The Violence Within

We are saddened by the senseless violence in Aurora, Colo., last weekend. We pray for all whose lives were lost or will never be the same.

Attempting to comprehend the unthinkable or to defend against the unpredictable is more of a coping ritual than an adequate response. An individual or group determined to inflict violence will always find an unexpected time and an unanticipated means and place. History does not provide many clues if a review of a century of mass killings is any indicator.

While we are stunned by the ability of one person emerging anywhere from nowhere to inflict so much pain, massacres are more often the dirty work of regimes and militias in the world’s more identifiably notorious pockets of sociopolitical turmoil. But here, it is the seemingly random and unprovoked madness of a neighbor we never noticed that jolts us like an earthquake over a hitherto undetected fault line. Where does this sudden explosion of rage come from? Or do we only notice too late the rotten fruit of the bad seed long sown within?

Even before the smoke settles and we can begin to piece facts together, we look for blame and tend to find it first where our presuppositions lead us: the weapons, the laws, the media, the culture or the society. None of these pulled the trigger. We try to discern a motive: sheer evil, insanity or some prosecutable hybrid that can be lawyered up for the required verdict. But no justice on Earth can reclaim the innocent lives lost.

No doubt on that same Friday night, other lives were being lost to violence — in Denver or Milwaukee or Brooklyn. None so dramatically perhaps but no less real and tragic for victims, friends and families. Not by far do all the scars inflicted by domestic violence appear on police blotters — and (what betrays even worse) by abusers and killers well-known to their victims! The right hand driven by rage can be as close as the left hand on the wheel or in the apartment downstairs, as fatal as any gun.

Even at this early stage of the investigation, it appears that the actions of the Colorado suspect were planned for months, according to local police, with “calculation and deliberation.” This implies an intelligence and a degree of organization that will, no doubt, help prosecutors make their case. The defense will cite the same intelligence — the suspect’s interest in psychology and neuroscience — as indicators of a mental illness, that he sensed something different in him, as one criminologist suggests. Unfortunately, as the narrative progresses, the abhorrent violence, against which we all recoil and the empathy that unites us now with the victims of this unspeakable tragedy, may soon devolve into another Court-TV melodrama, fixated on the deranged psyche of an evil and/or insane caricature of a human being different from anyone we know or are likely to know. We might do better to reflect soberly on the more familiar and frightening logic by which we witness the unchecked violence within, leading to violence “out there.”

We do not infer that whoever can get angry could as quickly seize a weapon and launch into a crowd. Nor that — unlike the theater shooter — the line between virtual violence on the screen and real violence cannot be easily drawn even by children. Christians share the belief that our Savior absorbed and defused all the “necessary” violence that would ever be. He rendered violence futile and powerless. Whatever theological argument might be advanced for that proportionate resistance known as self-defense, the nurturing of violent intent or of the action that would follow it has nothing to do with self-preservation, the assertion of one’s identity or the good of anyone else. It does not belong in a Christian’s life.

Our hope and prayer is that this lurid exhibition of the sordid face of violence will not blind us to the violence with the heart from which all violence erupts — which must be left at the Cross, the only weapon that can conquer it.