Update: I just ran across this interesting article which basically states the obvious (i.e. these sad perpetrators of violence need human beings who care for them to save them) in a more policy-oriented fashion. The concept of “interrupters,” for example, is described in part in the following way:
“In many of the recent tragedies, the shooters were described as loners, full of emotional pain and who, at times, were blatantly antisocial. Most of society simply ignores those people, further marginalizing them. The interrupters would do the opposite; they would target those people.”
As the content of my post below probably indicates, I agree entirely. This is exactly what we need. My suggested solution below was a much more generalized idea than that offered by the article above. I think both would be optimal, either would be helpful, but maybe the article above is on to something more helpful on its own than my solution.
Obviously, I think of philosophy and religious studies in schools as a prime vehicle for this sort of work, but if these troubled individuals are approached in some other fashion, so be it. I do suspect that, given the intellectual turmoil and incoherence bred by their agonizing emotional strain, this intervention will ultimately necessitate some philosophical content, and that is why I specify it; it is the inability to see clearly in the fog of misery that drives these people to commit terrible acts, and I see no other course for them than to learn of their incoherence and the salvation brought by their own commitment to reason and the truth.
And to get there, it seems likely that policy-driven, kind-hearted human intervention on behalf of these miserable loners is the way forward. Wisdom begins with a loving heart, and these poor souls need nothing more dearly than a loving heart to help them to their feet. I would love to assist in that sort of effort in our public schools. I hope the idea gains more traction.
I will perhaps forever be surprised at the seemingly vast majority of society who bears absolutely no empathetic comprehension of the shooter’s mindset. It seems the exact same cycle of disbelief and incredulous reactions occur and recur without purpose. It gives me reason to think that I may have some insight to offer the situation, for my reaction, perhaps sadly, is of greater understanding.
Though I never felt the desire to indiscriminately kill, I certainly had my set of unreasonable and violent condemnations of large swaths of society, as this man seems to have had. They were spurred on by critiques of individuals which began as reasonable, accurate observations of immoral behavior. Unfortunately, middle and high school can prove to be something of a baptism by fire when it comes to learning of the immoralities of the world, and my reasonable and accurate observations slowly but surely twisted into irrational, violent anger.
I was young and my brain was not up to the mature task of sorting out this sort of loathing. I was inclined to radical and inappropriate generalizations, as are most children, along with a draconian severity inspired by the tremendous weight with which the cruelty of others bore down on me. I was not very successful socially, and I suffered from all the pathetic self-loathing and envy of a stereotypical angry nerd. Add to this the fact that my own values and opinions were so poorly thought out and it’s really not too surprising that the actual and merely perceived cruelty of others gained a magnitude in my thoughts wholly unwarranted by its actual gravity.
Society has issues, it’s true, but it’s the mark of a mature and wise person to survive it nearly unscathed. Early in my life, I failed this challenge miserably even when presented with little more than lightweight high-school immorality. I never gave any thought to the relevant scope of reality, that the offenses which I faced were nearly nothing when compared to the range of plausible interactions here. I wasn’t physically assaulted, I wasn’t constantly harassed, I wasn’t the target of any dramatic acts of humiliation, it was just lonely and I was envious of those who appeared not to be. And it snowballed like crazy, and I just didn’t stop it.
And so I was driven nearly insane with depression and anger, and I frequently see thoughts I once held and words I once spoke in the profiles of these poor, pathetic murderers. It is hard to say why I wasn’t one of them. I often consider what it was that saved me and others from my irrational misery, and what might have saved the world from these people.
I can say that I have never truly considered carrying out a violent act of aggression; my violent condemnations, so to speak, were not threats. Despite my video gaming history, I’m simply not a violent person. Virtually destroying zombies with a hammer? I’m there. Actually hurting, much less, killing someone? For any reason other than sheer necessity in self-defense (and even kinda then), the mere thought is enough to make me queasy. I have to turn off SPCA commercials (or at least mute them and do something else) lest I ruin my week.
But if so, is that it? Some moral luck on my behalf that either my parents instilled such a loathing of aggression into me from an early age (which they surely did) or that I naturally despise it? Neither is much a credit to me. If the absence of a good parent’s influence or a good constitution is the greatest contributing cause to their failures, how harshly can we judge?
