Day of Horrors
Ordinarily, I observe the aftermath of a mass shooting with a measure of grim detachment. I’m never wholly detached, of course, especially whenever children are involved. And when the victims are church or synagogue worshippers, I feel that tug of solidarity that I should naturally feel with people slaughtered at prayer to my God. But this time, it feels different. As a teacher, I’ve spent the last few years working in Christian education spaces. And as a conservative Christian writer, I have many friendly connections to conservative church denominations around the country, including the Presbyterian Church in America, which means there are only a few degrees of separation between me and more than one of the families victimized. For the first time in my memory, a killer has stepped into my backyard and opened fire.
The circumstances of this case have made it an instant flashpoint for a storm of political hot takes. I’m not opposed to political hot takes, in principle. We are in a conflict that is unavoidably political. Nevertheless, we should honor the memory of the dead before anything else. So we say their names: Mike Hill, Cynthia Peak, Katherine Koonce, William Kinney, Evelyn Dieckhaus, and Hallie Scruggs.
Mike, a custodian, father of seven and grandfather of fourteen, is remembered as a man who blessed everyone in his path with an all-embracing love. Cynthia, known to her friends as “Cindy,” was fated to be filling in as a substitute teacher that day. She is remembered as a loving wife and mother, a woman of good, decent Christian stock who never wavered in her own faith. Katherine, the school headmaster, is remembered the same way. She is also being credited for her foresight in commissioning a professional team to train the school in a rigorous mass shooting protocol last year. Details have not been provided, but it saved many lives. We know little of how Katherine herself died, except that she immediately ended the Zoom call she was on when the first shots rang out, and she was last seen running towards the sound. It’s been conjectured from the way her body lay in death that she was face to face with the killer. Like Siward’s son at the end of Macbeth, she had her wounds “on the front.”
William, or Will, age nine, is remembered as a gentle, playful child who “knew no strangers.” Evelyn, age nine, is remembered as “a beacon of light,” high-spirited and nurturing, who dreamed of being an occupational therapist like her mother. Her father is a doctor. On Twitter, I saw one of his patients reflect that she had always suspected he was a Christian. He also has another daughter, who was seen weeping at the memorial that she didn’t want to be an only child.
At first, it was thought Evelyn might have died while trying to pull the fire alarm and alert her fellow classmates. In fact, it looks as if the alarm may actually have been pulled by the killer, to lure the children out of safety.
And then there is Hallie Scruggs, age nine, youngest child and only daughter of Chad Scruggs, the school’s pastor. A warm-hearted child, Hallie always participated enthusiastically in the family’s numerous ministry activities at home and abroad. The family is a Nashville mainstay. A GoFundMe has raised nearly $300,000, six times the original goal. Scruggs has a blameless reputation as a faithful man of God and an unfailingly kind pastoral counselor. A poorly sourced report circulated early after the crime suggesting that he was counseling the killer, which the school has denied. In fact, the two apparently didn’t know each other at all. This is just as well, as it deprives certain people of a toehold for certain kinds of shamelessly bigoted speculation.
We should also stand up and applaud the one and only ray of light in this day of black horror, namely the swift and courageous action of Metro Nashville police. Thank God, this was not a repeat of the Uvalde debacle, and not a single officer hesitated to rush towards danger and do what had to be done. One hesitates to use the word “inspiring” for the bodycam footage that’s been released from the two officers who shot the killer dead. It seems far too shallow and gauzy a word for such a desperately grim scene. Officer Michael Collazo, a Marine Corps veteran and nine-year veteran of the department, can be heard breathing hard, real fear in his voice. He approaches the killer with nothing but a handgun, then takes away her AR-15 when she’s down. Her head is pixelated, blurring out the damage done from officer Rex Engelbert’s lethally precise rifle shot. Internet culture being what it is, the image of her dead body immediately spawned all manner of memes and dark humor. I can’t imagine this would amuse these young men who were actually there, and on whose minds this image of unpixelated death is now forever imprinted. In his latest monologue, Andrew Klavan reflects that an actor playing one of these officers on television could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode, many times what the men themselves will make in a year. We are a culture driving drunk on entertainment, helplessly dependent on men such as these to arrive at the scene of the crash. Praise them with great praise.
The death of the wicked can satisfy, sometimes, can even inspire a certain righteous jubilation. I remember feeling it when we finally caught Osama bin Laden. I paid no attention to the virtue-signaling Christian schoolmarms solemnly reminding everyone that we weren’t supposed to rejoice, even at the death of a terrorist. 9/11 was my generation’s day that would live in infamy. I rejoiced in my own way, unashamed. When I was small, I used to stomp out little insect invaders around the house with the war cry, “Die, bug, die!” It is like that, sometimes.
It doesn’t feel like that here, as thankful as I am along with so many others that good men swiftly killed an evil woman. For that is what she was, like all mass shooters. I have nothing against a National Conversation around mental health, certainly more urgent and apt than a Conversation around gun control. But mental health is not the proper moral frame for days like this. Indeed, it isn’t a moral frame at all. So let’s name this evil properly. At the same time, though her name doesn’t deserve to be remembered, Audrey Hale did have a name, a name given to her by Christian parents no less faithful and loving than the parents of her victims. They were allowing her to continue living under their roof at age 28, providing for all her needs, caring and worrying about her, when they weren’t working or teaching Sunday School or doing any of the other myriad things decent Christian people do. I can’t fathom their agony in this moment, the weight of the cross they must now bear for the rest of their lives. My heart also goes out to the friend who was subjected to Hale’s final text messages, announcing that she wanted to die and “something bad” was about to happen. Apparently, they were former basketball teammates, part of a group of girls who did their best to treat Hale kindly when they were young. In subsequent years, as tragedy claimed the lives of two of the group, it’s been reported that Hale seemed incapable of coping and keeping touch in non-“stalkerish” ways.
To honor the dead, the victims, the virtuous and courageous and kind: All this must come first. But when there are more forces in play around a killing than isolated, senseless evil, this cannot be all. If the past week of excuse-making, gaslighting, and shamelessly narcissistic “visibility” is any indication, it would seem that there are. We watched in real time as the media worked through all the stages of reacting to a mass shooting by a self-identified trans killer. At first, as gay journalist Jamie Kirchick astutely observed on Real Time with Bill Maher, there was a reluctance to even acknowledge her identity, a breaking of the usual custom never to “deadname” or “misgender.” The very idea that she might identify as trans was initially resisted as right-wing propaganda. But the spin machine quickly kicked in as the story developed. The official statement released by TRN (the Trans Resistance Network), mourned the “double tragedy” that lives were taken but also that the killer felt “no other effective way to be seen.” It goes on to devote a paragraph to “the near-constant drum beat of anti-trans hate, lack of acceptance from family members and certain religious institutions, denial of our existence, and calls for de-transition and forced conversion.”
Headlines went on to underscore the fact that Hale’s loving Christian parents refused to affirm her alternative “identity” while she was living with them (and, it now appears, possibly planning to kill them as well). Most despicably, I even saw some self-identified Christian voices say we need to recognize the “devastating parental rejection” Hale must have been “suffering” if we want to preserve our “Christian witness.” Meanwhile, mere hours after the murders, trans activists shamelessly went ahead with a planned “die-in” at the Texas state capitol to protest “anti-trans” legislation. As pointed out on Twitter, we don’t need to ask what the backlash would be like if Christians were to go through with a stunt like this hours after an avowed Christian shot up a gay bar. Yesterday’s planned “Trans Day of Vengeance” was only canceled after the organizers allegedly received death threats. Of course, nobody will admit it should have been canceled well before that point, out of basic human decency.
Some headlines have crossed into the unironically absurd, with one recently stating that “trans people face rhetoric” after the shootings. The Telegraph writes with a straight face that “the school is affiliated with the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America, which has spoken of the ‘sinfulness’ of transgender and homosexual desire and conduct, according to The New York Times.” It’s the “according to the New York Times” bit that really makes it, for me personally.
Many have noted that all these headlines, observations about the hatefulness of conservative pundits like the Nashville-based Daily Wire, televised winking and nodding about the pending anti-trans legislation in Tennessee, and so forth, would have been exactly the same were the killer a Christian and the victims trans. The reason is obvious. The killer belongs to an identity group that all our major institutions have judged automatically worthy of sympathy, affirmation, and special praise. Her victims do not.
I remember when British MP David Amess was assassinated by a young Muslim, there was an outpouring of love and warm words in David’s memory, well deserved. But I agreed with Douglas Murray, writing in the aftermath that sentimental tributes to David’s goodness were not enough. It was also necessary to speak boldly about who and what had killed him, and so many others. Not because all Muslims everywhere deserve to be automatically suspected as tomorrow’s terrorists, but because too many Muslims are still shaped by a liturgy of violence, with certain prescribed actions against the unfaithful. In the same way, it is perfectly legitimate—indeed, it is necessary—to ask whether there might be a similar kind of liturgy at work here. This is why I favor the release of at least some summary version of Hale’s manifesto. It may not be necessary to post the whole sick screed for the world to see, but at some level, we need to know what it says.
