It’s now been a few days over a year since the tragic shooting at Marshall County High School that snuffed out two promising young lives. One of these was a neighbor of mine, Preston Cope. I knew him as a polite, well spoken young man who treated others kindly. Our dogs loved him and so did everyone who met him. He was a promising young man from a loving family. He loved playing in the woods and learning baseball from his father. I will miss watching him grow into the good man I know he would have been. Our world is diminished now that he’s gone. It still makes me angry, every time I think of it.
Nobody is debating what happened. Everyone knows what happened and who did it. The perpetrator is known and identified. There are witnesses, video, plenty of evidence. There’s no mystery, and the prosecution has very little to prove. There’s just the tragedy of it, and the lingering question, Why? That’s the question I’m left with. What leads an innocent child to turn into a mass murderer? That’s the thing that I find disturbing. With most murders, there’s a clear motive, money, revenge, jealousy. We can understand motives like that. They can be found in our oldest stories. They persist through generations. They reflect our human failings. They are familiar. We’re familiar with people killing people out of rage, jealousy, anger, over money, love. We’re also familiar with war. People kill each other by the thousands and millions in conflicts between nations over land, resources, and power. Recent tragedies however, seem to lack purpose. Columbine, Heath, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Aurora, etc. all share a common characteristic. They leave us wondering why. We have the how, the when, the where, but we’re missing the motive. There doesn’t seem to be a very good reason, even years later. Some talk of bullying, some of self-esteem. Some blame the parents, the schools, or the guns themselves. Many try to use tragedies to score points for unrelated political causes. None of this is new. No indeed. Murder is old, bullying is old, the blame game is old. These tragedies are new. That means something has changed. We all know it, we all feel it, we can see the results of it, but we can’t put our finger on what it is. I would suggest that we may be asking the wrong questions. Perhaps instead of asking why, we should instead ask ‘why not?’.
I admit I’ve followed the Marshall County shooter, Gabriel Parker, in the news. To hear the reasons he gives for murdering his classmates is chilling. He suggests that it was an ‘experiment’. He asserts that he is an atheist and that he believes all life is meaningless. He just wanted to see what would happen. In other words, there’s no ‘why not’ for him. He certainly did not consider prison a sufficient deterrent. If a person is determined to commit a crime, there’s little we can do to stop them. Maybe there’s just no saving some people. Maybe there’s no explaining evil. Maybe I’m wasting my time trying to understand. Still, I have to wonder if children killing children doesn’t say something about the world we as the older generation have given them.
We live in an increasingly cynical, materialistic age. For better or worse, science has been raised above religion, philosophy, art, and relationships in our society. We dissect every problem under that materialistic lens, picking apart every aspect of our world and of ourselves hoping to glean some insight. We dissect, we analyze, we reduce everything to its barest and most simple form. We cite studies from prominent universities, research papers in scholarly journals, and double-blind studies. We talk of genetics, mental illness, psychology, and brain development. We marginalize traditional religion and spirituality in general in favor of cold hard empirical data. We judge others by how much they produce and how ‘useful’ they are to society. We assign value according to income, and accept the stratification of our world into the haves and the have nots. We increasingly replace people with machines because the latter are cheaper and easier to control. We have built a world of things, of money, of profits, of mechanistic regularity. The problem is that this world isn’t just ours, it’s also the world we pass to our children. The world they are born into molds them in countless ways, and there’s only so much any parent can do. When we send the message that people are worth only what they produce, that a person’s income signifies their value, that people are no different than animals, that humans can be easily replaced by machines, our children perceive. Should it come as a surprise that some of them choose to carry such principles to their most extreme logical conclusion? After all, if all life is meaningless, if we’re nothing more than bags of meat walking around for a while before we die, if nothing we do matters, why shouldn’t we just go about murdering one another? If there’s no God, and our feelings are just an illusion provided by electrochemical reactions in our brain, why should murder be any different than any other act? If morality is a social construct, a result of our herd instincts, why should any individual recognize any moral authority? Why not do whatever we want, whenever we want? Why not just light a match and watch the world burn? Why not? Too many of our children are finding no answer to this fundamental question.
