Saturday, December 15, 2012

Massacre of Innocents

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Massacre of Innocents, 1566

"We build a fire in a powder magazine, then double the fire department to put it out. We inflame wild beasts with the smell of blood, and then innocently wonder at the wave of brutal appetite that sweeps the land as a consequence."  
-- Mark Twain, 1907

Yesterday's massacre in an elementary school in Connecticut is very much on my mind today, and preoccupies just about everyone else I've been in contact with over the past 48 hours; Facebook friends, colleagues at the college, and my students talk about nothing but, and in shocked and astonished tones.

The mass murder of teenagers in a high school, of college students in class, of people out to watch a movie are all unbearable, but the senseless murder of 20 children, and small children at that, and 7 adults is beyond the usual bloody spectacle of so much American public life.  I don't think I've ever seen a President of the United States publicly so close to tears as I did yesterday.  While parents feel the shock and horror of this most immediately, those of us who are not parents are amazed and horrified at this catastrophe.

There are the furious arguments over fire-arms policies in the USA.  There are preemptive attempts to shut this discussion down out of consideration for the feelings of the bereaved (so it is claimed), but as Ezra Klein said so eloquently yesterday, the aftermath of a gun massacre is not too soon for such a discussion, but too late.  James Fallows pointed out yesterday that a recent rampage in China injured 22 children while the rampage in Connecticut killed 20 children; that's the difference that guns make.  My own views on guns are starting to harden in the wake of this massacre.  I've always thought that assault weapons should be off the market, and now I'm willing to entertain the idea of a handgun ban along the lines of Britain's 1997 fire arms law enacted in the wake of a similar massacre of children at Dunblane in Scotland in 1996.  Our stubborn refusal to do the obvious, even after the bodies pile up higher and higher after each bloody rampage is insanity.

Even beyond the issue of guns, there's our country's deeper addiction to violence.  The Marquis de Sade answered Jean Jacques Rousseau's claim that nature knew no crime with "Nature averse to crime?  I tell you Nature yearns in all her pores for bloodshed!" and it seems so do we.  Entertainment here consists of gladiatorial combats of one form or another, and the revenge fantasy is the bread and butter of movies and television.  There is the action movie, the most formulaic of all movie genres, that always centers around the impatient Man of Action heavily armed who deals with obstacles to the course of Justice by blasting through them.  The impact of guns and grenades, their consequences for both the dead and living, are minimized in order to focus on what Walter Benjamin called the "fiery orchids of machine guns," the compelling aesthetics of mayhem.
The entertainment industry feeds off the fantasies of frustrated young men, and in turn feeds all the rest of us with fantasies of power and revenge without consequences.  And we eat it up like candy.  We sit in our office cubicles or work the fryers imagining ourselves as our own Rambo taking out bad guys, enemies, aliens, communists, terrorists, and anyone who stands in our way (even if that turns out to be an elementary school).

There remains the intractable mystery of evil.  We may never really know what drove the murderer, Adam Lanza, to do this.  There may be no reason beyond the delusions of a diseased mind.  We inevitably think how something like this could happen, how does this reflect upon the world we live in?  How could a loving God permit this to happen?  For that matter, why is there even this dust?  The secular explanations about evolutionary advantage or disadvantage are no more satisfying than the anodyne formulas of conventional religion.  None of them account for the presence of evil in our midst, or for why it too frequently succeeds in its destructive designs.

I think the worst thing to say is that all of this madness is somehow "God's Will" or part of His mysterious design.  God is not a monster.  God is innocent of our evils.  I've never believed in an all-controlling deity who causes everything that happens to happen.  We are free to choose love and glory as well as grief and infamy, and we all go through life sampling from each.  We make our own beds that we lie in.  Nature follows its own catastrophic path to self-perpetuation.  We suffer from its power not because Nature is furious, but because we are in its way.  We suffer evil, pain, and death not because we are wicked, but because we are mortal.  Terrible shit happens to us, and it means nothing other than we can't last and we must die.  And yet I can't believe that disasters like this are our final end.  Our lives end, but they don't necessarily conclude.  In the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, I still believe that Love is stronger than death.

Elie Wiesel once told a story (that he later included in The Night) about how in the concentration camp, he and the other prisoners were forced to watch the SS hang a young boy for a minor infraction.  One of his fellow prisoners jabbed him in the back and hissed "Where is your God now?"  Wiesel's answer many years later was that God was there on the scaffold waiting to be hanged with that boy.

Mahler, from Kindertotenlieder:

"In diesem Wetter"
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus;
man hat sie getragen hinaus,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus;
ich fürchtete sie erkranken,
das sind nun eitle Gedanken.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus;
ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen,
das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus!
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus!
Man hat sie hinaus getragen,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus, in diesem Braus,
sie ruh'n als wie in der Mutter Haus,
von keinem Sturm erschrecket,
von Gottes Hand bedecket.

"In this weather"
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn't able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale,
I would never have let the children out.
I feared they sickened:
those thoughts are now in vain.
In this weather, in this storm,
I would never have let the children out,
I was anxious they might die the next day:
now anxiety is pointless.
In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn't able to warn them!
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother's house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.


The names of the victims have now been released.  The children were all 6 or 7 years old.  All of the victims were shot multiple times.

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, circa 1505, a painting about death and dying.  The late autumn landscape, the bare trees, and above all the sleeping infant direct us to meditate upon our end.

Raphael's Sistine Madonna from about 1515, another painting about death and dying.  The bed curtains part and Our Lady and Our Lord, together with Saints Sixtus and Barbara, descend out of the realms of light to greet us at the hour of our death; a Christian painting for the time of death similar to a Japanese Buddhist raigo painting.

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