A blog by Barry Edelson

Tragedy Without End


"Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead."

— J. M. Coetzee,
"Diary of a Bad Year"

Readers of classical literature always bristle when the word "tragedy" is applied to everyday accidents and calamities. However horrific the carnage from the irregular rumblings of the Earth's surface, or the high-speed collisions of man-made objects, or the violent clash of human opponents, it cannot in the strict sense be considered tragic. But the killing of five students at Northern Illinois University last week and the wounding of at least a dozen others comes closer to the definition of tragedy than most of the appalling violent deaths we are made to hear about in the news.

What makes this incident meet the criteria of tragedy is not the pointless and random death of the shooting victims but the nature of the killer. A classical tragedy requires a great man to possess a fatal flaw in his character, which, despite the effort of his own considerable will, leads inexorably to his downfall. The tragedy is not that the character dies, but that his great potential is squandered and that the world is a poorer place for that loss.

It is usually impossible to disentangle our contempt for the perpetrators of mass killings from any pity we may feel for the isolation, degredation or other factors that are supposed and presumed to have prompted them to inflict their inner demons on a host of innocent bystanders. The young man in the NIU killings, however, seems to be a different sort of creature entirely. By all accounts, he was a model student, lauded by his professors not only for his abilities but for his decency as well. Unlike the garden-variety adolescent mass murderers who seek immortality through an act of petty and perverse vengeance—and about whom friends and acquaintances will later say that they had their suspicions—this young man seems to have been the very last person anyone would have expected capable of any act of violence, let alone one this extreme. His loss is our loss; hence the validity of calling it a tragedy. The fatal flaw (if news accounts can be believed) may have been a false belief in his ability to master his drug-controlled mental illness through an act of will. If the Greeks had had any notion of the biochemical basis of human behavior, such is the plot they might very well have written.

It can be hoped that this latest incident will not degenerate into the habitual and predictable left-right debate over guns in the United States. Short of ridding the planet of weapons entirely—perhaps a desirable end, but a hopelessly utopian one—it is difficult to imagine a realistic scenario in which this particular massacre could have been avoided through the application of governmental authority. The ubiquity of firearms is less at issue in this case than the reasons why an otherwise nonviolent individual turns suddenly to this particular form of lethal force, and why it happens in this country far more than anywhere else.

Why must we endure the
occasional random slaughter
of innocents?

This is not a new question, but despite the fact that it is central to the problem of violence in our society it is hardly ever aired in a serious, nonpartisan manner. In "Bowling for Columbine", Michael Moore attempted to raise the question in his now famous interview with Charlton Heston and was roundly criticized for using the opportunity merely to make Heston look foolish. There is plenty of intellectual dishonesty to take Moore to task for in all of his films, but in this case the criticism seems completely off the mark. Moore asked Heston a perfectly valid and important question: Why is the murder rate so much lower in Canada than in the U.S. when Canadians own as many guns per capita as Americans do? In fact, it is an astonishing question coming from someone who is baldly crusading against gun ownership. He is ceding the argument altogether by admitting, in effect, that the National Rifle Association's familiar cant, "Guns don't kill, people do", is correct, and that the real question is why American society is so violent in the first place.

That Heston offered a simplistic and shallow response, babbling incoherently about race relations, only proves that he was perfectly capable of making a fool of himself without Moore's help. (Let us remember that this is the same Charlton Heston who once explained that the reason why most actors are liberals is because, by nature and profession, they trade mainly in "feelings".) It also proves that the NRA remains a major obstacle to any meaningful national discussion on this topic. To be fair, so are many gun-control groups, which are equally as narrow and unyielding in their stance. If we continue to frame the argument as an absolutist matter of personal freedom on the one side and an affront to civilization itself on the other, we are doomed neither to understand the issue fully nor to move an inch closer to a solution.

We are left with the dreadful question: Why does America, less threatened by external enemies than almost any other country (the occasional efforts of al-Qaeda notwithstanding), suffer regularly from these small-scale eruptions of domestic violence? One answer may be related to the very matter of governmental authority alluded to earlier. The state exists primarily as a means of guaranteeing "domestic tranquility", but if among the citizens of the state there is a pervasive ethos which holds that the state must always be viewed with suspicion, if not contempt, and considers the resort to arms a viable means of settling matters in a limited set of circumstances, then it follows that a small group of people, lacking either the self-restraint, maturity, mental acuity, moral strength or self-regard possessed by most other people, will in fact from time to time take it upon themselves to decide when the circumstances are indeed ripe for a violent response. And if the people living by this ethos also insist upon making readily available the means of resisting the efforts of the government to assert its dominance over the citizenry, it must be accepted as given that these means will also be available for any and all manner of demented, nefarious or conspiratorial purposes that men can devise.

It is a delusion, of course, that the private ownership of firearms is an actual guarantor of liberty and that it is any longer a viable option for defending ourselves from the modern, nuclear-armed nation-state. Indeed, a government which has no compunction about listening in on the telephone conversations of its citizens or about locking up terrorism suspects for years on end without charging them with a crime has little to fear from the gun rack in your family room. But it is one of the fundamental delusions upon which our system of government was built, and its persistence is a guarantee only that we will have to endure the occasional random slaughter of innocents.

That is perhaps our national fatal flaw, and our national tragedy.

February 18, 2008

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