I see these tragedies as a sign of the times we live in, the test that our generation faces. Most of us are well aware of how our environment, our reality, can shape our thoughts, feelings, and ideas, but few acknowledge that the opposite also holds. If we continue toward a world of pure materialism, where money is king, science is god, and scientists are priests who hand down gospel truth to the world, the more Gabriel Parkers we are likely to have. To be fair, science and those who enshrine it have answers to life’s profound questions, but not everyone will accept those answers. If society excludes and marginalizes the alternatives, if there is no room for disagreement, then we are no better than the crusaders of our past who fought over the right way to worship. If we continue to assert that men and women have no special value, just intelligent apes, no different than animals or maybe even robots, we should not be surprised when our society comes to look more like the packs of wolves or troops of baboons from which we are descended. It is no coincidence that the development of religion accompanied the rise of civilization. When we consider the answers to life’s deeper questions, when we expand our minds beyond what is plain and sitting right in front of us, we take a step away from the beasts that we were. We aspire to something greater. Regardless of the answers we come up with, regardless of who is right or wrong, when we ask questions about the meaning of life, the nature of the soul, the unique nature of humanity, we move towards being more than we were before, something better than just bags of meat, and what is more human than that struggle. That unique struggle is an important part of the human condition, and we ignore our spiritual impulse at considerable peril. How strange it would be if we came full circle as a species, rising above the apes and animals to build great civilizations only to decide it was all a mistake after all and go back to killing each other on the whim of our instincts.
I’m not telling anyone individually what to believe. Each of us has a right to choose his or her own beliefs, to answer life’s questions in his or her own way. I believe that freedom is important. History speaks to those who listen, and when one group attempts to impose a single set of beliefs on the whole of humanity, history speaks of tragedy, tyranny, oppression, and hate. This world has seen enough crusades and crusaders, and we should all embrace love and acceptance before judgements, lest we recreate history’s tragedies. The dogmas of materialistic science are still dogmas, justified or not, and imposing them upon the world will ultimately create the same conflicts that every other dogma has created throughout history. Imagining that we are so much more enlightened than the generations before is, that our truths are so much more unassailable than our ancestors, is the conceit of every generation. It speaks more of our hubris than of the truth. Let us choose instead to remain humble. Any of us may be wrong. Let us listen and understand each other rather than preach and proselytize.
There is much in our society that could lead children to the conclusions reached by one Gabriel Parker, but that does not negate personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for their actions is the first and most important element in building a world where life has meaning. The assailant deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. That, at least, will uphold the meaning of the lives lost. Excusing his conduct for reasons like youth or mental illness would send the opposite message. In the coming months and years, people will use excuses like these to attempt to excuse the perpetrator or reduce his culpability. Every detail will be inspected and analyzed. Every excuse will be put forward, and that is part of the problem as well. We pay too much attention to the bare facts and not enough attention to the messages we send. We agonize over single brushstrokes while we paint a picture that is increasingly bleak and grim. We analyze every leaf and branch of the tree while the forest burns around us. The landscape we paint, the forest we care for, is the one our children will inhabit.
We must remember that our children are always watching, listening, and learning. When materialistic ‘facts’, money, and objectivity become more important than the emotional and spiritual well-being of actual people, we invite tragedies like this. Children reflect the world we give them, and in them, we see our own failings. School shootings are a warning that we are failing our children and ourselves. We are all responsible. We create their world, their entire reality. We should, above all, be sure it’s something worthwhile, wholesome, and good. If it isn’t, that says more about us than them. Children need to be taught the value of human life, they need to inherit a world where their lives, and all lives have purpose and meaning, whether the data says so or not. The alternative is a world where nothing matters, everything is relative, and shooting into a crowd is no different than swatting at flies. A world where everything is stripped down and reduced to cold materialistic facts is not one many of us would want to live in. Each of us should pause and consider how our words and actions shape the next generation, and fundamentally shape the world around us. We should be quicker to affirm the sanctity of life and the importance of our human souls, rather than so quickly give voice to our doubts. In this cynical age, we must work harder to check our cynicism. This will be a difficult path. It may require us to stand against the powerful and the influential. It may require us to hold our ground against popular opinion. It is always harder to swim against the current, but for the sake of our children, we must alter our course.