Another mass murder raises tough questions

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

The tragedy of another mass murder is upon us — and with it the search for an answer to the motivations of the shooter.

Such events provoke tendentious reactions on both sides of the political spectrum, and President Barack Obama’s response to the horror was typical of those offered by the political left, a reflexive call to restrict the availability of guns.

This time, the president pointed to other western nations, namely Australia, as exemplars America should follow. This might have been a simple mistake on his part, since Australia’s history, culture and experience as pertinent to this matter is hardly comparable to that of the United States. At any rate, Australia’s experiment with gun confiscation as a solution to murder has yielded results that are far less than hoped for, despite its head start in terms of firearms culture.

The equally reflexive response by the right to the left’s cry for gun control has generally been to reply with statistics and evidence that deflates the arguments of gun control advocates. These arguments range from the empirical — data that shows more homicides are completed with means other than firearms, and that sheer numbers of firearms in a community don’t  result in more deaths — to those that appeal to reason, such as demonstrating the logical fallacy of gun-free zones.

Meanwhile, answers to the cause of such tragedies that might point to what could be done to prevent them remain frustratingly elusive.

Part of the difficulty, besides ideological entrenchment that prefers to focus on such superficial issues as guns, is that these events provide few patterns from which to derive lessons.

Focus is often placed on individual peculiarities, which are latched onto zealously by whichever camp might extrude profit from the killer’s motivations. When, for instance, the murderer is a self-proclaimed (or extrinsically identified) Islamist jihadi, that fact is emphasized by those for whom the administration’s myopic view of Islamist terror is seen as highly problematic. If the assailant happens to be a racist anti-government zealot, others focus on what they feel is an endemic lingering racialism within society and the symbols with which they commonly associate.

There could be some merit in most of these observations, in that, for example, unchecked global jihadism inevitably will find its way to our communities and that there sadly remains, even in our advanced society, those for whom racial animus will manifest itself in violence.

But those clear, if deplorable, motivations are not typical of the horrific instances like we were faced with in Roseburg, Oregon, which are most often the product of a deranged individual whose propellant is left to the realm of mystery and conjecture.

Periodic calls are issued for an investigation of pertinent mental health issues. But such questions don’t readily lend themselves to easy, partisan alignment and therefore attract little attention politically. Extrinsic to politics, solutions are confounded by the complexity of the issue, the intricacies of the human mind being what they are.

Other questions are largely ignored, presumably because they offend the sensibilities of modern culture. The role of religion in society, and specifically the role that a cultivation of biblical instruction in the conduct and regulation of human behavior, is generally placed off limits, as religion (at least the Judeo-Christian variety) is pushed farther to the outskirts of the public realm thanks to an extremist view of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

So the question is left standing: What is the true motivation of the Roseburg shooter — or the Virginia Tech shooter, the Aurora theater shooter or Columbine shooters? We will likely never know exactly. Attempts to credibly discern those answers are largely quixotic wastes of time, amounting to presumption. In testifying in response to the Kennedy assassination, 
J. Edgar Hoover reportedly said that had he been inclined or authorized to remove from potential access to the president every member of society who displayed behaviors the equivalent of Oswald’s, he would have to lock up 500 people every time the president visited Chicago.

So it’s all very well to say we should endeavor to diagnose whatever kernel it is that gestates into mass murder in the hopes of identifying ahead of time those who possess it and that science eventually will provide us with such omnipotent foresight.

In the meantime, is it so much to ask whether we’re being imprudent in dismissing the role of traditionally established rules, social structures and institutions in preventing mass crimes?