It’s no doubt the question many of us are asking.
For the families of victims, it isn’t a question.
It’s an agonizing emptiness.
The Search for Answers
“Why?” is a question with infinite answers, and yet none seem like they’re enough.
It’s a painful longing for reason, rationale, a personalized explanation of how a tragedy like this can fit into the picture of our existence. In the agony of our loss, we strive to understand things that are simply unable to be understood.
In the days since Sunday, there have been many responses to the tragedy (tragedies, actually) in Orlando, and many of them have attempted to answer this frustrating question with a variety of answers.
One of them is gun control.
If you haven’t heard the outcry for more gun control, just check your Facebook feed.
Senator Christopher Murphy (of Newtown, Connecticut, no less) just finished a filibuster to force a vote on some kind of legislation. This will certainly spark some hope for change and hopefully get our elected officials to do more than secure their own reelections.
But will it really make a difference?
Will it stop terrorists from committing more acts of evil with staggering suddenness and brutality? Will it prevent mentally deranged monsters from slaughtering elementary school children? Or will it prevent Dylan Root-types from locating a powerful weapon and unleashing its power on the innocent, and resurrecting old demons from America’s past?
I don’t know. But as the argument goes, banning things (like undocumented immigration, music piracy, and cocaine) doesn’t always stop people from getting or doing them.
Another attempt to answer “Why?” is ISIS.
The answer to this is both yes and no.
Apparently the shooter swore allegiance to ISIS but wasn’t trained or even assisted by new caliphate. It seems he was radicalized in the same way you and I discover new music and become overnight superfans: The internet.
So is ISIS really to blame?
I’m reminded of how “video games” and “Marilyn Manson” were blamed for the Columbine shootings in 1999 (two years before Islamic extremism became the blame-game go-to, and often rightfully so).
Yet neither of these parties were responsible for the deaths of 12 students and 1 teacher in Colorado. Two murderers – young men who had grown to see human life as expendable – were responsible.
Think of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Whom did we blame?
The culprits: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
And that act of terrorism claimed 168 lives, three times that of this recent “worst mass shooting in American history.”
McVeigh and Nichols weren’t teenagers. They weren’t particularly religious. They didn’t seem to hate gays, blacks, Hispanics, women, or any single group more than another.
Though they did hate the government.
But that’s true of most Americans – isn’t it?
The American Nightmare
Again – we want to know “Why?”
We crave answers.
And while gun control laws and the Islamic State may have a lot to do with various acts of violence around America, I have a different answer.
And I could be wrong.
But I think we have so many shootings – and so many other acts of violence, such as robberies, domestic abuse, bullying, rape, and isolated murders – because of the hijacking of the American Dream.
For many, the American Dream has become an American Nightmare.
At the time of our founding, men and women in the 13 colonies had a dream. That dream was to be free of a tyrannical king and have a form of fair self-government. It was to have the freedom to pursue any line of work and make a fair compensation without crushing taxes.
And it was to be, as a man or a woman, defined by ones character and achievements, not social class or a lack of “royal blood.”
And while our original American dream was flawed in exclusions and prejudices, it didn’t ask for much.
Seriously. What was the American Dream to most colonists in 1776?
It was merely the freedom to struggle against the elements of nature and reap the benefits – or consequences – on ones own (or as a community). Men and their families were content to live on a small farm or in a small home, make a decent living, enjoy the opportunity to travel and do business with little interference, and to worship the god of choice.
These were the lofty dreams of the early American.
But with the Industrial Revolution, our capacity to dream exploded. Not only did our technology grow, our aspirations ballooned with it. Soon everyone had to own a car. Then everyone needed household appliances that made life “easier” (and many of them certainly do). And before long, most Americans had a smartphone that chirped with texts, reminders, status updates, tweets, posts, RSS feeds, and god-knows-what-else.
And again – many of these things are, in and of themselves, good.
But it’s a lot. And as the growth of technology has billowed like a mushroom cloud, so has our desire to acquire and reap the benefits of the fruit of all of this innovation.
In other words, there is a lot of stuff in America today, and most of it is stuff that we want.
And if we already have it, that can’t be enough: We must then be teased into wanting more.
Upgrade today. New and improved. Limited time only.
This is the core of advertising. A potential buyer cannot be soothed into believing that his life is fine just as it is. Something must be missing.
He must be made to want.
This, I believe, is the core of our American Nightmare.
It is not that commerce, advertising, or consumption are evil. As I said before, few things are evil in and of themselves.
But it is excessive want that is often the cause of great tragedy and, in effect, evil.
Remember the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus? All Icarus had to do was not go too high, and he could escape the Labyrinth and fly. But it was imperative that he remain moderate in his ambition and not fly too close to the sun, lest the wax securing his wings melt. All he had to do was follow the wise path of moderation. Otherwise, his story would end in disaster.
Which it did.
Why Shootings, Then?
At so many funerals, the officiant reads the words of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Yet we live in a culture that is incredibly want-heavy. We want things all the time. I want a vacation – and I just had one.
