Fear and Loathing in America

Abominations like mass shootings lead us to look for causes in the form of racism, of guns, of media distortions, but we must resist the quick-draw realm of social media takes and their inability to distinguish between proximate and remote causes.

Last week my wife and I took our children to the Tampa Zoo. The springtime riot of tropical color is drawing to a close here as the heat swells toward its summer boil. But that day a lovely breeze came up from the Gulf, and the last fading jacaranda blossoms danced against the sky. Dew shimmered on the pearl ginger. Birds of paradise unfurled, and the palms, scattering sunlight, rattled in the wind.

A pall hung over every beauty. As my children watched the penguins and a troop of middle schoolers rode the carousel, I found myself eyeing everyone, wondering who the people around me were. Any young man might pull an iPhone from his pocket and a pistol from his waistband and film himself becoming America’s next mass murderer. Every child around me became the next child of Uvalde, slain on the cusp of summer.

I thought of the innocent dead and of the guilty man dead and of my own high school students; of the active shooter drills we’ve undergone and the armed guards at the gate of our school. I wondered what it would take to make sure that none of the boys I teach would be killed, that none of them would become a killer. I carried my little boy on my shoulders and imagined the insidious forces that will try to worm their way into his mind; and in short, I was afraid.

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Common sense dictates, and experience bids us expect, that all matters of fact are nonetheless objects of interpretation. Many watch Christ die upon the Cross. One scoffs: let him save himself. Another wonders: this man was the Son of God. Together society witnesses the decline of marriage. Some see liberation; others see decadence. We are not simply sense observers but also abstractors, thinkers, critics, and thus interpreters. 

This is not to say that all interpretations are equal. The man who takes that deep rumble in the lion’s throat for a purr and approaches the beast to stroke its mane may fare ill compared to the man who hightails it to the safari bus. Of the two men crucified alongside Christ, the one who prayed that Christ remember him enjoyed considerably more favorable prospects than the other. And while Henry VIII enjoyed for a while the ascendancy over his friend St. Thomas More, it is the latter who is remembered as a martyr and a hero of conscience, whereas the former stands condemned in the dock of history. 

The task of interpretation, crucial to the development and exercise of prudence, becomes considerably harder when nearly all events are filtered to us through the ready-made interpretive lenses, fashioned according to the demands of political affiliation, of the news media. We are trained to expect one slant version of a story or another according to the outlet telling it. In matters of especially internecine contention, we even anticipate that one outlet or another will try simply to let the story pass without comment. Commitment to interpretive standards can make events themselves extremely uncomfortable.

Consider the shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo the weekend before last

The preceding sentence could have been written in any number of ways, each of which could well have committed me to one interpretive lens or another. It could have read, consider the mass shooting at a Tops supermarket in a largely black neighborhood this past weekend. Or, consider the mass shooting perpetrated last weekend by an assault-rifle-wielding white supremacist. Or, consider the deadly action carried out this weekend in protest of the great replacement. Or, consider the action in Buffalo this weekend, which has been labeled “domestic terrorism.”

Each rendition suggests an underlying preoccupation with oppression, gun control, white supremacy, or governmental or media competency. None of them presents the closest thing possible to a plain statement of fact. To a degree, this should neither surprise nor concern us. Confronted with events, and in particular with those events before which we draw back in horror, we seek causes. All men desire to know, and to know in any real sense is to be able to give an account of why something is, to explain it causally. 

Thus, witnessing such abominations as mass shootings, we look for causes in the form of racism, of guns, of media distortions. We are right to do so. To cure any ill, we must know its causes. 

A challenge to modern political discourse, especially in the quick-draw realm of social media, lies in a frequent inability to distinguish between proximate and remote causes. This confusion impairs our ability to see that the same effect very frequently proceeds from a variety of causes, some operating close at hand to the effect, others exercising their influence from afar. 

Where causes are concerned, that is, it is easy to forget that many may be simultaneously operative at various removes from the effect. Say, for example, that I am diabetic and that, while out for a run in the woods, I am attacked by a bear. My wounds are grave, but under normal circumstances paramedics would be able to save me. However, given my diabetes and the attendant high blood pressure, they struggle to stanch the bleeding, and I die. Was it the bear that killed me? Or was it the diabetes?

It is plain enough that the answer is both, but in different ways. The bear was the immediate or proximate cause, the one which, as it were, got the show on the road; but the diabetes was the remote cause, the one that, operative on every element of my health, proved decisive in the possibility of treating my wounds.

