Columnists > Soul Food

The wrong question

Don't ask how it could happen; ask how it could not

Issue: "School vouchers debate," May 15, 1999

Three weeks have now gone by, but we will not soon forget that Spring day in Littleton, Colorado, when teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris strode into a high school named for the Columbine- the flower traditionally thought to resemble a flock of doves. Laughing, they killed 13 of the flock, a teacher and a dozen fellow students, then ended their adventure by killing themselves. The initial reports were filled with evocative description. One observer said the scene in the school afterward looked like a circle in Dante's Inferno: water four inches deep in the library, strobe lights dot-dot-dashing through the smoke, and bodies, bodies, lying broken and crumpled, in corners, under desks, wherever the students had been trying to hide when they were shot to death.

Later, the emphasis turned to provocative prescription, with an emphasis on answering the same sad question: How can such things happen? Some said young people find it too easy to get guns, so we must have new restrictions. Others specified violent images in movies and music, so we must do something about the entertainment industry. Still others spoke of racism, or the inevitability of having a few evil people about, and proposed more hate-crimes legislation or early warning systems to pick out suspects.

The urge to offer such recommendations is understandable. By saying such things we medicate the horror that arises in us from contemplating the mystery of sin; we drug it by appealing to things we think we understand. Not that any of these facile explanations is true. Guns? One of the guns that Klebold and Harris used was already illegal under federal law; besides, keeping the pair from firearms would not have kept them from making shrapnel bombs with ordinary nails. Racism? They did hate people of other races, yet all but one of their victims were white; there is more evidence that they were after Christians than that they were after blacks. Movies? No doubt the filth that passes for entertainment does contribute to the corruption of our young, but it is only a little thread in a large and twisted weaving. A few evil people? If only evil were focused and concentrated and sedimented in just a few corrupted souls; if only the truth were such an easy pill.

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"How can such things happen?" is the wrong question. Instead we Christians should be asking, "How can they not happen?" For by little and by little, when a nation turns its face from God, it repudiates everything which reminds it of Him-chiefly His image in Man, next the law He has written on our hearts. The citizens think that after this everything will be the same, that nothing will change. After all, the airplanes go on flying, the microwave ovens go on humming, and the lovers go on tumbling. Yet nothing stays the same; everything changes.

Can we not see this? In the deepest irony of the affair, the chief guardian of the laws responded to the murders at Flock of Doves High School by imploring parents to "shield our children from violent images and experiences that warp young perceptions and obscure the consequences of violence." No one points out that the same guardian defends the terrible partial-birth abortion, in which a mother arranges for the back of her baby's neck to be pierced with scissors while he is being born, for his brains to be sucked out, for his skull to be crushed, and for his lifeless cadaver, after being drawn out the rest of the way by forceps, to be thrown away. We are to "shield our children from violent images and experiences," but not from the image-or the experience-of infanticide.

How can such things as the murders of the little doves at Columbine High School happen? How can they not happen in a culture that is re-paganizing itself as fast as possible, and embracing death even in the procreation of life? If we have normalized, privatized, civilized, and domesticated several modes of mass or serial murder already, why should we be shocked or surprised that a couple of teenagers in Colorado tried out one of the others?

It is not possible for sin to beget other than sin. That is not how sin is. It burgeons; it blossoms; it spreads.

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