BY ROB FRIEDMAN
Kurt Vonnegut likely would have viewed the Virginia Tech massacre as further proof that man is unfit for this world. The shooting punctuates an alarming trend in vigilante violence, particularly violence that occurs at school, and highlights the increasing difficulty by which civilized society attempts to protect innocent life. Never before have the maniacs among us been able to produce havoc so quickly and easily.
Incidents of mass murder carried out by individuals or small groups appear to be on the rise: including the Virginia Tech murders, seven of the last eight mass shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the last 25 years. An increase in incidents of mass murder of school children worldwide is particularly troubling: Dunblane, Scotland (1996); Sanaa, Yemen (1997); Columbine, Colorado (1999); Osaka, Japan (2001); Erfurt, Germany (2002); Beslan, Russia (2004); Red Lake, Minnesota (2005); Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania (2006). This is not uniquely an American phenomenon, but it does appear to be a cultural one. America, being the cultural cool kid in the world, just sets the trend.
Certainly the technology used to kill large numbers of people has improved over the last 50 years, and the Virginia Tech murders have reinvigorated the debate over how to control access to the machines that people use to kill each other. The debate over how to prevent the psychopaths among us from murdering large numbers of people is important, but if murderers are made and not born (as most psychologists seem to believe), then is not the more important question: why do we seem to be making more murderers, or at least more mass murderers?
In Plato’s Republic he described the virtue of justice as a balance between the three parts of a person’s soul – reason, spirit and desire – that is achieved when reason rules desire with the assistance of spirit. That balance is increasingly difficult to achieve in a culture of steroid-induced narcissism, where every kid gets an A+, every player is a winner, and everyone not only has the right to dream but is entitled to have that dream come true: to be the American Idol, the YouTube phenom, a bright star in a world of dimly-lit pseudo-celebrities (if Paris Hilton can be a celebrity then why not I?). Who needs reason when the only thing that stands in the way of success is the desire to achieve and the spirit to shamelessly self-promote?
The real world, with its competition and disappointment, winners and losers, must seem unbearingly cruel and unjust to those exploring it for the first time. No one knows what turns one of society’s newly-minted losers into a murderer. It takes psychological imbalance to be sure, but that imbalance appears fueled, in part, by the arrogance of individuality that entitles egotists to take that which neither talent nor struggle nor dumb luck has brought them, but which they were taught is rightfully theirs. If the murderer comes to believe that the world is not as it ought to be and that he, as the arbiter of justice, must make it right, then he has the capacity to shoot innocent children, fly an airplane into a building, or blow himself up on a crowded bus. The murderer is merely doing what he has been trained to do: to grab justice by the throat when the world unjustly refuses to turn it over.
Mr. Vonnegut concluded that there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. He probably could have mentioned that murderers are made and not born.
Rob Friedman, HLS ’98, a former RECORD editor, is an insurance coverage litigator in the West Palm Beach, FL office of the law firm Gunster Yoakley.