At present, we tend to argue (at the very least our headlines tend to argue) that one cause is at the root of our ills and that this one cause is so very evil as to destroy all other evils. And we construct causal narratives which only allow us to admit certain types of information.

On one side of the iron bipartisan curtain, for instance, we are warned of the nexus of evils woven of racism (both structural and personal), gun violence, and capitalist interests. On the other, we are harangued about the great replacement, the steal, and socialism. The narratives of the one side leave curiously little room for subplots about violence in Chicago or Mexico, while those of the other struggle to find space for shootings in our schools or corruption in the business world. And, perhaps worse, each side delights in the other’s lacunae. Coverage of events, and outrage over them, becomes a function of the perpetrator’s skin color or of the deed’s political value. Genuine moral outrage rapidly devolves into a vapid game of I told you so.

What are we to do when people are murdered while buying supplies for their children’s birthday parties? What are we to do when our children’s corpses are piled in their classrooms? What are we to do?

In the first place, we might do worse than to remember the “enormous platitude” by which Orwell sums up Dickens’ corpus: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” On every side, indecency presses upon us like a zombie horde. On the street, on Twitter, in the car dealership, in the classroom, we are assaulted by foul language, foul thought, foul gesture, grimace, and act. We sip hatred with our coffee, plume ourselves in vitriol, and rage against the wicked other in the raucous, gleeful echo chambers of acquaintance. Christ bids us be perfect; failing that, we might at least try to be passable human beings.

We might proceed a long way toward decency by recalling that sin may exist at both societal and personal levels. While the world spawns its share of hate-fueled maniacs, it also allows its maniacs substantial latitude in everything from choice of weaponry to the ability to locate and scope out victims. The monstrosities in Buffalo and Uvalde came about through the immediate causality of the killer, yet the remote causes of societal sin, of slavery and segregation and their ilk, of legislation inadequate in itself or in enforcement, were themselves attendant, like so many ghosts of Lady Macbeth, urging murder. 

We know from experience that sin renounced may not yet be sin brought fully to account. The prodigal son returns, but he returns to a house stripped of half its substance. The drunk gives up the bottle, but his head aches and his temper flares and he sweats at the clink of ice in a glass. Slavery is in the past, but racism stalks our streets, and the bells cannot stop pealing their alarm. 

We must begin to ask the right questions. Those we pose each other now are in the main means of attack. “Guns are out of control, and what are you going to do about it?” one side asks. The other retorts, “I’ve got guns, and what are you going to do about it?” “When will the bishops excommunicate those politicians who fail to support gun control legislation?” one side demands. The other walks about on the day after a mass shooting in a T-shirt that says, “What did you say? I can’t hear you over all this freedom.” 

When a child tries to stab one of his siblings, we take the scissors. We make sure his brother is OK. We see that he can’t reach the scissors again. But we also need to ask ourselves why he did this. We need to know what has happened to him such that he desires to hurt those around him. In society at large, we must answer the question of how to stop the evil from acquiring guns, just as we must answer the question of how to stop people from getting meth and fentanyl. That is, perhaps, the immediate need. 

But for change to take place, we must answer the question of why our young men want to kill people. That answer needs a reckoning not primarily with our laws but with our sins. We have forgotten who we are because we have forgotten the One who made us. And indeed, in the face of such violence as we have seen, year after year, in our schools and supermarkets and theaters, it is hard to remember Him. The death of a child shakes everything, to borrow from Michael O’Brien. 

Yet, in the spasms of such evil, we are called to look to one another anew. We are called to repudiate the lie so many of us were fed in childhood, the old singsong sickening dictum, “You don’t have to like everybody, you just have to love them.” It is a lie, and it is nonsense. What is it to love but to will the good of the other, not in the hacked-off comfort of an adage contrived to fulfill our Christianity in an idle word, but in the love that sees beneath the leprosy of sin a person created by God and bathed in the blood of His Son? What is it to love but to look, truly to look, at another and see what is likable in him: Christ, “who plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

[Photo:A police officer stands near a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 27, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)]

  • Daniel Fitzpatrick

    Daniel Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Only the Lover Sings. His new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, was published last year in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. His nonfiction study of the sabbath and acedia, Pharaoh Within, is forthcoming this year from Sophia Institute Press. He lives in Tampa with his wife and three children.

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