© 2019 Robert Osburn
It’s just a matter of time before another mass killer once again bloodies our streets, our homes, our schools, and our concert venues with a rain of bullets. Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, we Americans have learned to expect the worst.
We are trained to look for scientific reasons. Political science has explained the motives of Islamic terrorists who claim to defend Islam and/or advance Islamic global domination. Turning to psychology, most of our scientists are, however, stumped: “The mass killers have given us very few clues.” Most are male, and many are single. Apart from male hormones and loneliness, psychologists have little go on.
The scary reality, though, is that we know very little about what is behind America’s mass killings, and so we have come to call them “senseless.” Just yesterday, the young man who last October killed Jamie Closs’ parents (and kidnapped her) in a town 90 miles northeast of Minneapolis wrote that he could not explain why he did it: “It’s complicated.”
Might widely-accepted underlying worldviews that shape life and legitimate behavior hold some of the explanatory keys? By way of hypothesis, I suggest that a key reason behind our mass killings is that postmodern ideas have fueled the use of raw power in defiance of God and reason.
To understand the significance of this, it helps to know the difference between Christian, modern, and postmodern worldviews. The Christian knows he is accountable to God: “You shouldn’t shoot people because God says not to murder!” The modern soul, his back turned away from God ever since the 18th century Enlightenment, instead counts his capacity to reason as his sole authority: “Don’t hurt these people because, if you do, you will end up in jail.”
The postmodernist goes one better: He not only abandons God (like the modernist), but reason as well. For the authentic postmodernist, there is no other authority than the exercise of raw power. As moral nihilists who believe that morality is an absolutely empty, meaningless notion, they ally themselves with the oppressed made powerless by powerful oppressors (especially heterosexual white Christian males). That means yelling loudly to make conservative speakers unwelcome on campus, all to empower the powerless and defeat the powerful.
Mass killers, I suspect, reject postmodernism’s social justice goals, but take its logic beyond shouting down speakers. For them, the exercise of raw power does not come from their mouths; it comes from the business end of guns. So why do these mercifully rare souls marry postmodern philosophy (of which they may only be vaguely aware) to gun violence?
There are at least three possibilities. Perhaps they were raised by parents who gave up reasoning with their children, let alone appealing to God’s authority, and brutalized their children instead. The children grow up mimicking their parents, but on a bigger platform. However, to my knowledge, no researcher has found a pattern of perverse parenting behind most mass killers.
A second explanation comes from Os Guinness’ marvelous 2018 book Last Call for Liberty. On pages 80-81, he cites scholar Andrew Schmookler who argues that some good people are reduced to power-obsessed postmodernists because they have no choice. When the neighborhood is full of bullies, only those who behave like bullies survive. In our postmodern era that has dually rejected God and reason, we all have to become bullies in order to protect ourselves and survive the postmodern onslaught.
But, while I think this second explanation does a very good job of explaining urban violence, it does not help us with mass killings. So, a third possibility: Have many of our mass murderers, who seem to have reasonably good (in some cases, outstanding) IQs, rationally absorbed the fundamental claim that power is all there is? (Notice that they use reason to embrace an idea that rejects reason.) In a society that has decided God and reason are simply clever rhetorical strategies to keep people oppressed and that force is all that really counts, what would stop these people from concluding that there are no moral reasons to prevent them from using power in any way they want?
Years ago, Susan and I discovered the 1959 film Compulsion, based on the shocking 1924 murder of a young Jewish boy by two 20 year-old Jewish intellectuals (one of whom graduated from my alma mater, the University of Michigan, at age 17!). They had read the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (the famous 19th century nihilist who is the oft-acknowledged grandfather of postmodern theory) and concluded that they were Nitzschean “Supermen” endowed with raw power to do what they wanted, regardless of the laws of God and of man (reason).
They had every privilege possible: wealthy, secure family lives and the best education possible. And yet, they became, in the terms that I am describing, the first senseless, “mass” murderers, because they believed that they must exercise raw power in the bloodiest way to prove they were above the common rabble.
Whether through film, books, music, or other media, the message that power is all there is will take root and on occasion give birth to monstrous mass killers.
Someone might object that mass killings are far less frequent in equally postmodern European countries. Limited access to guns may partly explain the disparity, but I suggest that most Europeans possess an ethnic solidarity (transcending allegiance to one’s ethnic group) that restrains otherwise nihilistic postmodern impulses. As radical individualists hailing from all around the world, Americans naturally have little ethnic solidarity and thus no natural restraint on violent impulses that postmodernism unleashes.
We may well be a civilization that has reasoned its way past God and the use of our rational capacities, leaving brute power as the last thing standing. If I am right, we should be surprised there aren’t ten thousand mass murderers on the loose. In any case, we are a society reaping God’s bloody wrath for having rejected him and the capacity for reason with which he has endowed us.
Note added on March 20, 2019: The Acton Institute author Slivio Simonetti has come to similar conclusions in a recommended essay: “Nihilism and Mass Murder: Christianity in Reverse.”