A couple of weeks ago an eleven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old shot a number of their schoolmates in a schoolyard in Jonesboro. Since then everybody has been trying to make the event mean something. Nobody wants that teacher and those children to have "died in vain," but I'm afraid that's just what they did.
It seems to be politically incorrect these days to blame the murders on the two kids who committed them, so the gun control advocates will blame the guns. The neighbors will blame the parents of the perpetrators. The Baptist Church will blame television. The Pentecostals will blame the devil. Conservatives will blame our permissive society. Liberals will blame our repressed society. Cynics in each group will try to use the event to promote their own political or social programs. Piles of money will be spent trying to find the cause of this shocking tragedy, and in the end everybody will be just as ignorant as when they started but satisfied that some meaningful action has been taken as a result of the deaths. They will be wrong.
The puzzling thing to me is that even though this kind of thing has been happening fairly regularly in the past quarter century, people are surprised when it happens again. People in Oklahoma might be hurt by tornadoes, but they know that tornadoes are going to arise from time to time when certain meteorological conditions exist. Intensify those conditions and the tornadoes will be more numerous and more spectacular. Jonesboro and similar incidents are not much different and we should not be surprised when they happen. These incidents are caused by political and social institutions that are as old as human civilization. In this century it has been the American tendency to intensify everything--bigger buildings, stronger power sources, faster cars, and so on. We have also intensified some of our social mechanisms. Some of those mechanisms discourage violence and some of those social mechanisms encourage violence.
Let's get down to specifics. Every civilization discourages murder. Every government reserves its most severe punishments for those who take another human life. Likewise pretty much every religion discourages murder. If you kill, you're going to hell and that's that, right? When God uses the old finger of fire to lay down the law, that's one of the things on the list, "You shall not kill." Enormous societal resources are brought to bear on us from the days of our births which constantly reinforce the idea that of all the crimes and sins, murder is the worst.
And then we start making exceptions to that rule, and every civilization has different exceptions. It's okay to kill in self-defense. It's okay to kill if you're defending your family. It's okay to kill if you're an executioner hired by the state to kill criminals duly convicted of certain crimes. It's okay to kill if you're defending your country. The Christian crusaders were told by the pope that when God said, "You shall not kill," what he really meant was, "You shall not kill Christians." An interpretational thing. A Briton, upon discovering his wife in bed with another man would probably consider it inappropriate to kill the interloper, while an Italian might consider it obligatory. The list of exceptions grows and grows. In the old west horsethieves were killed, such was the extent of a man's dependence on his horse. It seems to be permissable to kill if you are wronged grievously enough by the standards of your civilization. Duels just a century ago were fought to the death over insults to a man's honor. I've heard that among some street gangs you can die and deservedly so by stepping on somebody's sneakers.
Every time one of those exceptions is invoked, the person doing the killing has to overcome the psychological barriers that society spent so much time and effort building.
Somebody helps him over that barrier and that somebody is you and me and all our ancestors and all our traditions.
One example: When a soldier goes to a foreign country to kill people he doesn't know and who have not personally threatened him, he has to be assured that this is a good thing to do, that he will be rewarded and not punished, that he will not go to hell, but rather will find favor in his God's eyes. In order to assure him, we come up with glorifying songs and tales of combat, from the Illiad to The Ballad of the Green Beret. We honor our veterans with medals and parades and grant them elevated social status, and this helps psychologically to enable them to kill foreigners on our behalf. If we didn't do all this our soldiers simply could not function properly as soldiers and we here at home would be in deep deep trouble because within the week somebody's army would find an excuse to come over here and kick our butts and take our stuff.
Sit down and make a list of other examples of the exceptions to the taboo against killing. Is it okay to kill a human embryo in the first trimester of pregnancy? Is it okay to kill a convicted murderer? Is it okay to euthanize a severely retarded person? How about a terminally ill person? Is it okay to kill a rapist? Is it okay to kill a child molester? Is it okay to execute a terrorist who killed a soldier? How about a soldier who killed a terrorist? Can you in good conscience kill someone who is robbing your store? Can you kill someone who is merely burglarizing your store without threatening you personally? Can you kill someone who poses a threat to your family? What about somebody who poses a deadly threat to a stranger? What about somebody who poses a deadly threat to a foreigner? Is it okay to kill a foreign spy? Is it okay to kill a traitor? Is it okay to kill an animal for sport and not for food? Is it okay to kill an animal for food? Is it okay to kill a cow? A gorilla? A muslim? A nazi? Is it okay to kill an unarmed enemy soldier who is not facing you? Is it okay to kill a soldier who has surrendered? Is it okay to kill a comrade who flees in the face of the enemy? Is it okay to kill a deserter? Is it okay to kill a political opressor? Is it okay to kill a revolutionary? How about if you call him a rebel instead?
For every possible exception that you can list there is a social mechanism operating which has placed that exception in your mind. As the list of exceptions grows and grows, the formula for deciding whether or not it's okay to kill becomes outrageously complicated and myriad justifications for murder make themselves available and myriad social mechanisms stand ready to help boost you over the barrier that keeps you from becoming a killer. Notice how many elements of these social mechanisms turn up when somebody kills unlawfully. How often do they don military camouflage and use military (as opposed to sporting) weapons, adopting the symbols that signify acceptable killing?
The more exceptions our established social order makes to the rule against killing, the more of us are going to become killers. Those exceptions and the institutions that support them help potential killers to pass the social and psychological barriers that keep them from murdering. The fact that a couple of preadolescents got the rules all twisted up in their heads should come as no surprise.