re a moron.

Yet actual penitence is serious business. Sometimes capital punishment brings it about. That’s one important reason why we need capital punishment.

Guns appear to be fundamentally irrelevant to this crime, as they have been to other carefully planned massacres. If you’ve taken the trouble to plan your murder spree in advance, it might have struck you that there are many ways to kill people. If you can’t find a gun, a bomb will work; or gasoline and a match.

Spur-of-the-moment massacres by genuine nut cases, on the other hand, are probably more likely in nations where guns are easy to find. But such crimes are (thank God) so rare that any generalizations mean little. After all, criminals and lunatics also push people in front of subways on the spur of the moment, ram cars into crowds, burn down buildings. But not often. Of course subways and automobiles are potentially dangerous, but (like semiautomatic firearms) they are rarely used to commit murder.

It’s only natural to seek significance in senseless tragedy. But this normal urge is also a trap to catch us out when we are not thinking straight. The Left likes to turn violent crime in America into a sad commentary on the primitive barbarism of the NRA, of conservatives, of the GOP — if not of the whole damned unwashed, bigoted, gun-loving, churchgoing population. The murder of John Kennedy is a famous example, although the revolution that handed over the keys to American culture (starting with the elite universities) to the card-carrying intelligentsia was still in progress in 1963, not yet a done deal. The left-wing (though highly intelligent, deeply cultured) Edmund Wilson wrote soon after the assassination that “my first thought and that of many people was that the lunatic rightists had done it.” You sense Wilson’s disappointment and grievance when he is reluctantly forced to call Oswald “a schizoid boy who thought he was a Marxist rebel.” (But at least he only thought he was a Marxist, and anyway he was schizoid.)

It is widely believed that the United States is inherently more violent than her fellow Western democracies. It’s impossible to measure such things. Europeans have started more wars since 1776 than America has; where does that leave us in violence per capita? But I am willing to accept that the United States is indeed, in some ways, more violent than her colleagues. Listen to a leftist raging against his ideological opponents and you will hear violence to spare (albeit impotent — most of the time). Of course there has always been plenty of deadly violence in America. Historians pointed out long ago that the closing of the frontier in the 1890s meant shutting down a pressure valve that used to allow the antisocial (and the merely high-spirited) to escape from law-abiding territories into wilderness.

We have always been a nation with small use for lockstep Euro-conformity and high tolerance for the unusual, the energetic, even the just-barely-under-control. We surely have far more than our share of originals in this nation. It’s lucky for the world that we do. Our inventions are copied all over the globe (the modern liberal democracy, for example), our explorers have gone farther than any other nation’s, our innovations and trends define the state of the art in countless ways. Common sense suggests that sheer high-spirited independent-mindedness has something to do with wildness, which in turn is sometimes related to antisocial eccentricity, and finally to lawlessness. This hardly means that it’s bad to be independent-minded; it means only that there is no free lunch. We need to look at the big picture before we make big statements. It’s a usual pattern in human groups that abnormality on the positive side is roughly balanced by abnormality on the negative. The United States is the most daring, most explosively original benefactor nation in history. It would be unsurprising if Americans themselves have had to pay a price for our high concentration of weirdos, which has done mankind so much good over the centuries.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we ought to look on passively at villainy: We should fight it with everything we’ve got. That includes stiff gun-control laws, if we have any reason to think they work, and we believe that their benefits outweigh their costs. Unfortunately we don’t have any reason to think they work, so we don’t even reach the second question.

Still — if it were possible to believe that bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines could somehow be enforced against criminals, they would be worth discussing . . . but not by me. I don’t trust the political groups that support this kind of law. I suspect them of bad faith, of hating guns in general and loving the idea of disarming citizens entirely, so that self-defense can be left to (here they come again) the experts, the trained professionals. I suspect, too, that most people who enjoy gun sports feel the same. It’s too bad, in fact an outright tragedy, when one large part of the nation cannot trust another part. What does the Left make of that one, Michael Bloomberg? Where is its significance?

– Mr. Gelernter is the author of Americanite.

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