I now realize my own mostly willful ignorance was to blame for my near-insanity. Though I faced adversity, it was in no way insurmountable. I had a wonderful home life and a small circle of close friends, but this was taken to be inadequate when I found myself not well-liked in middle or high school. I attended none of the standard high school events which our society celebrates so feverishly, and as I watched the cherished celebrations of purportedly timeless memories among seemingly everyone else, I believed I was unfairly ostracized by those who, despite their undeserving behavior, as I saw it, seemed to obtain everything they wanted – certainly everything I wanted.
Eventually, I genuinely saw myself as doomed to suffer until death, for a few years seemed to be many more, and there was no sign of relief. I would be just another corpse on the side of society’s road. As I watched others pass by, laughing with their friends, holding the hands of their lovers, and enjoying lives seemingly full of that joy of which merely a fraction I desired, I truly lost hope for ever knowing happiness.
It’s really very pitiful and pathetic. It’s
almost embarrassing to write, even, but I’m convinced it’s that sad, wretched little condition which possesses many of these angry young men. Stewing in that state of disease long enough will encourage some really violent anger. It is, if not entirely, largely in line with what psychologists have termed “injustice collecting.” In reading the definition of that term, I recognized immediately my younger self (and maybe sometimes my adult self).
And what would I have said to someone who had so classified me? Well, I’d probably list off all the injustices committed against me. Truth is a defense, right? In retrospect, I am in fact hard pressed to conclude it false that I was unfairly treated. It is, in all likelihood, correct that I was treated more poorly by others than most. Of course, the reasons for such treatment vary wildly from being entirely the fault of those who mistreated me to being entirely my fault. But, when your wretched little mind is suffering under what seems to be an avalanche of mistreatment, it is quite easy to lose the capacity to make such distinctions or care for them any longer.
And that’s where it starts. Its endpoint is variable. Sometimes people go absolutely insane and murder innocent people. Sometimes people manage to retain enough sanity to escape.
Having emerged from that past, it’s hard to know what to think of myself. Am I really a creep? Is something deeply deficient with my brain? Am I weak? Pathetic? Pitiful? I hear those terms thrown about constantly when discussions of these sad little men crop up here and there. It’s totally easy to say, and it feels great, doesn’t it? Most of the time it seems to me largely an exercise in vanity, really more for the sake of justifying the lives of the people saying the words than any sort of actual attempt to understand or move the situation forward. But it’s true, is it not? These people are truly pitiful. And that’s hard to say, given that it can’t feel too great for me, since I may have been saved from being one of them by causes outside of my control.
So I’ll say this: we can hate them or we can love them. We don’t have to be okay with what has happened, and we don’t have to think they’re “really not that bad,” because yes, they have found the extreme depths of depravity. They are near evil, but this is what that looks like: They aren’t mythical, emotionless, irrational monsters. They’re real, emotional, miserable people. Were they saved from this soul-rotting state, they would never choose to commit such horrifying atrocities.
I thank my good fortune that I survived it somehow relatively unscathed. I won’t be so pompous as to look down too sternly on those who didn’t make it. For those who have never been there, or for those suffering most directly at the hands of these people, this will doubtless be a much more difficult task. One can hardly blame them, for to whatever degree hatred is ever justified, suffering the loss of loved ones at the hands of murderers has got to be among the most permissive of conditions.
So what can be done? After all, the murderers dig their own graves. To the extent that self-reliance must be demanded of an individual, there is serious reason to consider that they have transgressed so grotesquely as to be deserving of condemnation. I am very painfully aware of the plausible, perhaps probable veracity of that assessment. If it’s accurate, then I am forced to re-enter that self-assessment given above. I have to face the fact that somehow I committed such severe errors in judgment which were so grievous as to give me something of an understanding of some of the most hated people ever to live.
It’s a terrible affliction to live in such incoherence. Every minute of the day seems spent on its consideration. Every laugh from another seems to mock your misery. Every complaint from anyone else seems as though it must be so unsubstantiated in comparison with your misery that you angrily stew over their privileged ignorance. Every happy face is a reminder of your sorrow and every act in which anyone takes joy infuriates you by what you now observe as an empty banality. And all of this reinforces the idea that you are the only one seeing things rightly, that you are virtually blameless in comparison to the endless deluge of transgressions vomited forth by the wanton, stupid masses. How could you be blamed for any of this? You’ve done nothing, you’ve had no opportunity to do anything, shunned before even being given a chance.
They won’t understand, you say to yourself, until they get what they deserve, which is to have their ignorance beaten from them (by…someone else. But I’d be ok with it), for only then will anything ever change.
