Monday, May 21, 2018

Ennui and Evil

We had another school shooting, this past Friday. Too close to home. It was at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, toward Galveston. It’s a little over an hour from our home, near where we go to pick strawberries in the spring. I didn’t know anyone there, but almost right away a friend asked for prayers from Facebook friends for her relative who was a teacher at the school.

News report following the Santa Fe shooting
screen shot from here

Santa Fe High School has been in the national news before. You might recall, back in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, on the question, “Whether petitioner's policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause." SCOTUS ruled 6-3 that it did.

There were larger questions in the case as it came up. The majority religion in the area was Baptist. The Does (the unnamed plaintiffs) were Catholic and Mormon. The Mormon family did not object to prayers at graduation and football games. What happened was that a particular teacher, in class, handed out flyers to students encouraging them to attend a revival meeting—clearly inappropriate. But that same teacher also harangued the Mormon student in front of other students, insisting that Mormons belong to a cult. That should never happen in a school, or anyplace else that we expect civilized behavior.

If I had been the mother of such a child, you can be certain the Mama Bear teeth and claws would have come out in protection of my beloved cub. That family joined in a class action suit with the prayer-objectors, although it was the establishing—or favoring—of one religion over all others that was at issue.

The families filed anonymously with good reason: the school district attempted to “out” them through various means, which were harshly condemned by the judge. In other words, what we would normally see as simply pro-religious behavior was, indeed, anti-any-other-religion behavior. And at a public school, no student should be required to submit to that sort of atmosphere.

It's harder to see how someone could be harmed—or forced to participate in a particular established religion—at a football game prayer. The issue there was that a particular chosen chaplain always gave the prayer. Respecting other religions by taking turns, or having various students apply to pray would have solved that issue. But by the time it got to the Supreme Court, it became an opportunity for an overreaching court to actually limit religious freedom.

The ruling ended up giving permission for a student-led prayer at a solemn, once-in-a-lifetime event such as a graduation, but not giving permission for student-led prayer at football games. The original ruling allowed for “non-sectarian and non-proselytizing” prayers and discussions at the school. The school district went ahead with graduation prayers following students’ voting for that. But then the district appealed based on the “non-sectarian and non-proselytizing” phrase, and lost even more.

In the dissent, Justice Rehnquist pointed out that the majority opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life.” For one thing, the policy change being ruled on, going against the original ruling, had never been put into action, so no one could have been materially harmed by it. SCOTUS legislated from the bench to prevent a possible future violation of the Establishment Clause. And second, Justice Rehnquist asserted that the speech in question would be private, chosen and delivered by the speaker, rather than public, school-sponsored speech.

overhead view of  Santa Fe High School
image from here

I’m bringing this up because of the irony of preventing a community that wants to have prayer—that has even had students vote in favor of having prayer—from having the free exercise of religion, which is the essence of the First Amendment. And now, that same community that was prevented from exercising religion is faced with the evil of a school shooting.

Is there a direct correlation? I don’t know. The prayer in school question goes back much further—before I was in school. When I was in first grade, I had a teacher who decided to disobey what she deemed a wrong decision and have us bow our heads for our own private prayer every day anyway. No one complained.

One thing we do following a school shooting is offer prayers for the victims and their families and friends. That is good and right to do. Anti-gun people complain that that is doing nothing. But what we really needed was prayer in schools all along—or, I should say, the atmosphere in which prayer is natural, normal, and encouraged. Because when you have an atmosphere that honors God, you’re a lot less likely to have an atmosphere that cultivates mass murderers.

Back when I was in high school, people brought rifles, in a rack in their pickup trucks, or in their cars, so they could go deer hunting after school. The guns themselves, or their prevalence, did not increase our danger—because no one intended to use them for mass murder. People carried knives to school too. We didn’t need metal detectors, or armed teachers, or policies that didn’t tolerate even a paper gun or a pop-tart bitten into the shape of a gun. We didn’t have mass murders, because we didn’t have mass murderers among us.

So the question is, why are there mass murderers among us now?

The answer is going to be cultural. When you have savagery and you want civilization, you need to have a preponderance of people living the rules of civilization. And that hasn’t been happening for a while.

