In 1774 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” in which a young man kills himself after the woman he loves rejects him. The novel, popular throughout Europe, had an unanticipated, regrettable effect: a number of young men committed suicide due to romantic despair, something virtually unknown before that time.
Human beings are instinctively imitative. We shape our lives according to the images that we ourselves invent. Those images provide us with new possibilities of emotion, action and reaction, creativity and destruction.
What images shape our lives in unanticipated, regrettable fashion today?
According to Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, they are the images placed into our homes by the purveyors of violent movies and video games, “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.”
But what LaPierre failed to note is the extent to which all of us, he included, have been influenced by the media he condemned. Take, for example, the following remark, which has passed virtually unnoticed: “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”
Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort: the most notorious villains of movies and books are indeed monsters. They are so far removed from humanity as to be incomprehensible. That is precisely what makes their hold over our collective imagination so pernicious.
But what does it mean to think of real people as “monsters?”
All ideas have a history, and this particular one can be traced back to Manichaeism, a religious view dating to the 3rd century in which everything that happens in the universe is shaped by two equally powerful forces of good and evil.
It provides a simple explanation for why people do bad things: it is because they have been contaminated by evil. And since good and evil are mutually exclusive, there is no point in trying to gain some sort of understanding. The only way to win a dispute with evil is by force.
The contemporary expression of Manichaeism is this: You can’t reason with monsters like Adam Lanza; the only way to protect ourselves from them is to lock them up or kill them.
But human beings, even those who do monstrous things, are not monsters; they are human beings.
The first task of ethics is to describe the world correctly. True descriptions of fundamental things are crucial, because when it comes to finding practical solutions to problems, which laws or policies seem reasonable depends to a great extent on how they fit with the way we see the world.
How does this apply in the case of someone like Adam Lanza? Well, for starters, it reminds us that we should not simply dismiss him as a “monster.” If we want to prevent future shootings, we should try to understand what motivated him, which means trying to understand how his actions may have seemed reasonable to him at the time.
Of course, this means we have to acknowledge that Lanza, and other young men who have committed mass murder like Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, are perhaps much more like ourselves than we want to admit. This is not to excuse or minimize the terrible wrongs they committed; rather it is to face the fact that their wrongs are human wrongs, something to which any human being, given certain circumstances, say of mental illness, or distorted perception, or strong emotion, may be susceptible.
None of this leads us in a straightforward fashion toward a solution to school shootings, because there is no simple true answer to the question of why some people do terrible things to others. But there are many simple false answers. When it comes to phenomena that are widespread and enduring, the answers that point the finger at someone else and say, “It is their fault and none of mine,” are generally among the false ones.
As long as we remain under the influence of a distorted picture of human nature, any reasonable solution will escape our grasp.