Kearneysville, WV. The events seem to come from nowhere. One minute life is normal, even mundane, perhaps happy. But in a heartbeat the thin veil of civility, security, and sanity is torn away and all that is left are the dead and wounded, the cries of anguish, and the unanswerable question: why?

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was the best known of the victims of the senseless act of violence in Tucson that left six dead and more than a dozen wounded. We have come to learn that a nine-year-old girl born, ironically, on 9-11-2001 was another of the gunman’s victims.

Some in the punditry are suggesting that the vitriolic rhetoric that characterizes much political discourse is, at least partially to blame. A climate of hatred and violence is fostered by those willing to make outrageous claims and while most people take it all with a grain of salt, a few will be induced to act. Some are suggesting that the Tea Party is somehow responsible. In his column Sunday, New York Times pundit Paul Krugman wrote that “You could see, just by watching the crowds at McCain-Palin rallies” in 2008 that an outbreak of violence like the Oklahoma City bombing “was ready to happen again.” Limbaugh, Beck, and others on the right have accused people on the left of attempting to politicize a tragedy perpetrated by a lone nut. Business as usual without a hiccup.

But behind the blaming is a serious question that haunts us all, a question that too often gets drowned out in the media storm that invariably follows such events. The question, “how could this happen?” is a cry of the heart in the fact of suffering, a cry into the awful depths of emptiness and to a God who appears to have turned his back.

We like to tell ourselves that we are in control, that we live in a world of peace and security. We create buffers around ourselves to ensure against disaster, both natural and man-made. We buckle up, gulp vitamins, use sun-screen, tend to our 401k, lock our doors, and replace the batteries in the fire alarms. However, the veneer is paper thin. Our lives seem so secure, so comfortable, and then from out of nowhere a bullet is fired, an earthquake strikes, the doctor shakes his head and simply says “it’s inoperable.”

Why does the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike? Why do bad things happen to good people? As always there will be those who try to stop up the gaps that permitted this troubled young man to do what he did. The problem is that the dike is crumbling. It always has been. The world is a dangerous place. Human beings are an integral part of the problem and this is true even while acts of heroism mingle with the echoes of gunshots. Heroes and monsters inhabiting the same land. Or more precisely, heroes and monsters inhabiting the same skin, for as Solzhenitsyn put it so well: “the line of good and evil passes through the heart of every man.”

It is comforting to simply chalk up horrific acts to insanity, to abusive political rhetoric, or to inadequate laws. It is comforting, for such explanations create the impression that we understand and therefore might prevent such acts in the future. Unfortunately, the long train of human history indicates otherwise.

Space station commander Scott Kelly, whose identical twin brother Mark Kelly is married to Congresswoman Giffords, led NASA in a moment of silence Monday as part of the national observance for the victims of Saturday’s shooting. From the space station, Scott Kelly spoke these words: “We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not.”

Indeed this world of beauty and goodness is also a place of suffering and pain. Perhaps it is the presence of the latter that makes the former so sweet and invariably tinted with gall. We long for a goodness that cannot be marred. For a security that cannot be breached. We long for a world where God walks with men and the serpent has been crushed.

Lest in the myopia of our national tragedy we forget, other parts of the world are just as stunned, just as devastated, just as saddened by their own sufferings. From the headlines: 32 dead in four days in Acapulco, Mexico—victims of drug wars; 8 dead and 72 missing in flash flooding in Australia; clashes in Sudan have killed at least 30; thousands continue to suffer in Haiti from an earthquake that most have forgotten.

We have only just celebrated Christmas and Epiphany is now upon us. Peace on Earth is still our prayer.

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  1. “The world is a dangerous place. Human beings are the problem and this is true even while acts of heroism were on display as the echoes of the gunshots were still on the air. Heroes and monsters inhabiting the same land. Or more precisely, heroes and monsters inhabiting the same skin, for as Solzhenitsyn put it so well: “the line of good and evil passes through the heart of every man.”

