From Shootings to Dignity, or Why the World Might Be Coming to an End

I woke up yesterday in a sublime mood.  First semester back was all done, except for the grading, and I had a relaxing day to look forward to.  But when I got a breaking news alert on my phone that there was a shooting at an elementary school, my initial reaction was that I couldn’t believe that children that young were being so bullied or had so many problems that a 6-year-old would shoot up a school.  Then I turned on my television and NBC News had taken over on NBC, letting the public know that over 2 dozen people had been shot in an elementary school and the shooter was an adult.  My mouth dropped.  None of us, even the craziest of us, would shoot up an elementary school, I thought.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it and we’re searching for explanations and more information.  As the information continued coming in, it became evident that our country was going to have a tough day.  None of us could understand what would make a young man kill his mother and shoot two classrooms full of children, and we worried about our own children.  School shootings have been perpetrated by the attendants of the school, not by a random outside adult – there is no good defense for this situation.  This is everybody’s worst nightmare.

A paper I wrote just this Wednesday dealt with the theme of extreme evil and collective responsibility.  Something interesting that came out of the paper was that we appear to have different reactive attitudes when extreme evil is done by an individual rather than a group.  We are aghast when one person has, what we would call, a moral failure and commits such an unspeakable act as murdering children.  Our reactive attitudes, better understood as emotional responses, are appropriately negative.  After we find out more about the background of the person, our attitudes may change toward the person.  Maybe we find out somebody abused him severely as a child, or some other such tragedy befell him.  It wouldn’t excuse or condone his extremely evil actions, but it at least gives us a rationale and a way to try to avoid the same tragedy from unfolding again.

He seemed to be a troubled, suburban kid but what he’s done made no sense.  Dare I say, it never will.  Perhaps this does reflect back on our inconsistent relationship with gun control or why we need to treat people better so that they won’t resort to these acts.  Maybe it just signals the end of the world is coming.

I’m not really joking, but I’m not completely serious and that could be because of the magnitude of the statement and how ludicrous it sounds.  These events have been more and more frequent – purposeless killing of innocents because they were in the wrong gathering place at the wrong time.  A movie theater in Colorado changed how we can enjoy our experience of full captivation while enjoying a film; a mall in Oregon changed how we approach holiday shopping or even just a place of relaxation; and now an elementary school in Connecticut has changed our relative feeling of safety when we drop our children off at school.

This has been a difficult year, and yet after a few weeks we move on, as another tragedy or problem happens.  The cleanup crew arrives and yesterday’s problem becomes today’s talking point.  Gun control comes on the front line when we haven’t made enough about the cameras and microphones being stuck in little children’s faces after they’ve witnessed the kind of horror most of us won’t see in our entire lives.  We talk of human dignity and needing to treat people better but these kids were objectified in a similar way as the man whose photo was taken just before a subway train ran him over.  That picture was front page news, just like putting those children on camera – to speak to a nation of millions about how their place of sanctuary was just desecrated – was prime time material.  But that will pass on too, as sensationalized journalism keeps the 24-hour news cycle turning.

School has long been considered a safe haven.  Up until the digital age, where bullying turned into its own two-headed beast, school kept you out of trouble, out of the streets, away from where things like shootings and stabbings and unspeakable violence took place.  It’s like a church – you don’t shoot up a church, it’s desecrating holy ground and is generally considered bad form.  Then I remembered the Rwandan genocide and a quote from my paper describing how the Tutsis fled to churches and the Hutus found it even easier to kill those huddled in one place, especially a church.  Unspeakable acts have been ever-present and something, just something, must change.  In this case, the issues that must change are:

1) It just cannot be this easy to get your hands on guns.  Then again, if he was psychologically stable when he got the gun then how can we prevent someone from breaking down and then committing a terrible act?

2) We have to treat each other better.  If everyone participates in a collective uplift of one another, these issues wouldn’t be so prevalent – we would have more respect for human life.  Then again, we have evidence across human history of wanton disregard for human life while acknowledging its importance.  Human dignity skepticism, that we will not achieve that collective uplift, has merit here.

With regards to 1), gun control laws have always seemed relaxed thanks to the 2nd Amendment.  The right to go hunt?  Sure.  The right to protect one’s self?  I’m alright with that, except in Florida for obvious reasons, and only on one’s own property.  But certain weapons just aren’t needed for either case.  Cracking down on gun control would be very helpful, consider the bill that got passed in Michigan for conceal-and-carry being ok, as well as in Illinois.  Make it illegal to carry a gun around – you can’t outlaw guns, but you can outlaw how they get used.  Give more psychological evaluations prior to owning a gun – even if they lie to the evaluator, there’s still a chance of being able to stymie the process of them getting a gun.  Do something, because this is getting to be more like the Wild West rather than the modern technological era.

But wait a minute.  We have plenty of gun control laws and more importantly, plenty of illegal guns.  Just like we have a War on Drugs and Celebrity Rehab as a show about people getting off of illegal drugs.  Cracking down on gun control won’t necessarily crack down on illegal guns, and those cause just as much violence as anything (remember the assault weapons ban?).  With gun control, as @efowl314 said, you can do something about this problem.

A collective uplift of human dignity?  As much as I don’t want to take up the skeptical position, I feel like it’s the only one that seems right and this is why the world might be coming to an end.  Even with all of our social and technological advances, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, we can connect with diverse people across the world.  My friend told me this morning that she went on Instagram and it just seemed like everybody was hating.  That resonated with me.  How can we desire a collective uplift of dignity when, on a daily basis, we feel justified in denigrating the dignity of others?  Unless one is a sociopath or a psychopath, we generally acquire a basic value of human life, if only through our own living of it.  Our meaningful interactions with others change our worldviews, we come to value those relationships and value other human lives as a result.  This doesn’t matter when (I’m paraphrasing Brian Williams of NBC News here), “you have a disturbed individual who is determined…there’s not much you can do to stop them.”

This raises the question – if we all value human life and all stand to gain from a collective project of uplifting human dignity through compassion, why the hell haven’t we done it yet?  Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy and we come together and support one another, in a true embodiment of the dignity of the human spirit.  The pride I take in seeing strangers helping strangers is incredible – that is the essence of the human spirit at work, in my opinion.  Yet we have not taken the more precarious steps of turning those strangers into our brothers and sisters, on a daily basis.  To develop that compassion we should all show for one another.  Instead, we live in fear now – fear that the next time we go to a movie it may be our last; fear that the next time we go to the mall it may be our last time shopping; and the fear that when I send my child to school, it will be the last time I see him or her.

This is why the world just might be coming to an end.  I’m at a loss as to how we can better accomplish the goal of uplifting human dignity when we never seem to have a collective impetus short of tragedy to begin the project.  And even when we begin the project, we never continue it to its true finality, the kind of finality where yesterday ends with no news of over 25 lives ended and countless more affected.  We can control the gun laws – we can vote and lobby and ultimately come to a begrudging decision that leaves both sides equally happy and mad.  But, in an ironic twist, we can’t control collectively treating each other better beyond reaching out and hoping praying that your action spurs that on in another.

Perhaps the world ending is a good thing.  It could mean the end of this fear-laden era we have come to be comfortable in, and the project of uplifting human dignity is undertaken with the goal of maintaining the uplift.  These would be welcome ways to end the world as we know it.  But after what we’ve seen this year alone, culminating with yesterday’s horrific events in Newtown, our collective sense of safety has been altered in such a drastic way that we don’t know what’s coming next.  That may be the path toward the end of the world as we know it.