Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
In the hours since 20 people were shot dead in El Paso, Texas, and 9 in Dayton, Ohio, the internet has been full of commentary on their deaths. Two young killers, both white, both males, were responsible; why they did what they did is still a mystery.
Most of the commentary has been directed at blaming someone or something. After past massacres we’ve done that ourselves at MercatorNet. We've fingered fatherlessness and divorce. Politicians have offered bushels of answers this time: violent video games, too many guns, an epidemic of mental illness, racism, white nationalism, too many guns, lack of prayer in public schools, too many guns, lack of respect for law enforcement, lack of saluting the American flag, bullying on social media, too many guns….
A number of Democrats blamed President Trump’s tweets. These are often offensive and divisive, but to identify them as the cause of the killers’ rage is absurd. It is a transparent attempt to wring votes out of tears. The opportunism is despicable.
At least one politician had some common sense. Texas Senator John Cornyn tweeted that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. Sadly, there are some issues, like homelessness and these shootings, where we simply don't have all the answers.”
Even so, we can’t help asking why these innocent people died. Is there a meaning in their deaths? Aren't these legitimate questions?
This is where atheism starts looking very threadbare. Take Neil deGrasse Tyson’s controversial tweet to his followers. He is a distinguished astrophysicist and a proselytising atheist. This is what he had to say:
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.
On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…
500 to Medical errors
300 to the Flu
250 to Suicide
200 to Car Accidents
40 to Homicide via Handgun
Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019
In other words, “Stuff happens; get over it; move on”. Blaming Trump may be despicable; this is heartless.
Tyson’s uber-rationalism assumes that the lives of the victims were ultimately meaningless. “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” he says. But these 29 (not 34, actually) people are not just data points on a graph. They are individual lives, each with a unique mission, somehow drawn together, when a bullet ended their lives.
Nearly a hundred years ago, an American novelist, Thornton Wilder, illustrated this metaphysical problem in his lyrical novella The Bridge of San Luis Rey – for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
The story runs like this: in 1714 a Franciscan friar in Peru sees five people die when a rope bridge snaps, flinging the travellers into the abyss. What meaning did these lives have, he asks himself, and he embarks upon a quest to trace God’s hand in the tragedy.
Eventually the Inquisition takes umbrage at this attempt to second-guess God and burns Brother Juniper at the stake (not plausible, though beautifully described). But the novel suggests that each of the five somehow died at the best moment. “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning,” are the words with which the novel ends.
Wilder’s words came back to me when I read about the last moments of a couple in the El Paso Walmart. To save his wife Jordan, Andre Anchondo stepped in front of her; to save their 2-months-old daughter, Jordan stepped in front of her. Andre and Jordan died; shielded by their bodies, their baby lived. The love of this young couple will outlive the infamy of this hideous crime.
No doubt there are more stories like this, although most of them will remain untold.
Obviously Americans need to work on solutions to these massacres. Gun control, starting with a ban on assault rifles, seems like a good start. But they need to focus on the heroism, dedication and love that shines through these tragedies. If the American media showed people more of this, there might be less hatred and murder to inspire those inclined to violence.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet