October 11, 2006

Strakon Lights Up


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I'm an opinion-monger, and I don't apologize for it, but I have to confess that I am already so sickened by the massacre of those little Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa., that I hesitate to exploit what happened to them to illustrate anything more general. I'm afraid of sickening myself further — and of sickening you, too.

But, still, something more general is out there. And something has to be said about it.

A demon straight from hell would have had to think long and hard in order to come up with a crime so stupefying in its evil — in the substance of that evil and in all the terrible resonances of its evil. But the homicidal and suicidal man who committed the crime in Pennsylvania was not such a demon. He was an outwardly normal truck driver who, it transpires, had harbored evil fantasies and urges for many years. Until he documented them, they apparently were a secret to the people around him. (We must hope, at least, that they were an impenetrable secret, however mystifying such a state of affairs may be.)

I title this writing "Teratogenesis" — referring to the making of monsters — and something in our culture is certainly making them. Now, it is wrong to say that the culture itself "makes" anything, independently from the people who constitute it. As an individualist, of the Objectivist variety, I reject the incoherent idea that humans are mere automata whose ideas and conduct are programmed by their environment (or by their genes). Humans are animals of volitional consciousness, in terms of the kind of thinking humans have to do: in order to escape from the cradle, humans must focus on themselves and on what is around them, and sort those things into concepts that they find useful in some way. Accordingly, I'm driven to say that men are making themselves into monsters.

But they are doing it with the help of their cultural environment; and any task becomes easier when you get good, efficient help. I have a theory (which I'll never be able to prove) that all societies harbor, in the individuals who compose them, about the same potential for evil. Christians will quickly understand, in their own way, what I'm getting at here. But a strong, coherent, moralizing culture inhibits or diverts the actual expression of much of that evil, through teaching in childhood, the gravity of family reputation, and the fear of shame, guilt, or even eternal damnation. When necessary, shunning and ostracism of adults may come into play, but usually they are not necessary. A strong culture both demands and rewards "normal," honorable, productive activity on the part of adults. And in such a culture a forthright and vaunting display of criminal evil on the scale of Nickel Mines is hard to find.

Instead, insofar as such astonishing evil exists on a large scale, it is heavily disguised as something else, something noble or necessary or inevitable or at least materially profitable. I am thinking of such common practices of ancient vintage as slavery, torture, tyranny, and war. Their disguise serves to discourage private individuals from indulging in them in a manner not approved by the "law" of states. We may even grant that the distinction between those settled evils and the act of the Nickel Mines man goes beyond mere disguise: most men who carry out the settled evils do not revel in sadism (at least not publicly), and most do not bellow and boast about the terror and pain they inflict — at least not without simultaneously demonizing their victims.

It remains the case, though, that however well they are disguised, and however strenuously their moral import is evaded, those crimes tend to corrupt the societies that officially practice them; and we who have been influenced by Western Christendom would not hesitate to describe some civilizations as more inherently cruel than others, even during the time of their flourishing — Aztec civilization, for example, or that of the Mongols, or that of pre-Christian Rome.

But it is during the collapse of civilizations that we may expect to see the fullest cruelty, the worst evil madness, start to be practiced by private individuals, because cultural inhibitions in defense of individual decency will have dissolved. Men and women of weak or deformed character will no longer even feel the imperative of hypocrisy, by means of which "vice pays homage to virtue."

When I was a teenager, hypocrisy was touted as the worst vice, the one that cleared the way for all the big social crimes, especially imperialist war, racial bigotry, and whites' "tolerance" for nonwhite poverty. The unbalanced focus, by self-righteous children, on hypocrisy was part and parcel of the anti-culture of irrational "self-expression," or exhibitionism, whose darkest possibilities we now begin to suspect. We don't need "a man like Herbert Hoover again," as the old TV theme song would have it, but in light of what its suppression has brought us it seems that we do need a vice like hypocrisy again. The hypocrisy of the Nickel Mines man was far too weak, and it failed far too soon.

A school-safety expert named Michael Dorn came to Fort Wayne shortly after the Nickel Mines event to assure folks that school violence is nothing new in this country. According to the newspaper coverage, Dorn "said Columbine is possibly fourth on the list of worst school catastrophes." He reported that 95 parochial-school children perished in a 1958 Chicago fire that may have been arson. And that a bomb went off in a Texas school in the 1960s (but he did not specify the number of casualties, if any). In any case, according to the story, Dorn "will also tell you that more children die from heart failure across the country, than die due to school violence." Not to mention, educationists have other security issues to worry about, such as chemical hazards. ("Violence not [the] only school safety issue, expert says," by Jeff Wiehe, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, October 5, 2005)

Well, I don't mean to heap disrespect and ridicule on Dorn; he actually seems to have been discouraging public officials from panicking and blowing tremendous amounts of taxpayer money on absurd and goofy totalitarianism, TSA-style. But I'm looking at something different from what Dorn is looking at. Even if gunshots, or indeed bomb blasts, were heard a time or two in American schools in past decades, we are seeing something new in our time. The Nickel Mines attack is a characteristically modern and specially disturbing kind of crime: the calculated, "enjoyable" murder that the perpetrator plans to follow, in short order, with his own self-murder (either direct suicide or "suicide by cop").

Such murderers — from the little goblins at Columbine to the monstrous truck driver in Pennsylvania — do not perform their evil with any thought of thus winning entry to Paradise. In that respect their crimes are even more mysterious to normal people than the Islamic murder-suicides. They are more mysterious, indeed, than the crime occasionally committed by American Negro women when they cut the fetus out of another woman's womb; that savagery is motivated not by the desire to experience a sadistic thrill ante suicide but instead by the desire to steal a baby and go on with life.

In fact homicidal baby-stealing is a crime some of the old-time tyrants could have understood: the work of such savagery earns material compensation. By contrast, at Nickel Mines and Columbine the work itself — inflicting unimaginable terror and bloody murder on the helpless — was the compensation, and the criminals willingly traded their own lives in order to earn it. Those crimes reveal a way of looking at one's life, and an ease of dismissing it, that just cannot be grasped by people who derive their assumptions from Western civilization. The emergence of that particular kind of crime tells me that we have entered a new, and late, chapter in the history of our disappearance.

The crimes signal, to me, the proximity of a great impenetrable moral singularity, a black hole of monstrosity, whose gravitational pull on our splintering, shivering civilization is only increasing. We orbit closer and closer to the event horizon of final disintegration, when all will have been stripped away.

After Richard Speck, who had no thought of suicide, slaughtered eight nurses for pleasure, forty years ago this past summer, Americans thought they had seen everything. They were wrong. If after Nickel Mines you think you've seen everything, I beg to differ. You haven't seen anything yet.

October 11, 2006

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