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There Are No Solutions
It's time to stop pretending.
“We have to do something.”
“WE have to do something.”
“We have to do SOMETHING.”
Every single time.
And every single time, I ask, “Okay. Who is ‘we’? And what is ‘something’? And what exactly do you mean by ‘have to’?”
Less than two weeks ago, “we” were white Americans. Or white evangelical Americans, to be more specific, depending on which channels you were tuned into. And “something” was recognizing that we are all complicit in white supremacy. Or something.
This week, the Discourse shifted (because the latest evil psychopath to hijack the news cycle happened to be not-white), so now “we” are just Americans, and “something” is just agreeing with everyone’s half-baked hot takes on gun control. To prove that we care. Or something.
Of course, I could play this game too. I could say that if we’re going to talk about this sort of thing in terms of Grand Unifying Narratives, we could at least take the “How COVID-19 restrictions ruined at least as many lives as they might have saved” narrative for a test-drive. We know the Buffalo shooter first fell down the rabbit-hole of propaganda while trawling forums like 4chan in “extreme boredom” during lockdown. We know the Uvalde killer had become estranged from his father because the father spent the year prior minimizing contact to protect his elderly mother, who had cancer. So, this wouldn’t be hard. The problem is that like all Grand Unifying Narratives, it would be too easy, and so I’m not going there, because I’m not a hack.
Meanwhile, a few salient facts: In this country, we already have mandatory background checks. In this country, we already have bans on firearm ownership for felons, domestic abusers, and persons with specific mental health issues. In this country, we already have states (like California) that will not even allow you to transport a gun with ammunition in it. In this country, we already have cities (like New York) with restrictions so severe that the only people freely carrying and using guns are people willing to break the laws we already have.
We have laws. We have laws on laws on laws.
Now, it’s easy to go after the left in these moments, but this week has also provided opportunities for right-of-center disillusionment, as appalling details continue to emerge about the on-duty cops who stood down for nearly an hour while the massacre was ongoing. There’s no polite way to say this: While little children played dead, called 911 and begged for help, the good guys with guns did not do what the good guys with guns are supposed to do. They will have the rest of their lives to think about that, unless they despair and kill themselves sooner (which I’ve seen some people unironically suggest—as a periodic reminder, don’t do this, it’s bad for your soul).
Of course, in the end it was still a good guy with a gun who actually did his job and ended it all. So no, this case does not shatter the “good guy with a gun narrative,” as some have suggested. It simply means there are fewer good guys willing to bring their guns to a real gunfight than we all want to believe.
So, here we all are all over again, having to admit all over again what nobody wants to admit: There is no magical cure for the scourge of school shooting. There is no SOMETHING that WE can all be forced, collectively, to do. There are no solutions.
Am I saying I will refuse to consider any proposed new law? No. I’m willing to hear what David French has to say about red-flag laws (though I immediately wonder how they could be abused). But I also think Sam James nails it in this First Things piece when he writes, “You cannot see a red flag in someone you never see.” Tomorrow’s school shooters are living largely hidden lives today, disconnected from community, staring at tiny blue screens day and night. The sorts of laws already designed to filter out homicidal maniacs won’t necessarily catch them, because they haven’t done anything homicidal or maniacal. Yet.
Perhaps some will say more mental health care is what’s needed. Maybe. But I’m still thinking about this New Atlantis piece by James Mumford, about the sort of “nonjudgmental psychology” he encountered when seeking treatment for his own mental health. He describes a typical group therapy session in the asylum where he voluntarily committed himself:
Presented with the handout listing various values, we’ve been asked to circle the ones that resonate with us. Next, the psychologist, with a flourish, ventures an observation. Each of us, he says, has different values. What’s more, we often disagree about our values. “So,” he concludes, “values are subjective.” And our recovery, our restoration to sanity, hinges upon our willingness to choose our own values. He lets us know that while morality “is externally imposed by society,” it is imperative that we be the ones to pick which ideals, morals, judgments, precepts, and rules to live by.
When it comes time for questions, he raises his hand to try to articulate what’s been gnawing at him:
I’ve no doubt that at times in my life I have suffered from narcissism — an inflated sense of my own value. I’ve thought I am better than I am, because I’ve thought I am better than other people. Right now I am experiencing the opposite problem. “I still feel — kind of temporary about myself,” as Willy Loman puts it in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. I showed promise when I was younger. Doors seemed miraculously to open in front of me. So I felt special, chosen for something, “fortune’s minion.” Grown-ups took an interest in my progress. I had great expectations, and others had them of me. But then I found myself thwarted. And that knocked my confidence. My life doesn’t feel as though it’s amounted to much. So now, in my own eyes, according to my own perspective, I’m not feeling that I amount to much. I can’t see much worth in myself or in my life. Well, if value is subjective, and I’m struggling to behold any worth in my life, who can tell me I’m wrong?
