A racist shooting massacre in Buffalo last May. The horrible slaughter of little schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas in June. July opening with the mass shooting of holiday parade-goers in Highland Park, Illinois.
Each time, we grope for answers, solutions, interventions that will end this madness.
There are the immediate panaceas: tougher gun control, harsher punishments. Congress responded to Uvalde with some bi-partisan gun restrictions, though many consider them still woefully inadequate. Prosecutors in Florida are seeking the death penalty for the Parkland school shooter, while federal terrorism charges make the Buffalo shooter also potentially subject to capital punishment.
But given that many of these shooters take their own lives, and all of them risk being killed immediately by responding law enforcement, it hardly seems likely they will be deterred by the prospect of execution years later.
Gun restrictions are more complex. While I am not a gun enthusiast, I do support the right to bear arms—for hunting, target or other sport shooting, and, yes, for protection of oneself, one’s family, one’s livelihood.
At the same time, I believe we can have sensible restrictions of gun ownership, related to things like mental illness or instability, criminal records or threatening behavior, age requirements. And I am increasingly sympathetic to more limits on possession of rapid-fire assault weapons, useless for hunting and sport shooting, unnecessary for self-protection, and tailor-made for these kinds of atrocities.
But what about the much deeper questions? What has gone so wrong in the lives of men and boys so young, that brings them to such depraved acts of evil?
Some factors seem to recur over and over again—chief among them, a deep and terrible isolation that leaves some youth prey to the power of incomprehensible evil that we Catholics know as Satan.
But what causes such isolation?
Mental illness is of course a factor. It can be internal in nature, related to brain injuries, chemical imbalances, etc. But it can also be caused, or exacerbated, by external forces: family dysfunction; horrific, sustained abuse by peers; substance dependencies; or, increasingly in these times, descent into the cyberworld, with all its depraved rantings heightening a disturbed person’s isolation, paranoia, hatreds, and inclinations to violence. That certainly seems to have fed into, or quite possibly created, the racist motivations of the Buffalo shooter.
Reports indicate that the Uvalde shooter’s mother suffered from a long history of drug abuse; that he may have been sexually abused as a young boy by the mother’s boyfriend; that he had a speech impediment that caused him to be cruelly bullied in school.
That doesn’t justify, of course, and doesn’t even rationally explain his massacre of innocent little schoolchildren who had nothing to do with his mistreatment. But it does illustrate how a vulnerable child, abused and tormented both at home and in school, can gradually turn into a deeply isolated, angry and violent young man; the kind who, as columnist Stanley Crouch wrote more than 20 years ago, “lose all sense of moral regard for the humanity of others because they seem to have been shown none themselves.”
Details keep emerging about the apparently dysfunctional family the Highland Park shooter grew up in. This can itself cause mental instability, and certainly militates against the family support a young person coping with such instability needs. Back in 1998, writing about a rash of school shootings, I noted that in Arkansas, one of the shooters had been devastated by his parents’ recent divorce, and his resulting separation from his father. The pain experienced by children from family break-up is constantly minimized by a society rationalizing easy divorce. But it is very real, and can be very dangerous to a child’s mental and emotional health.
What of the effect of mind-altering drugs? New York Post columnist Miranda Devine reports that the Highland Park shooter “habitually smoked cannabis, a habit he appeared to share with other young shooters, including in Uvalde, Dayton, Parkland and Aurora.” She cites a New York Times report on the heightened potency of cannabis products, and “scientific literature,” including from Lancet medical journal and the American Medical Association, “which increasingly shows that cannabis triggers psychosis.”
No, marijuana use alone does not cause mass murder. But it can apparently be a contributing factor in further debilitating troubled young minds, helping push those so afflicted into ever deeper isolation and rage. Yet, while we rightly strive to find ways to deny such troubled young men access to guns, we are rushing headlong to legalize highly potent “recreational” marijuana, with little apparent concern for its dangerous effect on still-developing young brains.
Ultimately, we all have free will, and the shooters are responsible for the death, pain, and suffering they cause; for terrorizing and murdering even little children; for taking family members from one another, and leaving survivors to deal with a lifetime of trauma.
But evil is a very powerful force. When it can utilize serious medical, psychological, social and cultural pathologies to totally isolate a weak, tormented individual, it can induce human acts of incalculable evil.
If we are to prevent them, we are going to have to confront those pathologies.
Meanwhile, as we grieve and pray for all the victims and their loved ones, as Catholic Christians we should try–as difficult as this is–to also offer a prayer for the terribly tormented young souls driven to commit these atrocities.