The Sandy Hook Shootings and America's Culture of Death

We must rescue our imperiled American society from our confrontations with mass murder.

State Police are on scene following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

State Police on scene following a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012.

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Louis René Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.

In 1936, on the occasion of a speech by the nationalist general Millán Astray, at the University of Salamanca, in Spain, the hall thundered with the general's favorite motto, Viva la Muerte! "Long live death!" When the speech was over, Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the university, rose and said: "Just now I heard a necrophilous and senseless cry...this outlandish paradox is repellent to me." Yet, the cry that was repellent to the philosopher was also the driving passion of the Falangists, and is today the revealingly common ethos of America's mass murderers.

Macabre sentiments can animate certain severely disconsolate young people. In their impenetrably bitter circles, as we well know from the mass shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and Connecticut, there may exist a determined will to kill generally unknown other people, en masse. Whatever the differently preferred killing venues, there somehow emerges a uniformly irresistible urge to unleash lethal violence in crowds, to express potency, and, ultimately, to secure a plainly unsanctified "martyrdom."

Better to be remembered after an abruptly abbreviated life as a murderer who had displayed power, goes the prospective killer's twisted reasoning, than to be disregarded in a longer life that was insufferably weak. Paradoxically, therefore, it is through death, simultaneously self-inflicted and meted out to others, that the mass shooter plans to fashion a "living" memory. When he ostensibly explodes in what is really a controlled and mock paroxysm of rage, this aberrant killer lacks any readily identifiable targets or hatreds. For the most part, very significantly, there is no calculably logical connection between his particular set of grievances, and the names of his selected victims.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Newtown shooting.]

Why? Although it is no longer shouted out loud, "Long live death!" remains the telling undertone of both a devastating social loneliness and a vanishing personal autonomy. We wonder, as we should, about the recurrent mass killings, and about the rapidly expanding locus of their utterly vulgar defilements. But should we really be all that surprised?

Sometimes, young people, especially, are more afraid of being alone and inconsequential than anything else, even death. For a few, almost always young males, the paralyzing fears of social or professional rejection can become so overwhelming that they effectively crowd out the more widely presumed sacredness of human life. Here, as an imagined compensation for palpable "injustice," the murder of complete and harmless strangers, even young children, may suddenly appear appropriate. A perversely implemented fusion of homicide and suicide can thus become a uniquely grotesque celebration of death, sinister, of course, yet also reassuring as a presumptively fitting expression of "revenge."

Crime and mass murder are taking a lurid but somewhat predictable turn in America. Whether it is in the movies, or at the movies, in our so-called music, on television, in the mall, or at the elementary school, violence and death, notably if they are brazenly brutish and cold-blooded, are in conspicuous fashion. Historically, this worrisome development is not entirely unprecedented, but increasing numbers among us are now drawn to all that can beat, batter, and tear apart innocent and fully defenseless human beings.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Is it really any wonder? Virtually every American hero these days is acknowledged and acclaimed for the power to take away human life. Almost every Hollywood male superstar (and occasionally even a female star) polishes his name as some sort of assassin, the "good guy" as well as the "bad guy."

In the end, changes in the law won't matter much, although, of course, the easy availability to civilians of military-style assault weapons is hardly immaterial. The core problem for America, however, from the starkly compelling standpoint of lone-wolf mass murderers, is not fundamentally legal, political, or institutional. It is, rather, that we inhabit a relentlessly imitative and dreadfully conformist society, one that is deeply troubled, fervidly anti-individualist, deliriously unhappy, and obscenely dysfunctional. For those who fail to "fit in," the corollary anger can spiral into monstrous violence.