He then tries to show how the therapist has cut off the branch he’s sitting on: “I am treated by your team as if I have irreplaceable value. When I am feeling worthless, you don’t act as if values are subjective.”
There’s an awkward beat after he finishes this spiel. Then the psychologist suggests they could discuss post-structuralism, if he wants.
Therapy may be able to treat some symptoms. But as long as it is mired in post-modernity, it will never touch the root cause.
There’s also been a lot of discourse about the fatherhood crisis. We certainly can and should have that conversation. It’s more than an abstraction to me, speaking as a high school educator in a diverse, predominantly blue-collar rural community. I’ve taught math to the kind of boys who don’t necessarily fit into the high school-university-office job pipeline. Some of them have loving fathers who are still married to their mothers, present and active in their lives. Some of them don’t. You can usually tell the difference.
I say “usually,” but not “always,” because it’s not a one-to-one correspondence. I’ve also seen a few hard cases with present fathers. Like mental illness, fatherlessness is one piece in this whole puzzle, certainly a bigger piece than America’s gun laws. It’s a part of the truth. But it’s not the whole truth.
In the aftermath of this week’s murder, I looked back through my old blog archives and found something I wrote back in 2019, after that year’s horrible spate of mass shootings, before the discourse about America’s lost boys had become tangible to me. I don’t normally quote myself at length, but I think 2019 me was prescient enough here that it’s relevant:
Of course, I’ve got my own questions, my own things that make me go “Huh.” Like how Patrick Crusius became radicalized in a few years right under the nose of his grandparents, with whom he shared a house after moving out in high school. By all accounts they’re a sweet older couple. So sweet, they apparently let him use the computer eight hours a day without asking any questions. I think about how John Earnest’s family never even worried what their son might be reading online, for so many years that they no longer knew him. I think about how Connor Betts learned to love the dark and terrify women and glory in violence with nobody to whip his hide the moment his wolf fangs came out.
I nod knowingly when I read that Crusius’s parents were divorced and that he was always by himself—a lonely, isolated, “weird” kid, probably on the spectrum. In the same way, I nod when I read that Stoneman-Douglas school shooter Nicky Cruz and his brother had to go home-hopping after their mother died. I can wrap my mind around fatherlessness, neglect, isolation.
But then I think about John Earnest, Sr., a present father and a man of God, left devastated and uncomprehending. I think about the father of the Toronto van killer, Alex Minassian, who did everything he could with his wife to help their Asperger’s son, to encourage him, to launch him. I am haunted by this father’s simple, anguished reply when asked for a comment to the victims’ families: “I am sorry.”
The boys are not all right. We know this. We will keep trying to throw out ideas to “fix” this, some of them perhaps more helpful than others. The gun control lobby will keep droning and blaming Trump. Some of us will discuss strategies for regulating or stifling hotbeds of radicalization. Others will keep talking about the botched generational hand-off and about the dangers of unfettered Internet access.
All of it will be inadequate until we lift our eyes above this present carnage to see that hand of darkness outstretched over all, that power unbound by flesh with whom we contend. No words will suffice but “good” and “evil.” No language will suffice but the language of war.
Sooner or later we must come face to face with the truth, the terrifying truth: that sin crouches at every bitter young Cain’s door, waiting to enter if willingly invited. After all our blame has been parceled out, all our sage advice delivered, this remains. This choice. This lifting of the latch.
There might still be strategies to discuss. There might still be ways individual people can step into the gap, like a pastor stepped into the gap for some of my students—a pastor who less than ten years prior had been finishing out jail time for armed robbery. When he wore T-shirts, you could see his tattoos, which earned him some non-negligible cred. For reasons known only to God, that pastor contracted COVID and died last year. He was barely forty. Today, just mentioning his name can bring a boy to instant tears.
So yes, perhaps to the extent that men can be like that pastor, to the extent that men and women together can father and mother America’s lost boys, there is something that some of us can do, under the right circumstances, while praying for the appropriate heavenly aid—which prayers, ironically, tend to be scorned by the same people who are screaming about gun control.
But in the end, there are no solutions.
Once more for the people in the back: THERE ARE NO SOLUTIONS.
Laws will still be broken. Therapy will still fail. Good pastors will still have their hearts broken. Good fathers will still be rejected. And children will still be dead.
This means it’s time to get serious.
It’s time to get to work.
It’s time to start praying.
It’s time to stop pretending.