No special skill is required to recognize that we have deep problems within society. No keen ability to discern and understand human nature is needed to see that mass shootings represent something sinister deep within our collective psyche as Americans, deep within our ability to interact with one another.
Mass killings are more than a gun problem or a function of mental illness and certainly more than a problem with quick fixes. That, however, won’t stop television commentators or opportunistic politicians from pretending to know the solutions needed to prevent more senseless killing.
The larger problem involves a slowly wilting society—whether in Dayton or El Paso or the streets of Chicago—and the root problems have been growing like kudzu for decades, swallowing up civility and cultural norms, all while becoming too pervasive to be solved by new laws or hysterical rhetoric.
This is not a column advocating for or against more gun laws. It is, nonetheless, an attempt to demonstrate that mass shootings are more complex than can be addressed in a few sound bites or amateurish political cartoons.
On Monday, for example, The New York Post offered a front-page editorial imploring President Trump to take quick and decisive action. Known as a conservative publication, one owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, The Post editorial drew a response from Charles Cooke, editor of National Review Online. Cooke strongly condemned the piece, stating that it is “from start to finish, a profoundly lazy, impressively ignorant, and doggedly cliché-ridden piece of work that at no point even attempts to deal seriously with the arguments that it believes it is refuting.”
Cooke’s words can be applied to many of the rants coming from politicians, including many who are blaming President Trump—ignoring the fact that the Dayton shooter was, according to multiple news outlets, a professed leftist and supporter of Elizabeth Warren.
That all-knowing Socialist Sage, Bernie Sanders, was on television this week firing off his usual diatribe against President Trump. “What he has to understand,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “when you have language that is racist, that is virulently anti-immigrant, there are mentally unstable people in this country who see that as a sign to do terrible, terrible things.”
The irony within those words is apparently lost on Sanders. Along with most of the other presidential candidates, Sanders regularly uses vitriolic language that is much more direct and inflammatory than the supposedly coded language Trump is accused of using to signal racist wackos. Using the standard upheld by Sanders and others, are we to believe that their language goes unnoticed by “mentally unstable people” in society? If the unthinkable happens and some madman attempts to assassinate President Trump, are we to blame Sanders and Warren? By their standard, yes.
President Trump, meanwhile, brought up the specter of mental illness in the aftermath of the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings. Yet statistics show that a vast majority of mass shooters have not been diagnosed with mental illness. While there is the potential to factor an element of mental illness—whether clinically diagnosed or not—into the mind of a mass murderer, there’s a flawed tendency to conflate mental illness with the pure evil inherent in even a single murder, much less nine or 22 killings.
To label a mass shooting as the act of an evil madman is simplistic on one level, but it meshes with a larger narrative regarding the dissolution of our society. This speaks to the breakdown of culture—American culture in one sense, the micro-cultures within our communities in another. The ties that bind have proven to be fickle, tenuous in modern society. Often lost is the sense of community and togetherness that provide the foundation for productive societies, found in the gathering places and organizations within crossroads communities as well as metropolitan areas.
This is not a novel proposition, that mass shootings are a symbol of a cultural breakdown that is decades in the making. In “Why Liberalism Failed,” Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen discussed the breakdown of society wrought by liberalism in its classic meaning: liberty of the individual. While he does not draw a link to mass shootings, the connection exists nonetheless.
“The loosening of social bonds,” Daneen writes, “in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national—reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability.” Once liberty of the individual reaches a certain point, Daneen maintains, it “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms.”
Allow that to sink in before considering statistics on church attendance compiled by Gallup. According to an article on that organization’s website, church membership in the U.S. has declined 20 percentage points in the last two decades. We’ve become a society that’s lost its way, one whose leaders regularly vilify religion and beliefs rooted in religion, particularly the tenets of Christianity this country has long exemplified.
We should not be surprised that disaffected males—all of whom appear to lack deep connections to community, to their fellow man—are committing acts that inflict death and suffering. If not a gun, then some other means toward reaching whatever twisted end they deem necessary.
While faulting both progressives and conservatives, “Why Liberalism Failed” offers considerable insight into these troubling, often puzzling times, and to the madness that has come to define much of society. The following paragraph from Daneen’s book is especially telling, and too valuable for a mere paraphrase. It speaks to our current political climate as well as deeper problems within society:
“In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.”
Remember those words whenever the next mass shooting occurs, as it surely will occur, tragically, inevitably. Especially remember those words when attention-seeking politicians are pretending to have answers to a problem they appear not to understand.
Larry Cothren is a former newspaper and magazine editor who currently teaches marketing at the high school level.