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When Violence Seems the Only Answer

The San Jose shooting leaves us saddened but not shocked, and that’s as troubling as the shooting itself

I live in an era when homicide kills more people than cancer and the favorite form of suicide is to take a rifle up some tower and keep shooting until the riot squad settles it.

Meet Zebadiah Carter, as he introduces himself in Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Number of the Beast.  In 1980, the description of a world gone mad sounded like the science fiction that it was. Now, it echoes like prophecy.

If you’re old enough, think back to 1999 when mass shootings at Columbine stunned and shocked the country and the world.  The teenage culprits left behind 39 victims that day.  In the years that followed, many more were added to the list:

  • 32 dead and 17 wounded in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
  • 13 killed and 30 wounded at Fort Hood in 2009.
  • 20 students and 6 adults murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
  • 12 killed and 58 wounded at the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado, the same year.

The fallout from these random acts of violence extends far beyond the actual victims.  How many stories can we hear before we stop feeling horror and outrage?  How can we not doubt our own humanity when we stop feeling outrage?

And how can we face a future where senseless violence is becoming the rule rather than the exception?  With 2021 less than half over, last week’s San Jose massacre brings the total mass shootings for the year to 232, on track to set a new, hideous record.

Why?

We’ve asked the same question again and again. According to reports, the shooters at Columbine and Sandy Hook were themselves victims of relentless bullying.  For that matter, so was Timothy McVeigh—perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing—as a boy in Pendleton, New York. Histories of psychiatric problems surfaced after the fact, as they did after Aurora, Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood.

But these explanations offer little in the way of real answers. Almost all of us were bullied when we were younger without seeking murderous retribution against our tormentors, and most of us can lay claim to at least some kind of neurosis. And why the continuous rise in violence?

TOO PROSPEROUS TO FAIL?

Ultimately, it may be all about control. “These kids often feel powerless,” psychiatrist Peter Langman told LiveScience in 2012. “The one way they can feel like they’re somebody is to get a gun and kill people.”

“Out of control” has become a fitting mantra for the world we live in. On the one hand, technology provides us with the power of information, opportunity, and access at a level unimaginable less than a generation ago. But on the other hand, our incapacity to manipulate so much power leaves us feeling both frustrated and inadequate, while the perceived triumphs of others make us feel like pawns in a game we can never win.

With the world at our fingertips, success and happiness remain damnably elusive.  With every reason to be happy, we can’t justify our relentless dissatisfaction.

And so we flail about with increasing desperation, constantly trying to push ourselves just a little faster and work just a little harder. Day by day, our sense of anger and resentment toward a society that promises so much and delivers so little builds within us until we feel ready to explode. In a world gone mad, what else can we do but get mad at the world?

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

The fallacy, however, is that the world has not made sense since the beginning of time. So observed King Solomon, the wisest of all men, in Ecclesiastes, his reflections compiled over a lifetime spent searching for meaning and reason:

And I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither is there bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of knowledge; but time and death will overcome them all.

Really, all that has changed are our expectations. We were taught to believe that anything we desire is within our grasp, that we are entitled to the love of poets, the wealth of kings, the pleasures and the power of gods. Our culture has etched upon our collective consciousness the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And although Thomas Jefferson had the wisdom not to assert the right to happiness itself, that subtle distinction is lost on most of our generation.

Given the unreasonable expectations of life in a virtual world, what can we expect from a youth wholly unprepared for reaching the age of responsibility? And when they confront the seeming impossibility of leaving their mark on the world through any positive contribution, why should we be surprised when they choose violence as their final recourse to make the world take notice of their existence?

THE SUN ALSO RISES

And yet, for all that, Solomon himself did not give in to despair and hopelessness, despite the words of lamentation that introduce his philosophic musings:

Futility of futilities — all is futile!

It is not Solomon’s opening words, however, that contain his ultimate message. It is his closing message, offered in sharp contrast to all the observations he makes before:

The sum of the matter, when all is heard: Fear the Divine and keep His commandments, for this is the entirety of Man.

Viewed superficially, this world is a place of chaos, without rhyme or reason, without justice or pity. Says Solomon: do not look at the outer trappings of creation, but search for the nobility of humankind.

Recognize the greatness that compelled a 27-year-old first-grade teacher, with scarcely a moment’s notice, to give up her life in the protection of her innocent charges. Admire the reflexive heroism of bystanders who rushed to help the injured at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, without regard for whether another explosion might make them victims themselves. Do not lose hope in the face of wanton violence, but take inspiration from the lofty heights to which human beings can rise.

In the marathon of life, some finish, and some fall. But greatness is measured by perseverance, by pursuing the unique potential that resides within each of us, and by our determination to choose good over evil and show the world that the divine spark of the human spirit will always shine forth against the darkness.

Adapted from an article originally published in 2012.


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Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldsonhttps://www.yonasongoldson.com/
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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