Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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A Mass-Murderous Mind

“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

“…it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.”

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.

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A Place in Heaven

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

“Angels with silver wings shouldn’t know suffering.”

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.


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Right Quick: The Gun Culture War

There have been many words dropped over the innocent blood spilt at Shady Hook Elementary School last week. Predictably, the conversation has turned to reflexive concerns about mental health, violent media, and gun control. Everyone has their factoids and stories, some more honest, others more tendentious. I even had my own take about the difficult realities we face.

But even beyond our specific responses to this particular incident, we all have our own axes to grind. Many vocal proponents of greater gun control have minimal involvement with guns in the first place and would happily see them all gone. Too many don’t seem to realize, for example, that most handguns are and should be semiautomatic—which simply means you don’t need to reload after every shot—as are many hunting rifles. Many ardent supporters of the Second Amendment are ultimately left pushing such unsavory options as arming schools and public places to stop these incidents of what is essentially unilateral terrorism.

Over at The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle gives her take on the hard truths to confront and unbridgeable chasms to acknowledge:

“But now is not a good time to have a cost-benefit discussion, and there may never be a good time. The two sides are too far apart: gun control is mostly advocated by people who do not own guns, or want to own guns, and for them it is therefore a zero cost policy. Maybe a negative cost policy, because–apart from the violence–they have a fairly intense cultural antipathy for people who spend a lot of time playing with guns. Randall Collins notes that “US surveys indicate the favorite TV shows of liberal Democrats are comedians satirizing conservatives; conservatives’ favorites are college football.” However right they may be, those people are not in a good position to persuade gun owners that they shouldn’t want to own guns, or that having them taken away is a negligible cost in the bigger picture. Nor have gun owners had any better luck explaining to the other side why they might want to own guns even though some people abuse them.

So I’ll merely point out what Jeffrey Goldberg has already said, better and at greater length, in The Atlantic: the discussion is moot. You can’t ban guns. That ship has sailed… There is just, as Mark Kleiman notes, “no way to get there from here”. And the more you push for a ban, the more pushback you get on lesser gun control measures–the reason the NRA has so vociferously opposed gun registration is that they (correctly) suspect that VPC and its fellows would like to ban guns, and use those lists to confiscate the ones currently in circulation. For the same reason that pro-choicers resist “leaving the issue to the states” or “reasonable restrictions”, opponents of gun control feel they need to hold the line as far back as possible. They are not wrong to worry about a slippery slope; that is what the other side is hoping for.”

The cultural angle is key, as it goes to the root of so many ills. Too many Americans are far too distrustful—reasonably or otherwise—of  their countrymen for productive conversations on so many issues. Even as our nation homogenizes, this age-old problem persists. But back to the question of guns, there is no evidently compelling hope that feasibly tighter restrictions will prevent mass killing or any other kind of violence:

“Reducing the magazine sizes seems modestly more promising, but only modestly. It takes a few minutes of practicing to learn how to change a magazine in a few seconds.  Even if you banned magazines, forcing people to load the gun itself, people could just carry more guns; spree shooters seem to show up, as [the shooter] did, with more guns and ammunition than they actually need.  In this specific case, it might well not have helped at all. Would [the shooter] really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload?”

[Note: The Columbine shooters reloaded at least four times.]

It is conceivable that we’ll somehow resurrect the lapsed “assault weapons ban”. As lawmakers and pundits tinker on the margins, freely acknowledge that many of us will feel better after however much time and resources have been expended on the particular placebo that emerges. How we’ll feel after the next tragedy—and the new culture battle it ignites—is another matter.

As McArdle reminds us, “False security is more dangerous than none.”


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Violence and Its Discontents

Update: This post was adapted by The Huffington Post. You can find that article here.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” –Philippians 4:8

“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.” –Psalm 130:1

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, emotions are running high on all sorts of fronts. Families are grieving lost loved ones, parents are terrified for the safety and wellbeing of their children, gun control activists are agitating for more gun control, and many others are wondering about the state of mental health and public safety in this country. Above and beyond all this, many Americans are wondering how on Earth a bunch of elementary school kids—who didn’t even yet exist on 9/11—can be murdered in cold blood by a bafflingly determined madman.

What is wrong with the world?

Allow me to being with a public service announcement: contrary to popular belief, I do not have the answers to all problems. (Take a moment to recover from the shock; I’ll be here.) I do have observations based on experience, research, and input from others. I was raised to understand that people kill people, not guns. Most of my friends from Virginia, the military, and various suburbs and towns across America seem to agree. To this sentiment, many Ivy League, Blue-State, and liberal friends prefer Eddie Izzard’s wry retort: “the gun helps.” Valid points abound.