Once, chatting a little with a young girl who believed she was trans, I could sense a palpable angry fragility. It was painfully obvious that her whole presentation, her whole way of relating to the world, was TikTok-shaped. From an online life her parents didn’t care to find out about, she had acquired all the usual LGBT+ grievance vocabulary. She believed she could be “hate-crimed” at any moment. She was ready to fight the next misogynist/racist/homophobe/transphobe/etc. she saw. By the by, she was also a witch. She seemed almost disappointed when she blurted out edgy things within earshot of nice conservative Christian people, and instead of being shocked, they all graciously pretended they didn’t hear anything.
Understand, I’m not saying I think I met the next “trans” school shooter. I’m simply describing a digital liturgy. Our commentariat seems to have no trouble identifying such liturgies when they appear from other corners of the political spectrum—say, in the form of ironic swastikas and 4chan memes. When a boy immersed in alt-right spaces gunned down Jewish people in a synagogue, a National Conversation broke out at once. What sorts of things had this boy found online? How could these dark spaces be shut down or regulated? How much more diversity training would we need to subject people to until racism wasn’t a thing anymore? Until, one might say, hopefully, racism had been eradicated from public life entirely?
This, of course, was precisely the language Michael Knowles was shouted down and smeared for early last month, with major media outlets forced to retract headlines that accused him of calling for the eradication of transgender people, as opposed to transgenderism. Naturally, there is never any confusion on this point when we speak about any number of toxic “-isms” that enable delusion, stoke hatred, and steal joy. Or life.
For, if we are to speak truthfully here, in this moment when truth is most urgently needed, that is exactly what transgenderism does, what it is. A follower of mine was recently observing, thoughtfully, that this ideology targets young people who seem to be by and large just ordinary misfits—lonely, odd, somewhat damaged people, who instead of being taught how to be happy, confident oddballs, are told they might just be born in the wrong body. Now, combine this with, to borrow the Trans Resistance Network’s phrasing, a “steady drumbeat” of rhetoric telling such young people that violent bigots are on the verge of wiping them out in a “genocide,” or that literally everyone except a trans person is to blame when a trans person commits suicide, or that “minority” violence against perceived majority cultural “oppressors” can be morally justified. Now ask honestly, like Holly Math Nerd in her excellent Substack analysis, “What Did We Expect?”
Meanwhile, there is no presidential proclamation, capitol celebration, or red carpet of welcome and acceptance being rolled out for young women like Luka Hein, who bravely stepped up to a microphone the other day to share her story. As a mentally ill adolescent, she was cyber-bullied to the point that the authorities got involved. Afterwards, medical ideologues encouraged her family to nudge her down the path of sex-change surgery. She lost her breasts at age 16. Her voice is low and gravelly. She sounds like a middle-aged woman in the process of ruining her vocal cords with cigarette smoke, not the 21-year-old college student she actually is. She speaks now not out of “hate,” but out of a passion for “keeping kids whole.” Having worked with children, watching them explore the world, seeing “that magic that they have,” she is here to warn us all that gender transition will “take that away,” as her innocence was taken from her. Of her “so-called treatment,” she says, “They looked me in the eye and told me this was ‘care.’”
President Joe Biden declares, “On Transgender Day of Visibility, we want you to know that we see you just as you are: Made in the image of God and deserving of dignity, respect, and support. We’ll never stop working to create a world where you won’t have to be brave just to be yourself.” Meanwhile, on television, in full femme garb, the Huffington Post hack formerly known as Charles Clymer assures us that his faith is very important to him. He goes to church every Sunday, in fact. “But God made me in Her image. God made me transgender.”
“If the last large scale religious war was about our relation to scripture,” Mary Harrington proposes, then “this one’s about ‘imago dei.’” What do we mean by “image”? What do we mean by “God”? And whose definition wins?
The battle lines are drawn. The new religious war is upon us. May God help us all. And may God be especially near to the good people of Covenant School. It was not a month ago that Pastor Scruggs was preaching, with eerie prescience, on the raising of Lazarus. Today, he preaches a sermon of one sentence to the world: “Through tears we trust that she is in the arms of Jesus, who will raise her to life once again.”