Orthodoxy Today
Nihilism at the Core of the Colorado Shooting

A lot of anti-gun sentiment has bubbled up in the wake of the shootings last week at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. In this incident, as in similar ones before it, people are quick to blame the instruments of death – in some measure, rightly so. Military grade assault rifles do not belong in the hands of civilians. When the framers of the Constitution included the Second Amendment, they had no conception that the people of the future, in their depravity and bloodlust, would invent hand-held weaponry that could kill dozens of humans almost instantaneously. It is bad enough that we have to use such weapons in war; let us not pretend, even if we support the civilian's right to bear arms, that such weapons belong to citizens in peacetime.

However, the debate over gun control, heated as it is, is not hot enough. It does not even begin to address the deeper wounds in our society that continue to manifest themselves, year after year, in the senseless mass murder of innocent people.

Who are these young men, and why do they commit these murders? They have no political program, religious beliefs or ideology to speak of. They do not want money in return for their actions. They seem to have no other motive than a voracious appetite for destruction. The Jihadist Muslims kill with more purpose and meaning than our senseless American murderers.. At least the Jihadists sacrifice themselves by opposing one social order, a Sharia-based Muslim society, to another, modern liberal Western society. They have an object, a goal toward which they are fighting that is good and beautiful to them. In a similar way, at least the killer in Norway last year, as insane as he was, had an ideology and saw himself as forwarding that ideology by killing those whom he believed were opposed to it.

Our American murderers, in contrast, seem to be motivated by nothing, as far as I can see. Indeed, I believe that this is the answer to why these incidents keep happening: they are the final expressions of our cultural love affair with nothingness, of our loss of a center in Christ and its replacement by rampant cultural nihilism. This is the answer under our collective nose, the metaphorical envelope on the table that is hidden in plain sight, as in Poe's story about Detective Dupin. We are so surrounded by relativism and nothingness that we can no longer see it anymore; it is simply the air we breathe.

This is the striking naiveté in the commentary on the Aurora shootings that restricts their relevance to gun control. Let us consider the facts that are forgotten in this restricted conversation: we have killed off all of our cultural heroes, accenting the flaws of those who have gone before us instead of emphasizing their strengths and virtues and the ideals toward which they strove; we have questioned into extinction the traditional understanding that some truths, particularly in the moral sphere, are absolute and absolutely binding upon all of us; and we have exalted everything that is base, barbaric, evil and insane, expecting that somehow our culture will continue to thrive on this noxious, unwholesome food.

Simply look at the content of the recent Batman movies, which were the stage for the Colorado murders last week. This young man had simply taken seriously what was implied in the films themselves: that insanity and evil are to be preferred to what is true, good and beautiful. This is why, for me, the condolences offered to the victims by the director and the actors in the Batman film are so jarring. They created this monster, or at least contributed to its creation, with their exaltation of brutality and senseless cruelty, and then they act as though they are surprised by the senseless, brutal actions of someone who was inspired by the films.

Culture is not a watertight box; what we parade on our movie screens will eventually spill out into social behavior, affecting us all. At least since the 1960's, our culture seems to have forgotten this fundamental truth. I believe that now we are seeing the fruits of it.

One more thing remains to be said about the Colorado shootings, something most news commentators are woefully ignorant of. That is the connection between this murderer's subject of study and his actions. He was a PhD-level student of neuroscience. As many cultural critics have shown (Raymond Tallis with particular trenchancy), neuroscience as it is practiced in most of our universities is an interdisciplinary mish-mash that boils down to scientism and a reductive materialism. All of our human thoughts, goals, achievements and knowledge of the larger narrative into which we fit as God's rational creatures are nothing but the products of synapses firing in the brain. Neuroscience is a cloak for the same materialist and atheist ideology that spawned Marxism. It is the perfect subject of study for a mass murderer, as its first dictum is that living, breathing humans are nothing but biological machines.

There is nothing wrong with talking about prudent gun control legislation in connection with the recent events in Colorado – legislation that would prevent assualt weapons and ammunition from being easily available; however, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that this will get us to the bottom of what happened. Much more subtle cultural surgery is needed to get at the source of the wound. The only solution that I can see for our culture is to turn away from our romance with nihilism and back towards Christ, the center that holds everything else together. Only then can we hope to stem the tide of barbarism and irrationalism that steadily infects ever-wider areas of our culture.

John Carr is a PhD student in theology at Boston College. He recently finished a Master's program at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is married with two children.

Published: August 9, 2012

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