Preachers are like politicians. They never let a good crisis/tragedy go to waste. Preachers instinctively seek out tragedies, the better to burnish the image of God in the minds of the faithful. I remember well the effluent flowing from my preacher’s mouth the Sunday after 9-11 (a different preacher and church than I now attend), as he desperately tried to explain the inexplicable, so that the flock would be less unsettled at the apparent arbitrariness and fragility of human existence. So it was today (December 16, 2012) that my preacher could not help himself from helping himself to the tragedy in Newtown, piggybacking his theological musings on the innocent lives lost to the gunman.
After spending the first part of the sermon describing a God that is all-powerful, all-present and all-knowing, he still claimed that it was not God’s will that those people in Newtown were killed; that there is evil in the world with which God battles, and it was evil that killed them. But this presents quite a logical conundrum for me. How could any entity that is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent not be the cause of everything that happens? How could it do battle with anything? Wouldn’t a God of those attributes that battled with something be actually battling himself? Is God then irrational and psychotic, perhaps just as the gunman appears to have been? What do all those attributes mean if they don’t mean God is the immanent cause of every little thing that happens? When the preacher claimed that it wasn’t God’s will that those people died, I wanted to stand up and scream that while God might play dice with the universe, he simply can not be so blatantly illogical and still be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present, because if he was, no sense could ever be made of anything, anywhere.
It seems to me that there is not much of anything, except the inherently tenuous nature of life, to be learned from the actions of the deranged gunman in Newtown. Perhaps the lesson might extend to the inherently tenuous nature of all of nature, and how, when two strands of DNA are stitched together to create a human being, there are any one of something like 70 trillion possible outcomes, not all of which yield a person with a healthy body and mind. Strip away all the emotion, and that’s about all you’ve got– something not substantially different than a natural disaster, except that the disaster was hidden in the man’s genetic code. And there is not much of anything could have been done to prevent it. Ban all the guns, and when, in Frankesteinian rage, a freak of nature (in this case mentally, instead of physically) decides to lash out at the universe that did such a lousy job creating him, he’ll find other means of transmitting his rage. He’ll bomb a building or poison a subway or set fire to all he sees.
Sometimes things just don’t get knitted together correctly in the nucleus of the egg. Most times, the resulting creature can’t survive. Other times, the creation can survive, but is deeply flawed, such as was apparently the case with the gunman. In some rare instances, the stitching yields a creature remarkably more capable than his cohorts. The only way to prevent misfits who might later become deranged gunmen would be to breed humans like cattle, culling the herd of any outlier traits, not an attractive prospect.
Is there any way for the families of the victims to make sense of their loved ones having fortuitously found themselves in the path of the gunman’s unleashed rage? Not any more than it is possible to make sense of why a tornado levels all the houses on one side of street, killing or injuring everyone inside, while leaving the houses and people on the other side of the street completely unscathed.
The preacher made a couple of comments about the children who died. First, he said that just because a life ends at age five or six does not mean it has no meaning. True. Whatever meaning there is to a human life, it can’t turn on the life’s duration. As he said, God created every last one of those lives. For whatever reason, God decided to end them (contrary to the preacher’s assertions). But the fact of their creation can never be denied or discounted. They all are ripples in the fabric of God. And from the perspective of eternity, the difference between five years and ninety-five is de minimis, a trifling matter hardly worth mentioning.
But he also said that the death of a child is always a tragedy. Wrong. It wasn’t much more than a century ago, even in what is now the developed world, that a great many children died before reaching adulthood. Go back two centuries, and it was rather expected that most children would die in childhood, explaining in some measure why people had so many of them back then. It seems like every child’s death is a tragedy today because the successes of modern medicine, particularly in its prevention and treatment of infectious disease, have created the expectation that every child will survive to reproductive age. But it will always be the case that children die; some by accident, some by natural disaster, some in outlier incidents, such as what happened in Newtown, some by diseases, like the cancer my son twice had and has so far survived. Death is an ever-present fact of life, even for the very young, and it wasn’t so long ago that it was expected a goodly proportion of young lives would end before they had really begun.
There is nothing about Newtown that could inform gun ownership policies. Hard cases make bad law, and emotion is the very worst intellectual faculty to employ in crafting policy.
There is nothing about Newtown to inform psychiatric care. People can be outwardly normal, more or less, before completely snapping. The people who have debilitating mental illnesses are not of much danger, as the severity of their illness requires careful monitoring. It’s the ones whose illness is subtle or rapidly developing that can do the most damage, because no one knows but them what is going on in their heads.
When Charles Whitman, the Austin, Texas clock tower shooter decided to kill his mother and wife and then climb the University of Texas clock tower to rain death via high-powered rifle upon the denizens of the school, he was otherwise completely normal, except for suffering from bouts of headaches. He was an ex-Marine, a bank teller and a college student. But his mind flipped a switch, and in his suicide note, he told authorities that he felt something had gone terribly wrong with him—he didn’t know why he felt compelled to do what he was doing—but hoped they would autopsy his brain to see if it could be explained as some biochemical malfunction. It turned out that Whitman had cancer growing in his brain in an area that controls emotion (the cancer was in the hypothalamus, which was then pressing into his amygdalae), particularly the flight or fight response. Was Whitman, who seemed to have lost control of his actions through brain functioning gone awry, most probably caused by a cancerous growth in an important area, evil? Or was he just sick? What could have been done to prevent what he did? Banning assault rifles would not have done the trick. Whitman used a regular old Remington 700 7mm hunting rifle to exact his toll, and nobody, but nobody is claiming hunting rifles should be banned. Reforms in mental health treatment would not have mattered. Whitman, except for the headaches, was a perfectly normal guy, at least until his rampage, which even he did not understand.
Newtown was a senseless tragedy. But we fool ourselves if we think senseless tragedies like Newtown can be prevented. No amount of applied intellect, no measure of progressive insight, can prevent the natural disaster that arises when an enraged young man seeks vengeance upon the universe for having created him.