So yes, I already read the “Twelve Facts” of Ezra Klein. They’re rather interesting and informative. I also read Jeffrey Goldberg’s far more thoughtful and balanced feature in The Atlantic; I highly recommend it to the more open-minded among you. (I assume if you’re still reading anything I write, you are exceedingly open-minded, thoughtfully conservative, liberally masochistic, or else collecting more evidence that gay, black conservatives are ruining America.)

Some levity aside, this is my attempt at a serious discussion, not a sermon. So let’s talk.

America is a very violent country. We are by no means the most dangerous, but we shan’t be winning any public safety awards from Western Europe or Japan. We also have a lot of guns, which correlates with more gun homicide within the U.S. (see: the South vs. the Northeast) and across the world (see: the U.S. vs. anywhere). Nevertheless, Vermont exists, gun-related violent crimes fell sharply as sales rose meteorically in my adoptive Virginia, and overall homicide rates have risen with gun bans but fallen with right-to-carry policy in various jurisdictions. There is also the intriguing debate over the inverse correlation between concealed carry and crime.

As Klein and others have pointed out, the percentage of households with guns had been declining in the last several years. However, gun ownership has lately risen to the highest levels since 1993, thanks mostly to women, Democrats, and people outside the South (and possibly the recession). Guns are used (not necessarily fired) in self-defense at least 108,000 to 498,000 times per year. For women, in particular, handguns have proven vital in protecting their homes, thwarting rape, repelling violent assault, protecting their babies, and defending their children from hostile men. As of last year, nearly half of all American households have some sort of firearm.

While gun presence generally correlates well with gun violence, neither is a reliable indicator of overall violence. Britain, for example, is more violent (though not more murderous) than most of Europe and the U.S., notwithstanding her disarmed citizenry. Relatively gun-loving Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden have lower homicide rates than more restrictive France, Australia, the Netherlands, and, of course, the U.K. In the U.S., 20% of violent crimes had something to do with weapons, of which only one-third (7% overall) were firearms. Put another way, more than 90% of reported violence in America has nothing to do with guns.

Which brings us to mass murders.

These macabre eruptions of evil are more like terrorist attacks than “ordinary” violence. For one, they are aggressively premeditated around the law, with contingency plans. (The Columbine shooters brought bombs; the Aurora shooter booby-trapped his apartment.) Secondly, these tragedies, while increasing, are more societally disruptive than reflective of overall crime trends. Violent crime is at extraordinarily low levels, and more Americans die from lightning than mass shootings. Given that many of these massacres, from Columbine to Sandy Hook, were ultimately murder-suicides, it might be time to talk about mental health policy among our cultural issues. An assault weapon ban won’t stop tragedy. Preventing 1% of suicides would save more lives than were lost to mass-murdering lunatics in this entire deadly year.

Suicides, the majority of gun deaths, increased even as rates of gun homicide declined in the last decade. Waiting periods for gun purchases might prevent some deaths without denying the right to responsible gun-ownership. But such restrictions are, at best, only a marginal solution to a broader problem. Nearly half of suicides—which outnumber all homicides—are committed without guns. (Of the greater casualties from “unintentional injury”, fewer than 1% involve firearms.) It might be worth discerning why, for example, suicides appear concentrated in the West, Florida, Upper South (especially Appalachia), and parts of the Midwest but least prevalent in the Deep South (particularly, the Black Belt), Mid-Atlantic, southern New England, parts of California, South Texas, and other parts of the Midwest. Such an approach could be informative, politically viable, and effective. To be honest, I just don’t know.

The dark and maddening truth of the matter is that there are no simple resolutions to evil. Ignoring the politics, gun control is not a panacea and does not come without cost. More to the point, if long-time trends have been instructive in understanding the evolution of marriage (interracial and gay) and abortion law in America, they are also useful in understanding gun laws. In all likelihood, we’re not getting many more of them, sensible or otherwise, regardless of who is in office.

If I have touched a nerve, feel free to insult me, curse the Red States, and vomit bile on “American barbarism” while clinging to infographics of European statistics like postcards from the island of misfit policies that are not to be. But at the end of the day, the Second Amendment will outlive every futile paean for gun control. I want young, promising people to stop dying for no reason, and I don’t see how that cause will be won in the lost battles of yesteryear. Perhaps we can start by ending the insidious practice of immortalizing monsters.

Now is the time to find lasting solutions to underlying problems in our national culture of violence that go far beyond guns. I don’t know what such solutions will look like, but I hope we’re all open to thoughtful suggestions and humble reflection.