Mass Shootings and Original Sin
By Crispin Sartwell
Responses to mass shootings, in the media or around the television or water cooler, long ago became merely routinized. People try, for example, to feed the latest event - from whatever particular angle it comes - into their political processors, after which they produce the same sentences over and over, each time around. They seem to think it is terribly important to find the right single word: is it 'terrorism' or 'murder'?
This is one way that we try to grapple with apparent incomprehensibility, the excess, the extremity, the seemingly inhuman in the human body, the unsayable or unfaceable, the opacity to us of things apparently so very much like ourselves.
It's an understandable response, even a necessary one. It allows us to take something that might seem impossible or debilitating or even wrong to assimilate and gives us somewhere to put it, a way to set it aside in its particularity and embed it in general categories or principles which we can grasp and affirm and communicate. But it's also a way of falsifying the real event, of failing to face it and experience it. Well, sometimes we need our cowardice.
But perhaps before we turn on a dime and renew our commitment once again to more surveillance or fewer guns, before we lob the event effortlessly into its pigeon-hole, we should try to live for a moment in the incomprehensibility, in the explosion of the event itself. The incomprehensibility of what happened in San Bernadino, for example, is important. It's scary not to understand it, but it's even scarier to understand it.
To say that an event like that is incomprehensible is, among other things, to disavow it, to say 'I would never do that.' Nonetheless, even if it seems strategic, I myself feel this incomprehensibility; I rarely write about mass shootings anymore because I don't know what to say. We need distance from the perpetrators to assure ourselves and one another that we are not just about to tip suddenly into violence directed randomly at the people around us.
In lieu of an explanation, then, an observation: we suck. I really do believe that in many dimensions human beings - and by this I mean myself as well as you - are irremediably flawed. Though I am an atheist, I feel the power of the doctrine of original sin: a seed of depravity or destruction inherent in all of us, inherent in myself.
When Christians such as Augustine or Jonathan Edwards asserted the doctrine of original sin, they had to grapple with the mystery of why a good God would create fundamentally depraved creatures or suffer them to exist. This is another way of saying that our hearts are incomprehensible to ourselves. We don't even know what we ourselves might do. And, in agreement with Augustine and Edwards, I don't think a treatment for this condition can come from pretending to be exempt from it, or pretending that we can leave it behind through policies or progress.
A treatment for our inherent evil could only begin by really knowing this about ourselves, knowing that we ourselves are irremediably flawed, that we ourselves are the sorts of things that are capable of killing, for almost any reason or for no reason at all.
Now, to produce a secular version of original sin, we'd have to generate some sort of naturalistic explanation. Perhaps it's a random mutation gone horribly awry. Evolution has produced, for examples, creatures with allergies and without eyes in the back of their heads. It's compatible with a lot of what we might tend to think of as mistakes. At any rate, it is pointedly indifferent to our moral aspirations for ourselves.
Counter-productive or gratuitous violence and rage varies historically in its objects and its forms. It might be a giant bureaucracy organized for genocide or a cult of human sacrifice or an outbreak of mass shootings, but as long as there have been human beings, we have been like that.
Anyway, that's no explanation, more of a feeling. But what I do want to say is: this is what we really are.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. His latest book is How to Escape, a collection of essays.
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