Order from Chaos...
Specifically, that what we call senseless and irrational violence is not necessarily senseless or irrational at all. It may be evil -- a conscious desire and decision to hurt others. But it is rarely random... instead, there is usually a cause. Not a justifiable one, but still, something more than a bad roll of the dice that day.
In fact, I would bet that a large number of single-perpetrator, multiple-victim public shootings begin with the same four words: "My life is over."
Notice that I don't say end with those four words. No, begin with them.
The fact is, there is a fairly narrow path to success in America, at least for the media-promoted and generally accepted type of success. You go to school, do your best, go to the best college you can get into and your parents can afford, get a degree in something, and then go out into the world to do... whatever. It almost doesn't matter. But there are a couple clear ways to fall off of this path, and one of the big ones is to get caught committing a serious crime -- serious in the sense of social disapproval. Something for which there can be no forgiveness.
Obviously, this means drugs.
Who hasn't filled out an application for employment that solicited statements about drug usage? And no matter how carefully the fine print states that an affirmative answer will not necessarily be a bar to employment, we all know that the first people crossed off the list will be those who admit to using drugs. Even worse than employers who ask about drugs are those who test, randomly or uniformly, for drug usage. It's possible to lie on a form easily enough if there's no way to check it; it's something else again when one Monday you walk into work to see the smiling technician asking for a urine sample, and yes, it's too late to call in sick that day.
How much worse, in the era of our seemingly omniscient State, would be an actual conviction of drug use?
The State never forgets, and its databases are easily and routinely checked. A conviction for drug usage is likely to be a practical, if not absolute, bar from any job that involves trust, responsibility, or intellectual ability. And if the conviction should pass the level required to make it a felony, the convicted can expect to be permanently denied the right to vote, the right to own a gun, and the privilege (such as it is) of holding a government job; if he's lucky, someone may eventually extend enough trust to hire him as a fast food specialist or Wal-Mart Partner.
For someone whose entire life has been spent trudging down that gold-bricked road to the American Dream, it's understandable why a felony drug conviction -- or any of the other, smaller but still intimidating roadblocks -- might be greeted with those four fatal words: "My life is over."
As in the incident Brad described, if that sudden roadblock has a cause, it makes sense to be angry at the person who caused the problem. It makes sense to want to harm that person. It is clearly wrong, and evil, but it is fundamentally understandable. Revenge is a completely human emotion. And when there seems to be nothing else left, when an entire life's purpose and effort has been demolished, how can we claim not to understand that it seems, to the one facing the wreckage, to be worth a life in return?
And once that decision has been made, it is a very small step to go from one life to many. Especially when the real culprit, the real enemy, isn't the one particular individual who added one straw to break a camal's back, but is instead a society that knows no mercy, no forgiveness, in the pursuit of a remorseless, politicized justice?
Perhaps what we are actually seeing in these seemingly random, multiple-victim public shootings, is something much less random than it appears. Perhaps they are acts of revenge against society, in the form of its nearest and most convenient representatives.
Perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves whether our society's insistence on the straight and narrow path is doing more harm than good.
These are just some thoughts that the Virginia Tech shooting brought to the surface. Details of that shooting are still coming out, and this essay shouldn't be considered as a response to that event.
UPDATE: It's been a year since I wrote this, or just about. For much of that time I wasn't blogging, so this post was still near the top of the blog when I opened it up again this morning. Rereading the words here, they are still thought-provoking, but there's a slightly different angle. If our own mass-killings are at least in part the product of a society that can ruin lives for victimless "crimes", how much of the terrorist murder-suicide impulse is created by a tremendously repressive and frankly horrifying society? Not by our foreign policy, but by the fact that middle-east cultures are in many ways driven by hatred, violence, and repression.
If your culture demands that you hate yourself for your natural human desires -- your sexuality, your desire for freedom, your desire for material comfort -- then such self-hate may be unavoidable. How else could a human being respond, save by learning to hate the oppressive society in which he finds himself? America makes a convenient scapegoat, but for most people in those nations it is a distant thing with little direct effect on their lives. The hatred for the immediately repressive surroundings, and the sheer hopelessness that such repression produces, has got to be a huge factor in the willingness to blow up people and places.
Jealousy may also be a factor, if a sublimated one. If the more "western" areas in a middle-eastern nation are able to enjoy their decadence while most citizens remain repressed... I can see how that could breed hatred and jealousy.