After the recent shootings on the campus of Northern Illinois University, network-news programs were filled with helpful proposals for dealing with the growing problem of school violence. The suggestions were the predictably inane and irrelevant products of post-Christianity’s impoverished imagination: more counseling for shocked and grieving students, a university warning system complete with a database of contact numbers for students and staff, and, inevitably, either a tighter system of monitoring and controlling gun sales or an outright ban.
A few commentators, however, took the opposite position, calling for students and faculty to be armed, and while such a concept might have appealed to me in years past, I have visited college campuses too often to trust anyone’s life to today’s “youth.” Young men who cannot be persuaded to bathe, shave, or speak English are not responsible enough to handle guns: Indeed, college food services are wise to hand out plastic tableware lest the boys—professors as well as students—cut their own throats trying to eat soup with a fork.
Of course, there are still young men, shaved or unshaved, who have the experience and judgment needed to handle firearms. But a generation nurtured on instant messaging and video games is not a good field in which to recruit the tough farmers who joined Marion or Forrest to defend their liberty. There is an old NRA slogan: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But this needs to be updated, since guns, if they are placed in the hands of timid suburbanites, will not save people either. The problem, in other words, does not lie in the presence or absence of guns but in the kind of people we are bringing up today.
Ever since there has been a youth culture (the 1920’s?), young men have not been worth much until they have worked a few years at a steady job. In the 1940’s, most boys appear to have been men before they were 21; in my time, it probably took us until the age of 25, though I have more than a few old friends who will die of old age, still smoking dope and listening to Hendrix records, without reaching maturity. With the Gen-Xers of my acquaintance, the transformation has not begun to happen yet. Listen to NPR or read National Review, if you will not take my word for it. Indeed, manhood—as opposed to genetic maleness or the puerile cult of machismo—is becoming an empty concept. Like the unicorn, modern American males belong to a genus without a species. Arm them, disarm them, it hardly matters. Disarmed, they cower first and seek counseling later. Armed, they might shoot themselves in the knee or commit mass murder on a dare. What we have done to create such beings (and how we can undo our work) is a far more serious question than any proposal for reducing violence in schools.
Not long after the gun debate sputtered out in the usual platitudes, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich stepped in to promise NIU $40 million with which to tear down Cole Hall, where the shootings took place, and build a brand-new classroom building. The governor is eager to deflect attention away from an investigation into his friend and fundraiser Tony Rezko. Governor Blago has virtually bankrupted the state and alienated even his own party, which controls both houses of the legislature, but there is still money to waste on a symbolic gesture.
I have always been puzzled by Rod Blagojevich. Serbs are normally a tough and resolute people with a good sense of humor. I have met stupid Serbs, violent Serbs, and crazy Serbs, aristocratic Serbs, bourgeois Serbs, and Serbs who acted as if they had been brought up in a stable, but I have run into very few unmanly Serbs. Even their elderly monks are two-fisted he-men, who, if they were not saintly, could knock down would-be assailants with their fists. If Blago, with his poofed hair and dung-sucking grin, is an indication of what happens to immigrant families when they assimilate to the suburban American type, then we should all favor bilingual classrooms.
Post-Christian America has become a weird albeit boring country, where grown men are boys—or just as often, girls—women are she-devils, and guns and buildings are treated as morally culpable for crimes. Our sickness does not lie in the primitive mistake of attributing moral qualities to things. There are, after all, historical precedents for trying and condemning animals and objects. In ancient Athens, a goat that killed a man could be executed for murder, and, when a roof tile fell and killed a citizen, the tile was flung into the sea as an accursed thing. This ceremonial action grew out of the Greek belief that the blood of a homicide caused pollution, and in expelling the pollution, the burden of grief and fear was lifted. Ancient pagans in general had a deep and almost sacramental understanding of birth, marriage, and death. The best we can come up with are prayer vigils in which participants light candles and croak out “On Eagle’s Wings.”
The pagan lived in a community that spanned the generations; it taught him to be loyal and brave in defending the tribe or city and connected him, with its rituals, to a divine world that shaped the meaning of his own. He might attribute, at least metaphorically, moral significance to a goat, because everyone and everything was fraught with significance. In our anonymous world of virtual existence, nothing could possibly have any meaning.
