As we wade through the news reports and the commentary on the Florida shooting, we can’t help but think that nearly everyone – from journalists to politicians to gun control or gun rights advocates – is missing the point. Everyone is pointing the finger at someone. It’s President Trump’s fault because he practically handed guns to mentally ill people! It’s Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s fault for not banning bump stocks. It’s the NRA’s fault – it’s always the NRA’s fault. Here’s the thing: you can blame anyone you want. You can make any argument you want about the importance or unimportance of this, that, or the other gun control measure. But none of it will change a thing. If we as a society want to figure out and address why this keeps happening, then we have to look beyond guns. Guns are the means of this destruction, not the cause. There is something deeper, sicker in the soul of our society, and it transcends the gun debate.
The link between young men and violence has long been established and is about as close to proven as anything in the social sciences can be. Young men are prone to violence. And in every generation, a certain percentage of those young men are going to deviate from societal norms and become a rather serious threat to society and its stability. As a general rule, over the last couple of decades, crime has dropped significantly in this country, and violent crime has dropped even more. Crime waves that experts expected never materialized, and most of the nation’s biggest cities remained among the safest in the world.
At the same time, though, the incidence of young men turning to mass murder and committing heinous acts of violence nevertheless became a far more pronounced phenomenon, dominating the public consciousness and driving a political agenda. Unfortunately, this paradox – dropping crime rates but increased frequency of high-profile shooting sprees – is explained at least in part by the fantasies that a handful of these young men create to compensate for the lack of real meaning or real human contact in their lives, to offset the nihilism that plagues their existence.
Psychologists who have studied violence in young men and especially young men’s willingness to forsake everything they know, everything they’ve been taught, and everything they might otherwise believe about right and wrong, say that there is a set of shared circumstances and “revelations” that link spree killers and self-radicalized terrorists. Faced with emptiness of their own lives, isolated from many of their contemporaries, and desperately in search of something substantive to give their lives meaning and purpose, young men – and especially young men who find refuge on the internet and in social media – tend to create fantasy lives for themselves, alternate realities in which they not only find the meaning and purpose they crave, but do so in heroic fashion.
Nihilism is a complicated and complex philosophical concept. The heart of it, though – both linguistically and metaphysically – is nihil, the Latin word for “nothing.” Nothing is real; nothing is important; nothing matters; nothing can be known; nothing is good; nothing is evil; nothing . . . well . . . is.
As any schoolboy knows, nihilism as a philosophical notion is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who notably pondered the concept, its causes, and its cures. Perhaps the most important impact of Nietzsche’s thoughts on nihilism was the effect that they had on Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher and Nazi-backer, who also just so happens to be the patron saint of postmodernism.
Heidegger, through his interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism, effectively fashioned what we understand today as postmodern thought and especially postmodernism’s examination of reality, values, and truth. In brief, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the purpose of being and thus the value in being helped form the foundation of Heidegger’s “da-sein” (i.e. “being projected into Nothingness”), which, in turn, helped form the foundation of postmodernism’s critique of objectivity and objective reality.
Nietzsche didn’t kill God. He merely noticed that the Enlightenment had done so. Heidegger, in turn, took God’s metaphorical death as an opportunity to insist that no one believe in anything. In practice, the Heidegger-led revolution against reality, against truth, against everything has led to the formation of a societal ethos that offers its citizens nothing substantive, nothing beyond immediate and material satisfaction. We saw the effects of this nihilism on a mass scale throughout the 20th century, and we are seeing it on a different, but equally deadly, individual scale now.
In the wake of Wednesday’s shooting, many people want to ban guns or certain types of guns or certain types of magazines. This, they insist will stop the violence. For our part, we think they’d be better off reintroducing mandatory prayer into schools. This isn’t a gun problem – appearances notwithstanding – it’s a belief problem and specifically, the lack of them.