OK, so it’s late. And I’ve been spent way too much time today following the news from Connecticut. And I’ve scrolled down the Facebook feed and read one too many comments along the lines of “guns don’t kill people, people do” or “why must we exploit this tragedy by talking about guns?” And it was probably a mistake to read in the Times the latest from Ross Douthat, with whom I’ve taken issue before.
Douthat has taken upon himself to understand the tragedy for us. Turns out it’s a matter of evil and suffering. Which are mysteries. He cites The Brothers Karamazov (a novel which, you’ll be glad to learn, is “famous”). He thinks that Ivan Karamazov might actually have a point when he accepts “that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.” (The price of freedom, in this case, seems to be 20 dead children.) He reminds us, at this festive season, that behind the Christmas story lie “[t]he rage of Herod” and “the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.” And these great and awful mysteries, he’s willing to allow, test our faith.
The last time I took issue with Douthat, I noted the “circularity” of his mind-set, the way “a certain type of mind veers helplessly towards systems—self-enclosed, self-perpetuating systems.” And the system is on full display here. He seems quite pleased that he has come to this understanding for us, that he has been able to construct from the horror his tone poem on the mystery of evil.
And I’m willing to believe the thing is mysterious. It’s occurred to me more than once today that we should understand these tragedies better by now. The pattern is familiar. We should have some way of analyzing it, of being able to name the pathologies that produce these acts if not to prevent them from happening. But, no matter how many times they happen, something about them remains opaque.
So, yes, there are mysteries here, but cosmic they’re not.
Because there are facts. The rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. (9.0) makes us twelfth in the world, ahead of South Africa but behind Montenegro. Our murder rate (4.2) is comfortably small compared to Brazil (21.0) or, God forbid, Honduras (91.6). But it’s several times the rate of other developed democracies: France (1.1), Italy (0.9), Japan (0.3). We’re also behind Morocco (1.4), Lebanon (2.2), and Afghanistan (2.4).
The most obvious reason for this is the unrestricted availability of guns. There are more than 200 million privately owned guns in America, and many of them are capable of such rapid, repeated deadly force as most of us, short of an alien invasion, will never need. So that’s part of it. And maybe, too, we should consider the political climate of the past several years in which the collectivist impulse was consistently construed as something the other guy was trying to take from you. Along with your guns.
But whatever. All those things can be discussed. Indeed they need to be discussed. And to shrug Friday’s tragedy off as part of God’s unfathomable ways is, to quote myself again, “another example of what [religion] can sometimes do to your moral sense.”