The public rituals of grief invented ad hoc by schools and churches are hardly worse than the ad hoc liturgies invented by pastors and choir directors every week. As American churchgoers, Catholic as well as Protestant, became estranged from the old-time religion and its liturgical traditions, they had to devise childish pageants as a substitute for the real thing, and as Americans became more and more estranged from the realities of life—planting and plowing, hunting and fishing, fighting and dying—they have come to seem, for all their submersion in the basest physical existence, more like disembodied spirits than like men and women. Some 30- and 40-something Americans I have met are so morally retarded, I wonder sometimes if they could suffer damnation. It somehow seems unfair that children stupid enough to applaud Al Gore, vote for Barack Obama, or trust “Honest John” McCain should be sent to Hell even if they routinely committed the Seven Deadly Sins. If you ever find yourself suffering from a fit of Polyannaism, tune in to Weekend America (aired on NPR) or Glen Beck for an instant corrective. How did the nation of Washington and Jefferson—how did the nation of Calvin Coolidge and Gerald Ford—produce such people? Compared with Americans under 50, Waugh’s bright young things or the creatures of Brave New World seem courageous and profound.
Perhaps, somewhere between Limbo and Purgatory, a joint committee of angels from both sides could set up a reeducation camp. The boys could learn that marriage is something more than a casual shack-up, and the girls could be taught that marriage and children take precedence in every case over their “careers.” How often have you heard some self-centered American female enthuse over her need to fulfill herself in a career and then learn that she is not a latter-day Joan of Arc or Madame Curie but a marketing expert or a middle-school teacher? She neglects her two-year-old baby, stuck in daycare with who knows whom, not to help humanity but only to escape boredom or to earn enough for an annual snorkeling vacation in Cancun.
Alienated from all the realities of life, drugged out of the pains and numbed to the anxieties, with brains addled on mind-diddling electronic jolts guaranteed to reduce their alertness, Americans today cannot understand evil because they know nothing of good. The moral grid is no longer set by virtues and vices but by comforts and discomforts, luxuries and petty deprivations.
Confronted with the profound question raised by Job—why do the righteous suffer?—many Americans could only wonder why the physicians in Uz could not do a better job of treating boils or why the blessed Job did not seek counseling and get a small-business loan to build back his fleet of camels.
In wondering “how it ever got this crazy,” we might begin with the institutions that have formed the character of several generations of Americans: the schools. Amid all the talk of school shootings, we rarely stop to ask why we are building adolescent game preserves that hold tens of thousands of alienated and hormone-disturbed boys and girls. At the end of the 19th century, American children attended schools that held perhaps a hundred or two hundred students, almost all of them from the neighborhood. Most colleges were fairly small, and even the larger universities and land-grant colleges drew students that shared a similar background and social class. In the 1950’s, I attended a K-8 school with roughly nine classes and perhaps 300 students at most. I knew everyone in my class and knew most of the students in the grades above and below me. Even when we boys of the seventh grade were picked on and beaten by the boys of the eighth grade, we knew it was only a passing phase. We played baseball with our tormentors and would date their sisters when we got old enough.
High school, even in those days, could be a frightening place, because it was far too big and drew from so many different neighborhoods, but in their first year, freshmen could stick together with friends from their neighborhood. The school from which I did not quite graduate, General William Moultrie High School in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, had perhaps 350 students, most of whom I knew by sight, and I can say the same of the College of Charleston’s 500 students, nearly all of whom I could identify by name or distinguishing characteristics—the crew-cut jock who wants to go to med school, the slide-rule-toting physics major on the tennis team. After the first few months, I felt almost at home, and by the time I finally graduated, I felt I was leaving my hometown behind.
