If some people wear rose colored glasses, through which the world looks better than it is, some others wear nostalgic glasses through which the past always looks better than it was. Or, to put it another way, the flaws of the past are diminished. In this way, even the tragedies of the past lead inevitably to great things: Pearl Harbor united the country to a common and good purpose; the launch of Sputnik, with the speeches of JFK, helped propel Neil Armstrong to the moon; the tyranny of the British lead to the uniting of the thirteen colonies and the creation of the United States.
For the wearers of nostalgic glasses, tragedies no longer seem to unite but, instead, deepen the divisions between us. Nikolas Cruz had no sooner finished shooting the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing several of his former classmates, when the predictable divisions appeared. The usual suspects began crying out for more gun control laws as the solution to the shootings. Others pointed out that gun control laws do not stop shootings, that there would be no way of confiscating all the guns privately owned in America, that gun violence is actually decreasing in America, and that we have a natural right to keep and bear arms.
As someone who stands with the second group, I understand the importance of repeating these facts. Samuel Johnson said something to the effect that it is more necessary to remind men of things than it is to teach them new knowledge. At the same time, though, it is not so much sad as frustrating that it seems that that is where the conversation is destined to play out again, especially when both sides feel cheated. After a tragedy like this, the left calls for more gun control and, thus far, has been thwarted each time; they retreat, each time more determined to win in the next round. They also, as a general rule, see the those on the right as being more concerned about the right to own a rifle than with protecting the lives of children. The right sees the left as only wanting to restrain and/or eradicate the legitimate right of self defense without any exceptions. Every tragedy replays the cycle and each side becomes further divided.
This set of circumstances is even more frustrating because there are other questions that the shooting in Florida should raise, other questions which we should be discussing. One question which has not really been discussed is the role of fatherlessness in our society. Fatherlessness is perhaps the greatest crisis in our United States; in 2012, The Washington Times reported that even as the number of American families with children increased by 160,000, the number of two parent homes decreased by 1.2 million. What this means is that one out of three children—for a total of fifteen million—have no father in their lives. These children are the ones who really have the decked stacked against them; they are more likely to go to prison, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, more likely to suffer from obesity. Girls who grow without their fathers are seven times more likely to become pregnant while still a teenager. These malicious affects might result because there is some evidence that fatherlessness does not just cause an empty hole in the life of a child but could actually, physically alter the brain, making children more aggressive and angry. In 2013, The Daily Mirror reported on a study conducted on California mice (which are monogamous and raise their offspring together) demonstrated that the mice which were raised without a father showed different development in their prefrontal cortexes which made them more violent and led to “abnormal social interactions.”
Nikolas Cruz lost his own father when he was two years old. When he went on his killing spree, he was living with his grandparents. It is quite possible that the loss of his father impacted Cruz’s life more deeply than we know and that if his father had lived, his life may have taken a completely different course.
Another potential question that is not asked is the role of drugs; not weed or cocaine but the regular, old-fashioned drugs approved by the FDA and which are prescribed to people. Psychiatric drugs which we take for anxiety, depression, ADHD, and a host of other reasons, may very well be a cause of at least some of the violent attacks such as the one that took place in Florida. Some might scoff but it is true that 36 perpetrators of violent attacks were taking or were withdrawing from different psychiatric drugs. It is also true that the FDA has subtly admitted that some drugs which it itself approved, might cause homicidal tendencies. I am not denying that some people need medications, but when one out of every six Americans take some kind of psychotic drug, mostly anti-depressants, it might be a reasonable question to ask not only what side effects might come about from long term prescriptions but also why so many people need them today. It is certainly true that psychiatric knowledge has increased and new illnesses can be identified and treated. But it should also be noted that it does seem that more people today suffer from some type of mental disorder than in the past, partially perhaps because illness has so expanded that its definition can now include almost everything.
It has been discovered that Cruz at one time was also taking medication for unspecified “emotional difficulties.” While the link between his medication and the attack may or may not exist, the lack of discussion on this facet of the case and the homicidal urges some drugs seem to create, guarantees that the answer will remain unknown.
These are valid points and discussion concerning them is not just worth having but necessary. But the root question which the Florida shooting brings up, as every tragedy does, is the question of evil. This is a little different from the problem of evil, the philosophical question which wonders why, if there exists an all-powerful and all-loving God, evil exists. It is an old question, much older than any of the New Atheists who dusted it off and threw it out in their books to the world again; the ancients grappled with it and Thomas Aquinas said that it was the only question which posed a serious challenge to the idea of God. The “question of evil” on the other hand, turns the focus away from the existence of God and re-directs it to ask why people commit evil.
The answer given to the question will depend on one’s anthropology. If you see people as being fundamentally good then the root of evil must lie somewhere outside the person, whether that be access (potential or actual) to guns, poverty, mental illness, bullying, or some other variant. If your view of people, though, is that we are fallen and/or broken, with great potential for good but a strong tendency to evil, then the answer comes a bit closer to home—people do evil because they choose it. There is a story told of G.K. Chesterton which is probably apocryphal but shouldn’t be: A paper asked Chesterton to write an essay on what was wrong with the world. Chesterton agreed and a few days later sent in his essay which consisted of this: What is wrong with the world? I am.
This is not a comfortable answer for anyone, regardless of political philosophy or party affiliation because it means evil, such as school shootings, will not be eradicated by a new gun law, or more money spent on mental illness, or law enforcement actually doing their duty. If the cause of evil is not outside of us but inside of us, it means that evil cannot be fixed with a wave of the legislative/executive/judicial magic wand. It means that to change the world, as everyone claims they want to do, it requires us—you and me—to change ourselves. And that, speaking from a small well of personal experience, is a terrifying prospect because no one really likes change. We become comfortable with who we are, including all our vices, and blemishes and pettiness, and thinking of the time and energy needed to change these flaws, makes us retreat back to our routines and protocols. And the worst part of it is that the fact against which we rebel the most is that the change will be uncomfortable and unpleasant. This is unavoidable; Richard Hooker, the 17th century Anglican churchman was absolutely correct when he said, “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.”
What would happen though if we could overcome our discomfort honestly tried to change ourselves for the better? If we gave up the pettiness, the gossip, the little vices that we take pleasure in? What if we worked at being good husbands, good wives, good fathers, good mothers, good brothers, good sisters, good workers, good friends? If we sincerely practiced the old, common virtues of honesty, charity, justice, in our everyday lives, at work and at home? If we sincerely tried to invest more of ourselves and not just our money or our time, into our neighborhoods, our schools, our communities, our places of worship? We might not think that we are making much of a difference. But like ripples in the water, our actions, good and bad, spread out from us and affect much more and many more people than we could imagine.
This is not to say, of course, that this is or would be a magic bullet that would stop school shootings and other evils forever. People are only human, the pull toward the bad is temptingly strong and we often give in. But, if we honestly tried, we might be surprised at some of the results. And it would give us something new to talk about.