The misery becomes the focal point of your entire life. It is omnipresent, and you’re always just a quick step away from spending hours in contemplation of the fantastic hedonism you imagine others enjoy while you suffer. It becomes so central to your daily life that it’s quite hard to convince yourself of the reality of potential solutions. I mean, you’re here because you’re right, right? They are jerks, whaddya gonna do? Not only that, but happiness has just seemed too far off for too long to trust any semblance of a reason to believe it might be attained.
Of course, at this point, you (or I, at least) don’t even know what happiness is anymore. Objectively, I had a tremendously superior set of reasons to be happy than sad, but that tunnel vision is hard to shake. My goals themselves were warped and, even if achieved (though typically out of reach anyway), would fail to bring me happiness. I was so lost, self-extraction seems, in retrospect, to have been virtually impossible lest I simply wait it out (which is basically what I did) or become somehow so removed from the situation that objectivity would be within reach.
So perhaps all this is the result of some mental infirmity, or maybe a truly damnable weakness of character. Who knows? I worry and struggle over such a diagnosis quite often. Whatever the cause, however, I can say to you that it does happen even to those who will go on to live honorable lives.
That’s really my point.
And it was philosophy and the study of religion which genuinely turned my life around, giving me purpose I had never before known. I gained courage from history’s greatest thoughts and arguments regarding the value of human life, its purpose, and its proper expenditure. These were no mere consolation prizes handed out to those in whom adults took pity, but they were genuine, forceful, intelligent arguments against all that tormented me. These were individuals who composed some of mankind’s most important thoughts. They could answer this silly high school problem that had spiraled so incredibly out of control.
Unfortunately, it was not until college that our education system offered to me this opportunity. Even then, it was largely by mistake that I wound up involved in philosophy at all.
My experience is the reason I can’t help but think that part of the solution to this problem is the introduction of our children to philosophy and religious studies before they enter the confounding and often amoral fray of middle school, high school, and college. For many years, I was determined to teach philosophy to middle and high school students, but unfortunately, life has demanded another path for me thus far.
We need to accept that children can be genuinely horrible to one another, and within the scope of their lives, these horrors take on a totally unwarranted precedence. Without instruction in the understanding and handling of such matters, they are left to their own devices. Not everyone comes up with the right solution to this important problem, and some have an extremely difficult time recovering from this failure.
I am with Socrates in my belief that no man willingly does evil. Who would think that these pathetic souls truly desired that they become such sorry warnings, signs of the extreme depths to which sin may reach for humanity? Rather, they have succumbed to an increasingly knotted ball of impassioned incoherence, and it seems no one was able to pull them from the cave. Hard as it may be to love and reach out to those in whom we see only inhumanity, it must be remembered that they were not always so, and that shackled in their miserable fetters, they have learned helplessness; they need us to show them the light.
I cannot, of course, disregard the roles of mental illness and other compounding factors in these horrible events. But, I cannot deny that where these issues are not solely to blame (which seems seldom), I’m afraid the problem is that our society does not treat morality very seriously. Children are taught to believe that “everyone gets an opinion” and that matters of morality, religion, and philosophy are simply undecidable. When children treat one another with disgusting disrespect, the consequences are more often than not slight to non-existent, and often those who are the most arrogant and disrespectful are so on account of their privileged positions in their social structures. There is no effective governance of our children, and they are largely left to choose the behaviors they will reward and punish among themselves. There seems to be established on average in our children a reflexive ethical egoism and a skeptical consequentialism, with the idea that everyone should simply get for themselves what they can within a set of rules designed to make sure that those who are best at doing so remain unhindered in their efforts.
It’s not the whole solution. Hell, it might not even be very effective at all, but I’m almost certain it would have saved me years of torment which were generative of the kinds of sentiments I see in these pitiable murderers. And where I was lucky enough to have my wonderful parents, it seems somewhat clear that this is not frequently the case with these lost souls.
So we need to step up as a society. For some reason, we recognize that children need the assistance of our public education system with the understanding of mathematics, science, and language, but we leave them to form their own understanding of the most important fields mankind has to work in philosophy and religion. Our nation fears discourse of these matters so strongly, so weakened by its absence from our lives, that we abandon it at our own children’s peril.
To reintroduce that dialogue, to establish a foothold on which all can find that initial foundation for their lives, is a solution that seems to have yet to see any serious discussion, though it seems so obvious to me, and I am continually saddened that it goes basically unconsidered.