We’ve been looking at various possible causes, which, if any single one was the actual cause, we could address it. If only it were that easy.

There’s the fatherless home issue. But Friday’s shooting was someone from a two-parent family. No record, like the Parkland shooter, where there were multiple calls for police to come to the home. The parents seem duly shocked.

There’s mental illness, and medications used to treat it. We may not know enough yet, but that doesn’t appear to be part of this scenario. It may be a factor in some others, but not all.

People have talked about the bullied child, the loner, the unaccepted one. If that were the causal factor, some people think we could address that with better inclusion skills.

There’s video game addiction. But it doesn’t seem to be just any game for any person. There’s a problem with single shooter games, where the “win” or the “score” comes from killing multiple innocent people—in the game. So they look like humans, and the reaction to doing that may lead to desensitization. But only for some people who can’t, or won’t, separate fantasy from reality.

Along those lines, Dennis Prager talked today about ennui. That’s beyond boredom, to world weariness. The world weary youth attempts to address this undesirable feeling with excitement, for some sort of adrenaline rush. In a mind without purpose or meaning—without civilization—that might mean acting out violence for the adrenaline hit more than because of any hatred or other rationalization.

One of the best explanations I’ve seen was written by David French this past weekend. He was referring to an explanation by sociologist Malcolm Gladwell from 2015, who in turn referred to research by Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. Granovetter’s theory is that we should not be looking at these shootings as isolated incidents. We are essentially looking at a slow-motion riot. Someone starts it—and that seems to be the Columbine shooters. And others who would not start an action on their own become willing to do it along with other bad actors.

French explains the theory this way:

In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
The theory goes that the Columbine shooters laid out a script, and others have followed it.

Researcher Ralph Larkin examined the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine; eight of the twelve perpetrators made explicit reference to the Columbine shooters. Looking outside the US, he examined eleven school shootings between 1999 and 2007; six of the eleven were copycat versions of Columbine. In addition, he looked at eleven cases of thwarted shootings during the same period; all followed the Columbine script.

Friday’s shooter wore a long trench coat, like the Columbine shooters. This is ostensibly to hide a longer weapon. But the 17-year-old perpetrator wore it daily, like a signature—in Texas where the weather was 90 degrees and humid. There were explosives placed, as in Columbine. I don’t know whether he was addicted to video game killing; he may have been. But there does seem to be evidence that he admired and emulated the legend of Columbine. If only someone had noticed that way ahead of time.

As Gladwell says, “Let’s not kid ourselves that if we passed the strictest gun control in the world that we would end this particular kind of behavior.”

That’s grimly pessimistic.

Riots always end—after lots of destruction. But they do end. Typical riot control involves strong security forces controlling, dispersing, and arresting rioters. Sometimes riots can be prevented by the presence of strong security forces and the announcement that heavy penalties, possibly even death, could result for rioters.

In this “mass shooting” riot, they’re already dispersed. We can try to control, with various safety measures around schools aimed at thwarting mass shooters and/or bringing them down quickly. Sometimes they don’t care about the threat of heavy penalties or death. They may count on death. The last two have been taken alive, but that is rare. And no school shooter ever gets away with it and goes on with life. Not one.

David French ends his essay with this: “There are young men in the grip of a terrible contagion, and there is no cure coming.”

He may be right that there is no cure in sight. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a cure that we can eventually find. We must.

I don’t know what the specific actions we must take will be. But, step one, if you’re a parent and want your kids safe: pull them out of school and homeschool. There are plenty of good reasons for that; safety is only one. Providing your child with civilization is even more important.

Another step might involve profiling, recognizing the kids who are showing signs of acting out this particular Columbine-inspired fantasy. We need a way to intervene without trampling the rights of innocent people. That’s a big challenge.

And, somehow, we need a more civilized total society. We have to say this is rock bottom; we can’t endure with this evil among us. Then we follow the rules of civilization so thoroughly that we move up out of savagery until those savage acts again become unthinkable.

It comes down to this: There is evil among us. We mostly have control only over ourselves. So we protect ourselves and our families—and outward from there as best we can. And we live lives so full of goodness andpurpose that there is no room among us for world weary ennui or any other excuse for riotous evil.

So we pray. And may God bless us as we do what we can.

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