A Commentary by Father Joseph Chamblain, OSM
Assumption Catholic Church
Recently I caught a film on television called A Girl Like Her. Presented in quasi-documentary style, it is one of many films made of late about the insidious problem of high school bullying—which has become all the more intense and inventive in the age of social media. In the movie a girl who is the victim of intense bullying by another girl and who feels that she has no way out attempts suicide. While not a great movie, it did offer something different from the typical high school drama. It told the story from the point of view of the bully rather than the victim. The message that the film conveyed is that in order to stop bullying, we have to do more to than enact policies that protect and support victims. We have to find out why bullies become bullies in the first place and help them too. Was the movie offering a real breakthrough . . . or was it just being naïve?
I thought about this film this past Sunday as the news of a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando started to unfold. When I listened to the radio news very early Sunday morning, it sounded like a relatively small incident with a handful of victims. After presiding at the first two Masses on Sunday, I checked the news again, and suddenly the number of victims had reached 100, and this had become the biggest mass shooting in our country’s history. The club itself was identified as a “gay nightclub” and the shooter was identified as a supporter of the Islamic State; and so it was easy to make generalizations about Radical Islam and about the LGBT community as a continuing target of hate and violence. Yet, what can we do about this? Where does the hate come from? Why did the shooter feel compelled to take this action? Does religion, by its very nature, breed violence and hate? People of faith from all religious traditions would deny this, but there is certainly plenty of evidence from history of people doing awful things in the name of religion. The twentieth century contemplative monk, Thomas Merton, once remarked that “the gods of hate are easier to serve than the gods of love” and this might be the big reason why religion’s track record on hate and violence is so ambiguous. Religions with clear belief systems may attract and even protect angry people who like clear lines between good and evil, but these people never progress to the more challenging parts of their religious tradition which ask them to serve a god of love.
Many people have grown tired of President Obama and other civic and religious figures drumming about the need for more gun control whenever a tragedy like this occurs. And yet it is hard to dispute the proposition that our very lackadaisical gun laws (especially those governing assault weapons) are a significant factor in making ours such a violent culture. In a study conducted five years ago covering 24 high income countries, our gun homicide rate in the United States was found to be 25 times that of any other country, and for 15 to 24 year olds, it was 49 times higher. In the City of Chicago (as of June 13) there have been 1,651 shooting victims this year. About twenty years ago, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia enacted strict gun control laws. In these last twenty years there has been one mass shooting in the United Kingdom, none in Australia, and eight in Canada. In the United States, according to the National Gun Archive, there were fifteen mass shootings in the first thirteen days of June. (A mass shooting is described as an incident in which four or more persons, not counting the shooter, are shot or murdered at the same time).
But guns themselves are certainly not the whole story behind our culture of gun violence. People from rural areas constantly remind us that they have been around guns and rifles all their lives; yet they fully understood their place and their purpose. They would never think of using one to kill another human being. As a kid growing up in Memphis, we all played with toy rifles, cap guns, holsters, toy soldiers, and other instruments of war and violence, and we all played cowboys and Indians, which (by today’s standards) was not only violent but racist; yet we never thought of it as anything more than a reenactment of the pretend violence we saw on television westerns. Today’s kids grow up on video game violence, but does that really turn them into killers?
What exactly is going on in the mind of a mass shooter? A bully? A gangbanger? What is the state of their mental health? What pressures are they under—real or imaginary? How can people of faith bring relief to the emptiness and desperation in their souls? Are these naïve questions or are they the most important questions?
June 19, 2016