Yet this isn’t as simple as greed. Though greed is another result of this American Nightmare, it isn’t the only way we respond to our want-heavy culture. People process their want differently than others, and for some it is a lonely, tortured process.
Underneath our American conscience is a boiling resentment of others. It comes from wanting. It comes from unwillingly sharing. It comes from having so many perceived “voids” in our lives and seeing in others a competitor.
For some, it creates the muted fury we experience as road rage (I’m totally guilty), HOA battles, and the stampedes we see every Black Friday.
But for others, the resentment goes unchecked.
And so, as a people at-large, we are no longer content with a farm or a small business and a respectable income. The simple, largely technology-free life of early-America belongs in our jokes about the Amish, not in our own homes. Hardly any of us could be contented with such a silly, antiquated existence.
And how could we be? We’ve seen the possibilities! We’ve known the pleasure of instant gratification! We’re stricken with FOMO and we love it!
In other words, we’ve eaten the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve and our eyes have been opened.
Our resentment comes from any number of tiny injustices, real or imagined. Like having our rights challenged, having to share public resources, waiting in line, or working ourselves to exhaustion for pathetic wages.
And for some, a rare few, this resentment culminates in the ultimate form of anger: Dehumanization.
To commit crimes like those in Orlando (or any of the dozens of places we’ve wept over and hashtagged) requires a heart that is stone-cold in its view that humans have little or no value. It’s no surprise that survivors of the Pulse tragedy described the killer as “calm.”
Of course he was calm.
It’s easy to imagine mass-shooters as wild maniacs, their tongues hanging out, spit flying – thanks to Hollywood villains.
But this is folly. Killers like Omar Mateen are calm and collected because they feel nothing but resentment for the humans with whom they must share the city, the country, and the Earth.
I trust that many killers begin to believe that human death has inherent value, while human life does not. Hence the body count, the calm brutality, the soft target, everything.
The Orlando shooter was doing what was natural for him. He was done sharing, done tolerating, done suffering the presence of others.
Of course, this kind of dehumanized violence can happen in any country other than America, and it has.
But not at America’s breakneck rate.
Perhaps this violence is more prone to happen in a country that makes promises like those our culture regularly makes. Promises like freedom from pain, freedom from loneliness, freedom from failure, and freedom from suffering, all for the low price of $9.99.
No, these freedoms aren’t in the Constitution.
But they’re a part of our cultural constitution – the fibers of our American soul.
Honestly, I don’t know.
After each tragedy, those of us who are marginally touched by it find a way to move on. We pray for the victims and play the “what-if” game with our families, and thank our preferred god that it wasn’t us.
Then we re-enter the world and assume that our workplace, our college, our cinema, our school, and our nightclub won’t be next.
We have to.
But it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Perhaps hours. Perhaps days. Then we’ll hear of another active shooter, possibly near, possibly far.
It’s going to happen. There’s no sign that it will stop. There is no trend indicating that these shootings (or at least our rabid news coverage of them) will dwindle to a halt.
And this isn’t just because of gun control laws, or because ISIS wreaks global havoc at this moment.
It’s because our culture makes lofty promises that it can’t keep to all 320 million of it citizens.
Through our laws, we promise equal protection and rights. Through our economic system, we promise a chance at hitting the jackpot. And there’s a sense that each one of us will win the American Dream lottery, and that we should.
“You deserve it,” we are told. “You’re special,” we are reminded.
And so the rat-race begins, if only in your mind, the rudder steering the ship of your life.
Are there not enormous mansions near your house? Are there not glimmering automobiles screaming past you on the road, driven by mere mortals? American airports don’t stay open out of charity – there are people buying those flights to Paris, to Rome, to the Bahamas, to many exotic destinations.
Why not you?
For some of us, a modest life – not quite the Amish paradise I described, but a modest one nonetheless – is enough. We’re content with our home, our family, our friends, and the tiny nuggets of hope we invest in the occasional lottery ticket or conservative stock portfolio.
It’s an ample portion of freedom. Because freedom is just that: Being free. Not riches. Not a lifetime of comfort and luxury.
It’s the ability to struggle against the elements the way you see fit.
But for some (and I include myself here), those of us who’ve bought into the vision of America sold by so many companies with so much expensive advertising, it’s not enough.
“There has to be more,” we constantly tell ourselves. And again, we may not even use these words aloud or in our minds, but in our urgings, the twisting of stomach muscles throughout the grind of the day, we feel it all the time.
Our stack of magazines rivals a small building. We spend more time shopping that we do sleeping. Our DVR is filled with HGTV programming.
The next “big thing” always seems to eclipse the most recent achievement.
There has to be more.
Some will steal to get it. Some will break numerous laws. Some will brood in misery, hiding inside a mind that tells them everything they want to hear.
And a tiny number of them will ultimately come to see humans merely as roadblocks to their own version of the American Dream. They will see those humans as more valuable dead than alive. And they will decide to remove those roadblocks, once and for all.
And for the rest of us, the American Nightmare will continue.
We will cry out, again and again, as Icarus tumbles from the sky.