The news has provided much to astonish us recently. From the murder of four people in Ottawa, including an 18-month-old baby, to the Boston Marathon bombing, along with numerous other prodigal acts of violence. Rational, conventional people search for explanations, but these stories defy understanding. We’re forced to summon words such as “senseless” or “evil” to deal with them. The culprits often don’t seem surprised to get caught or to be all that troubled by the prospect of a long sojourn in prison. They’re like creatures from another planet, alien to our common-sense, rule bound existence. What makes such people tick?
In her essay about the 1960s film “Breathless,” Pauline Kael suggested that the characters in the movie represented a new kind of human being. They drift towards disaster with a disturbing nonchalance. Nothing they do “makes sense.” They leave us with “the horrible suspicion that there is a new race, bred in chaos, accepting chaos as natural …” They’re not consciously against society, wrote Kael. They just don’t care. “They have no ideology at all, they’re not even rebels without a cause … There is nothing they really want to do, and there’s nothing they won’t do … The standards of judgment we might bring to bear on them don’t touch them and don’t interest them.”
A few years ago, two area men were convicted of killing their wives. Both were well-educated and living conventional lives. But their deeds were hopelessly crazy. What got into them? What made them think they could get away with it? They seemed inscrutable or in a daze, uncertain of their purpose, heedless of their inevitable doom. A man opens fire in a female exercise establishment because he can’t get women to pay attention to him. Another in Norway kills 77 people at a summer camp on the grounds that they were guilty of embracing multiculturism. He’s “sorry for not killing more.” Timothy McVeigh blows up 168 innocents in Oklahoma as some kind of muddle-headed payback for the sins of the government. Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Monica College. Epitaphs for meaningless acts. Homicide, fratricide, parricide, matricide, regicide, parenticide, suicide. We’ve got them all. It makes you think that the quintessential trait of human beings is murder. Why? In the words of Virgil Thomson, “I can answer no question that begins with ‘Why?’”
Some people think gun control is the solution. But the country is awash in weapons and making it harder for sane, responsible people to own guns will not likely deter the kind of killers we’re talking about. Some fanatic beheaded a policeman with a machete the other day. It’s been suggested that the suicidal violence so common today is a result of our violent entertainments and the loss of connection with reality from immersion in video games. A desire of hopeless people for their “fifteen minutes of fame” may inspire some to do one spectacular thing to astonish the world – that is, the rest of us, who sit 24/7 in our armchairs, expecting to be entertained.
What’s happened to create this maddeningly inexplicable mentality? Richard Rhodes in “Why They Kill” argued that child abuse is the principal creator of violent adults. But child abuse is common and we must suppose that many victims of abuse don’t evolve into murderers. Some of these monsters are clearly deranged, but the world we live in is also deranged. At times, it seems as if there’s no clear line between legitimate and illegal, sensible and insane. How it can be legal for government to unleash mass murder on its designated “enemies” and yet criminal for John Brown to strike a blow against slavery by shedding blood?
“What a piece of work is man,” said Hamlet. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties … in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…” To which we must add: how stupid, how savage, how murderous. Maybe we’re not talking about a “new kind of human being” after all. Cain killed Abel at the beginning of time. Terrorists who glory in suicide mock those who are in love with life and boast that they are in love with death. Isn’t that what Lucifer, the seductive arch-nihilist, father of evil, whispers to his disciples: “Death is sweet?” Why do they listen? I can answer no question that begins with “Why?”