“Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad…we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.” –John le Carre
“The difference…is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging.” –Orson Scott Card
Why do we forgive?
Some will talk about healing and maturity. Others may reference human brokenness and the need for second chances. There will probably be citations of divine mercy and justice. In particular cases, some may apologize for the rascal or censure perceived hypocrisy in the victim. The specific situations, people, and implications of the decision to forgive—or not—vary as much as DNA. But in the end, forgiveness is about how to acknowledge and manage an inherently broken world. I do not forgive because someone else deserves it. I forgive because I want to be the kind of person who believes it is better to solve problems than spite the devil.
It is a similar principle at play in responsible attempts to map the wilderness of troubled minds. I’m no more sympathetic to “troubled childhood” excuses for lawlessness or terrorism than your archetypal Republican congressman. But as some point, if we are to mitigate the crueler demons of our nature, we have to understand the pathology behind them. To this end, David Frum’s recent series recounting an anonymous young man’s haunting solidarity with mass shooters is uniquely insightful.
At the acknowledged risk of enabling the infamy of “disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basement”, the author presents a roadmap for understanding the kind of factors at play in producing monsters. In retaining his anonymity, (a critical step up from Liza Long’s otherwise thoughtful essay), this gainfully employed East Coast fellow keeps the focus where it belongs: on what are essentially broad and impersonal discussions of culture, policy, and systemic problems with profoundly personal impact. In this regard, much of the backlash—in which commenters denounce the author for, among other things, narcissism, sociopathy, sensationalism, and shameless attention-seeking—has been as insightful as the original piece.
To the people inclined to dismiss the author as an empathy-deprived monster: how does that solve the problem of how to stop people like him? That is a serious question I suspect few of us can credibly answer. The solutions offered by those who want to obsess over the immorality of the killer are almost all retroactive: ‘He should have been locked up.’ ‘He should have been medicated.’ But there are millions of psychologically wounded people in this country, many of them medicated. We’re not going to be locking up the problem of mass violence in a padded room. This anonymous series is a vivid portrait of the Joker as a young man. Are we going to use it as a tool to assemble enduring resolutions to future violence, or will we disdain even engaging with it in a grotesquely self-congratulatory posture of moral superiority?
If the author wanted attention, he could have easily written under his own name. Long has already bought her fifteen minutes of fame at the expense of her son, and she could probably write a New York Times bestseller if she wanted. Imagine how much more intense the interest would be in the narrative of someone who almost committed a tragedy, complete with a tearful mother and numerous not-murdered classmates to imbue a troubled past with salacious contour? We are a society addicted to moral outrage, with a fetish for abattoir noises. If the man wanted fame, you would be hearing his name on your daily commute and seeing his face on cable news. But you do not.
The truth of the matter is the identity of this man—like those of the actual shooters that have inspired him—is completely irrelevant. If you don’t believe his testimony is an accurate portrayal of all killers, fine. But if you suspect he opens a rare, promising window into deep and lonely chasm on the far side of the soul, then consider what we might learn and accomplish should we commit to devising the resources to breathe humanity into beasts. The point is not that would-be killers are special people deserving of extra sympathy or apology. Such a notion is repulsive to those of us who believe actions have consequences. Rather, it is far more productive to understand and sublimate incipient evil than react in grieving fury to tragedy obtained.
Part of this proactivity might ought to include an uncomfortably frank discussion of America’s schizophrenic relationship with intelligence. Namely, we so resent the notion that some people are smarter than others—than us—that every frank reckoning with intellect is fodder for caveats and derision. The anonymous writer painted his own intelligence in astringently clinical light—it served as an accelerant for mental illness, a hindrance to talk therapy, and a disorder generally comorbid with socially alienating eccentricity. Nevertheless, the mere mention of his mental capacity prompted inferences of a fiendish narcissism rooted in invidious moral and cognitive deficiency. To put it bluntly, the mention of the author’s intelligence, like the rest of his epistolary musing, is not about challenging the egos of insecure minds. It serves to illustrate an element of commonality between a would-be monster and his infamous peers. The reality of a backlash for such an honest observation presents cause for concern in its own right.
When I read the young man’s ruminating on being “socially isolated and…smart”, I think of the many ways in which our failing education system caters to mediocrity at great expense to gifted students. I also ponder the unique difficulty of trying to reform the misbehavior of people who are, as my father would put it, “too smart for their own good.” Namely, it is nigh impossible to talk down the insanity of someone either invincibly stupid or demonstrably smarter (or cleverer) than you. And the most terrifying villains—from some of the shooters to international terrorists—are infernally cerebral. Yet somehow we must find a way to defuse them.
None of this adds one iota of sympathy for any miscreant fallen beyond the moral event horizon, and I have no forgiveness to offer. Instead, I wonder how we can create a world of better options for people who are currently inclined to hurt us. How can we provide our schools and communities the necessary resources to work with gifted and struggling students? How might we improve mental health services and resources? Should involuntary commitment be a viable option? What all do we still not understand about how we might better discern problems and resolutions? These are the questions we should be asking and answering, and to such an end, Frum’s series is, I hope, a promising catalyst.
There are certainly limits to this kind of thing. The author, whoever he is, has a particular story and set of circumstances that will not hold for many other troubled youth, and we should be wary of extrapolating too much from any one or group of narratives. As my friend Leah Libresco is fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. That observation holds as strongly for the shooting itself as for the attempts at postmortem. There are no easy answers or panacea ahead—only a long, tough road of struggle and pain. Whether we can see the job through will be a question for the ages.