From the May/June, 1999 issue of Touchstone

No Answer for Littleton by James Hitchcock

No Answer for Littleton

The mass shooting of high-school students in Colorado has inevitably been called “a tragedy,” a word commonly misused in our culture. In classic Greek tragedy there was a conflict between two principles each of which was true in itself but which could not be harmonized. A true tragedy has about it a kind of terrible grandeur, a solemn sense of fated necessity, and the word should not be applied to events that have no positive dimensions that the human eye can see.

I here enter into the almost compulsive chattering to which events of this kind give rise, as every person in some way licensed to express a public opinion is expected to do so. But I also suggest that most of what has been said about Littleton is of little value, except in helping us to attain catharsis for our emotions, the illusion that by talking about it we are somehow doing something.

Events of this kind show in starkest form the ultimate emptiness of modern liberal culture. I don’t mean by that the facile claim that, by its general permissiveness, liberal culture caused two adolescents to gun down their classmates and themselves. I mean rather that modern liberal culture has no way of even beginning to cope with such events and the very fact that they occur itself demonstrates how shallow that culture is.

In the wake of the massacre there have been renewed demands for gun control. Parents are being reminded that they should show a close personal interest in their children. (“It’s nine o’clock. Is your child making a bomb in the basement?”) Students are searching their souls to discover if they are responsible by having made the killers feel like unwanted outsiders. The current liberal panacea of “teaching respect for diversity” is being sold as the ultimate guarantee against recurrence.

All these may be worthy enterprises. But the simple fact is that we do not finally know why the murderers did what they did, nor is it likely that we will ever know. At best we will get theories, based on the particular alleged psychological state of the perpetrators, and those who formulate the theories will pretend to much more certainty than they actually posses.

All attempts to explain evil actions ultimately flounder on the simple fact that, whatever may have happened in a particular criminal’s life, it “explains” his behavior only if we ignore the thousand other people who had similar experiences yet did not murder anyone.

For liberal culture rests on some concept of “social engineering”—the idea that by creating the proper environment, especially through education and laws, we can finally expel evil from our midst and make everyone good. When something bad happens, we then simply go back to the drawing board to try to figure out where we made a mistake.

Liberal culture in its optimism is untrue even to the most basic secular insights, especially to what has been called “the tragic sense of life.” By that I understand the realization that in the end life is both mysterious and deeply disappointing. Things never happen as they should. Humanity’s grandest dreams ultimately come to ruin. The liberal proposals to ensure that there will be no repetition of the Littleton massacre may or may not do some good, but soon other things will happen elsewhere, shocking us once again.

Christianity has no “answer” to this in the sense that it can explain, much less justify, what happened at Littleton. But the Christian belief in sin is at the heart of the tragic sense of life—the realization that human nature is never going to be bleached until it sparkles, that from the hidden depths of the sinful person there will always emanate things that no amount of rational planning can ever control. In eternity we will finally understand. Without that prospect we are from time to time forcibly reminded that life has no ultimate meaning within the limits of our carefully constructed but very fragile world.

James Hitchcock, For the Editors

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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