As an outsider and an aspiring “aesthete” in philistine Charleston, I was undoubtedly regarded as an oddball. It is disturbing to think, even for a moment, of the impression I must have made on my contemporaries, and I sometimes wonder what sort of monster I might have become if I had been thrust into the gigantic, godless education factories that form the character of so many young Americans today. In fact, I was as content as I suppose it is possible for a feckless young fellow to be. I loved my college and my adopted city, and alienation was something I read about in a class on 20th-century French literature. Had I but known which way the world was headed, I should have paid more careful attention to Albert Camus, whom I read and liked, to Gabriel Marcel, whom I would read and admire some years later, and to Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I had to read but detested from almost the first page of La Nausée.
All the existentialists, however, had something important to tell us about a moral universe in which man found himself without the comforts of faith or even traditional prejudices. Camus’ Meursault did his work faithfully, without believing in its worth, felt nothing about his mother’s death, and fell in with a common scoundrel. Who was he to make judgments? Marcel diagnosed an important part of the modern malaise in his analysis of how bureaucracy reduces us to the subhuman dimension of numbers on a grid. What is left of our humanity, when we are nothing but name (last name first), rank or profession, and Social Security number? For Camus, whose memory I continue to honor as a virtuous pagan, the answer lay in a life of honorable and heroic action. Sartre, although (to use his own word) a complete salaud in his personal life, eventually found meaning in an amoral commitment to the Communist Party, but it was Sartre who gave me my first hint of what sort of men the modern total state (whether democratic or communist) is producing.
In a short story “Erostrate,” written before his political engagement, Sartre portrays a nonentity who longs to make a name in the world. The loser has taken as his model Herostratus, a young man who in 356 b.c. destroyed the magnificent Temple of Artemis at Ephesus for the sole purpose of being remembered. The “hero” of the story plans to shoot six people at random. Why six? Because his gun only holds six bullets—a decision that reduces human lives to numerical absurdity.
Over the years, I have wondered if Sartre intended his story as a comment on the political violence of the 1930’s, when fascist and communist youths beat up each other in the street. They may have been more politically engaged than today’s school shooters, but they, too, were at loose ends, morally and socially, in the period between the wars. However, Catharine Savage Brosman, in her book Jean-Paul Sartre, sees a malaise that goes deeper than totalitarian politics. The would-be killer “despises the humanistic self-deceit which ascribes value to human beings in themselves. He wants to dominate others and thus prefers to look at their backs or heads, chiefly from several stories high. . . . His project is to commit a memorable act of destruction . . . ” In the end, however, “posted and waiting for his victims, he cannot act, not from ordinary fear but because the passers-by seem to him already dead, emptied of meaning.”
Were Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho, and Stephen Kazmierczak playing Herostratus? I do not know, and they cannot tell us. Kazmierczak did send a final note to his ex-girlfriend, saying “Don’t forget about me.” The girlfriend, a budding social worker, took an interest in serial killers and contributed a review on the subject to Amazon.com. Did she wittingly or unwittingly send this poor young man a signal that, to win her love, he needed to become a somebody? Kazmierczak’s note arrived with two books: a study of serial killers and Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. The media were interested in the former volume, but it is the latter, in which the mad philologist set out to debunk Christianity once and for all, that provides the deeper clue. Post-Christian man is no longer only “half in love with easeful Death”: He is completely infatuated.
Since the Iliad, Western man has been able to distinguish between men who kill, as Hector does, to protect their family and community, and others, like Achilles, who kill for personal glory. Achilles, to be sure, fought armed men in a cause that the Greeks and their gods had declared just. Nonetheless, there is something frightening about a man who dreams of gaining glory and wealth for himself and his friend when all the Greeks and Trojans have killed each other off. As the son of a goddess, Achilles sets himself above the morality of tribe and community, but he is not, even so, an alienated monster, and, when Priam comes to ransom Hector’s body, he appeals to the hero’s remembrance of his own father.
Our school shooters are cowards without honor, who dismiss from their minds the people who have loved them. Lonely and alienated from human society since they entered daycare or nursery school, they have been taught by American society the one sure way for a weakling and loser to gain glory. In their own defense, they might say truly, if they could be brought back from the grave to testify, what Charles Manson said at his trial. Manson, who had spent a large part of his life in orphanages, juvenile centers, and prisons, told the people of California and the United States: “You made me.” It is schools, primarily, that make school shooters, and until we eliminate these factories of alienation, we can only expect more attacks.