Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance, fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death. –Algernon Charles Swinburne
“and the dragon fought…and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.” –Revelation 12:7-8
I remember watching Megyn Kelly one afternoon, some time ago, after one of the many little tragedies that emerge through the fickle din of commentary. As she was imparting the latest developments in the case, her station engineers switched to a photograph of whatever knave had vomited his iniquity onto the world that week. Before disgust could curl my lip, and after only the briefest pause, Megyn ordered unseen hands to keep the screen on her. Under no circumstances, she said, were they to reward a criminal with attentive eyes.
It’s rare you see such unilateral moral clarity in public anymore. I could have fallen in love that day.
Yet instead of love, I recall a situation from my college years as a member of a political debating society known as the Independent Party. Through various historians, alumni, and a mysteriously lost silver goblet at Mory’s Temple Bar, the Party has preserved the names of the Chairmen through the decades. Lost among those is “The Jackelope.” Before you inquire: I don’t know this fellow’s name. He was removed from office over a decade ago for moral and political failings so heinous that his peers struck his name from all records. I have met several alumni from that period. Not a one will tell of the man behind the soubriquet. Thus, his memory will die as nothing more than a cautionary tale forever shrouded in the indignity of oblivion. That is the fate of varmints.
When I think of the day the abyss gazed into Newtown, Connecticut, I think of Vicki Soto, just four years my senior, trading her own promise for a chance to save the children. I hear the custodian canvassing the halls to warn people of the gunman. I see Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach lunging into eternity, buying precious moments through the intercom. I watch the school’s lead teacher barricading a classroom door as her body is violated by fire. I choke back tears for that darkly shrewd little girl playing dead among the bodies of her entire first-grade class. I remember that twenty innocent children will never again smile, laugh, cry, hurt, sing, pout, or grow old. I contemplate how we might find a way to stop these and so many other deaths from so many tragically resolvable ills. I grow weary of how powerless I am against the violent apathy of a vast and empty universe.
But I do not think of the shooter. Of what consequence is his memory? For what reason would we immortalize his name in media or conversation? Of what concern are his views and philosophies that we should ponder his mind? For the sake of what value would we propagate his photograph? To the extent that there is any possible meaning in his story, it is only the understanding of how the next maniac might be thwarted. It is not a narrative of this or any other specific shooter. It is a tale of bundled pathologies, full of sound and fury, warranting no greater identity than a set of coordinates in space and time—Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, 2012.
Perhaps there is a lesson about mental disorder, drugs, guns, bullying, or societal decay—those are certainly worthwhile inquiries of policy and culture. But we shan’t discern any useful direction for national policy from the reconstructed memoirs of a deranged mind. Did the shooter suffer from mental illness? Had he been violent before? Did he get proper treatment? Were there any warning signs missed? Should Governor Malloy reverse funding cuts to mental health services in Connecticut? Should Governor McDonnell contemplate the same in Virginia? What policies might best prevent future tragedies? Why?
I hope policymakers will diligently ascertain solutions. But that process is not aided one iota by imparting millions with inanely jaundiced views of the “mentally ill” because the media is too sanctimoniously fickle for difficult conversations of mental health and other issues. It is not responsible journalism but a macabre theater of fetishistic enabling that produces articles, segments, op-eds, and photographs delving ever deeper into a story offering only horror and the illusion of enlightenment. (No, I won’t link to any of them.)
To be sure, this kiss of oblivion to fiends is not always expedient. If the suspect is still alive and at large (or is thought to be so), then it is vital that we think about him (or her), as a matter of public safety. But such are not the situations with mass shootings, whose perpetrators are caught either by law or bullet.
It is also said that we should remember the humanity of the shooter and find it in our hearts to forgive. As assuredly as resentment is mother to a stillborn soul, forgiveness is the ultimate rite of healing. But these victims are not my family or neighbors, nor are their towns my home. I feel sympathy for their pain and solidarity with their desire for justice and recovery of promise lost. But absolution is not mine to give. That is between the people and communities most deeply affected by these tragedies and powers beyond primetime. The media as we know it is no better fit for such a transcendently serious project than a “gentlemen’s club” is fit for a nursery.
If we are eager for a divine lesson, we have Milton and the origin of violence. When the angels of the rebellious Morning were expelled from Glory, their names were to be heard no more in Heaven. Wisdom held that justice does not crown the wicked in the immortality of infamy. From then on, the fallen were merely Satan—Accuser—of no more personal significance in the grand struggle against evil and chaos than individual waves are to a flood. Instead, all focus is for the innocent and the hopeful. So let us speak of them and the way forward.
There are stories of the dead that we must tell and answers for the living that we must find. That is our project now. Let there be no glory for the wicked.