Law and Order in the Fallen World

Published December 19, 2012

It is a natural tendency on the part of most human beings, when confronted with great evil, to want to do something about it. We want to stop the horror of death and violence and disease.

It speaks to what is good within us that we desire this — it speaks to a recognition on our part, innate and abiding, that there is something terribly broken in this world — a great mistake which has been made along the way, a gear missed in the works, a gaping hole where something should be. The feeling is all the stronger when we face the destruction of innocent life — the life of a child.

The Mishnah tells us that the act of murder destroys a whole world — the world as it would’ve been with that person in it. When the worlds wiped out are so young, the shock of it all echoes and rebounds throughout the lives of others for generations. And the only part that can be played by those left behind is one of charity.

This is a frustrating limitation, and so those who are more naturally given to see problems of law or culture as the reason for evil look at the horror of Newtown as something that can be prevented, if only we do this or that thing, pass this or that law. Something must be done, they say.

But their somethings all have this in common: none of their proposals, on guns or mental health or any other factor, would have prevented this awful crime. In the real world, there is no law that can make the murderously insane sane, or remove all weapons from their grasp. The tweaks that have been attempted in the past in our nation and others have proven insufficient time and again. And no step which disarms the law-abiding will help.

We are in the midst of an historic and statistically impossible decline in violence in America. The economic downturn, which would be a reasonable reason for a rebound in violent crime, has produced nothing of the sort on a nationwide scale. The experts are flabbergasted as to why, and the assumptions of criminologists are being tested to a great degree.

High imprisonment, high tech tools, more disciplined police forces, and cultural factors are all potential reasons. But it is clear that even as guns are available as ever, this has done nothing to drive up crime rates nationwide. And beyond: Steven Pinker has argued, convincingly, that we are at the most peaceful point in human history. In the midst of such declines, spikes of mass violence and murder are all the more jarring.

Yet the sad fact is that in Connecticut, where the gun laws are some of the most restrictive in the country, it appears the Brady campaign accomplished as much as it could’ve. Newtown had one homicide in the past ten years. The guns used by the madman were purchased legally by his mother and kept safely in her home – as with most guns used in criminal acts, they were stolen. His own attempt to purchase a weapon ran into the legally required waiting period.

There are just only so many steps you can take to prevent evil of this nature and still have a free society. After all, what really happens when you pass gun bans is that effectively, they work as permanent authorizations for police to stop and frisk urban minorities.

Consider the case of Chicago, where Rahm Emanuel is talking about more restrictions in the wake of Newtown. What does he have in mind? There were 192 shootings in Chicago last month. On Friday alone there were 10 people shot in his city. Whatever Emanuel’s new law is, it would not prevent these crimes. In Mexico, there is one legal gun store to serve the entire nation. It is, according to the Washington Post, “not very busy.”

In America, there are roughly 300 million privately owned firearms – and while some may dream of putting these firearms in a pile and melting them down, most Americans understand that the result of giving the government a monopoly on force would be awful for the very innocents such policies are intended to protect.

In Germany, laws were passed and additional gun control steps taken in the wake of a 2002 school shooting which left 16 dead and horrified the nation. Seven years later, a gunman killed 15 in Stuttgart. These mass murders have a long history, longer than the media has reported — nor are they tied to the advent of modern weapons.

Guns aren’t even the most lethal mass murder weapon. According to data compiled by Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections:

Guns killed an average of 4.92 victims per mass murder in the United States during the 20th century, just edging out knives, blunt objects, and bare hands, which killed 4.52 people per incident. Fire killed 6.82 people per mass murder, while explosives far outpaced the other options at 20.82. Of the 25 deadliest mass murders in the 20th century, only 52 percent involved guns. The U.S. mass murder rate does not seem to rise or fall with the availability of automatic weapons. It reached its highest level in 1929, when fully automatic firearms were expensive and mostly limited to soldiers and organized criminals.

Duwe’s research is worth reading in greater detail, considering how much it runs against the reports seen in the media about the historical record of mass murders.

I suggest that the news media have figured prominently in the social construction of mass murder by heavily influencing which cases claimsmakers have selected as landmark narratives and, more generally, as typifying examples.

Because claimsmakers have relied almost exclusively on national news coverage as a source of data, they have made a number of questionable claims about the prevalence and nature of mass murder since the high-profile cases represent the most sensational and least representative mass killings. And the news media have completed the circle of distortion by disseminating the bulk of the claims that have been made, leading to policies that have targeted the rarest aspects about mass murder.

(@seanmdav notes that according to Lexis, exactly 2 articles have referenced Duwe or his research since the Newtown shooting. The phrase “gun control” shows up in thousands.) But you’ll keep seeing reports like this today.

As for the mental health aspect of this case, I doubt anyone would propose a solution to the current problems which would enable parents to lock away people with Asperger’s. Several of the mass murderers over the past decade or so were already in treatment or being prescribed drugs — but as a practical matter, no one could force them to assent to therapy or to take those pills.

Instant checks could help, but again, that only effects legal purchases. The madman’s mother had even reportedly retired from teaching to take care of her disturbed son. The facilities we have which offer true hope to people — such as DePaul Psychiatric Hospital in New Orleans — are expensive exceptions.

We don’t want to create a Shutter Island solution which results in putting away young disturbed men who refuse to assent to therapy. Nor do we want to stigmatize those whose conditions are simply not threatening. That said, we do indeed have mental health challenges in the nation which deserve more consideration. This sort of tale is horrendous to hear about — here’s a particularly sad story — but again, there are few solutions to offer. 

Robert Tracinski writes:

So all of the blather you are already hearing about how this can be blamed on the lack of gun control, or on violent movies, or first-person-shooter video games, or on some kind of general cultural malaise is based on a cheap emotional appeal rather than on evidence.

On the basis of the evidence, we can look back over decades in which such killings have occurred at a fairly constant rate and in which the cause has usually been the same. We can conclude that in a nation of 300 million people, there will be a certain number of people who become insane. Of those people, there will always be a small number — usually young men, because young men have a natural tendency toward aggression and a fascination with violence — whose insanity drives them to kill, whether to take revenge on society in general, or because of paranoid delusions, or because the voices in their heads tell them to.

This is a basic, predictable fact of life in human society, with no particular political implications and — this is the part that’s hard to accept — no particular solution.

The least ridiculous reaction to this shooting will start from a recognition that its cause is insanity, and some commentators will suggest improved screening for mental illness and faster intervention.

There may be some basis for this. (Seung Hui-Cho, for example, was known to be dangerously unstable, but no one seemed to think they had the authority to do anything about it.) But I also fear that a mania for prevention will cause more damage than it prevents—that we risk unnecessarily committing thousands of disturbed or merely eccentric young men on the basis of a hysterical fear that they will become killers.

In the end, the options for what the law can do or society can do are largely limited. They will not prevent this sort of evil from happening again. This is infuriating, of course. All we can do, on an individual level, is prepare ourselves to do whatever it takes if we are put in the position of those who stand between the marauder and the innocent. We can take this time to understand that in that situation, there is always something you can do.

For those of us who believe the broken nature of this fallen world is something that will be healed, we can take solace in the knowledge David Bentley Hart describes:

[That] our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred …

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead.

We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ 

[First published at Real Clear Politics and via The Transom.]