    Excellent post.
    The depravity of which you speak occupies all our communities, because all our communities are made up of fallen people.
    It is an ugly reality, but recognizing it will help prevent us from pursuing “solutions” that are less than real.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reflection. The whole incident left me melancholy all day today after I read more about Loughner and his family this morning. I talked about it with my high school students at a Christian school and it seemed to be sobering for them as well.

    I think your point is even more important to consider in this tragedy as there is a sense in which the system worked for Loughner in his community college: apparently he was noticed as a threat and expelled from school. It’s not like some of the other shootings that can be blamed on a lack of security or screening by the school psychologists. Such blame in other shootings has always seemed to me a way of avoiding the deeper problems you’ve pointed us to. It is disturbing to realize that we are capable of the same things and that the problems cannot be settled by more security and more psychological evaluation.

  3. What a beautifully real portrayal of the human condition- a critical reminder in times (such as the current week) when legitimate answers to fundamental questions are hard to find. As humans, we seek to determine causality- whe must know “why”. I can’t think of a more genuine answer than the one given here: we live in a world of “heroes and monsters inhabiting the same skin”. We try so earnestly to bury the monsters- or, at least, to cover them up with makeup and plastic surgery. But beneath the surface they lay in wait. This is a reality we will never overcome.

    My one question is whether we can separate a realistic attitude from an idealistic call to action. A call to action by itself, without perspective and honest acceptance of our monsters, is shallow and misguided. But a realistic attitude, without a belief in the efficacy of individual and corporate action, risks lumping all problems (even the ones we might be able to solve) into the domain of the “human condition”.

    At some point, don’t our actions shape the reality we live in? Can we completely do away with our monsters? Clearly we cannot. But can we create better ways to subdue them and more lasting ways to contain them? I believe history tells us that we can.

    It seems that, unfortunately, this combination of realism and idealism (attitude and action) is far too rare.

    • Good observation Dustin. If I understand what you are saying, what you are looking for is found in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, for example, is second to none in recognizing and writing about our fallen-ness. See the first part of Romans 3, or chapter 7 for some examples. Yet the Apostle was all about making a difference, Philippians 2:12 & following.

      The Lord Jesus said His followers are salt and light, that we ought to let our lights shine.

  4. A thoughtful piece, but ……dwelling on the fact that the world IS a sorrowful place avoids the question of why that is. There are multiple causes for that sorrow, one of which is the indifference of human beings to the power that words have. We have to ask ourselves this question: absent the vitriol, absent the climate of hate and intolerance that has been created largely by the right-wing, would this young man have acted as he did?

  5. I’ve been reading about human rights lately, in large part because my senior thesis has found itself very much a commentary on forgiveness, sin and mourning. As communities of all shapes and sizes, we are confronted with joys and tragedies (with blame an often unwieldy beast to assign a place and origin), and political leaders are sought to stand as mediators and interpreters of the pain and uncertainty that is “the next step forward.” Obama’s address regarding the Tuscon shootings was lauded not for its political fervor nor any intense call for partisanship to reign supreme–as if the Democrats respond to pain any better than the Republicans, or vice versa–but for its optimism and belief that the American spirit is one of resilience. In a remarkably humble return to a large part of his campaign rhetoric, Obama moved for peace and shared story. The strength of the American Constitution and constitution seems to be this desire for shared story, and then the U.S.’s human rights ethic follows the same lines: how do we write an ethic that does justice to the community? This goes beyond “majority rules,” and instead focuses with surprising sophistication on a philosophy of memoir and the cultivation of a graceful aesthetic: what, and how, will we remember and be remembered? I don’t know how to cultivate peace, but I think this might be a valid step…

  6. “Peace on Earth is still our prayer.” You were great up to the end, where you lost it! Excuse me but this line is a corruption of the original text announcing the birth of Christ. It has just now been restored in the Roman Catholic mass liturgy. The correct text is “peace on earth to men of good will.” In other words, the peace is in the interior disposition of the good man, not a political state in which human nature is purified– the gnostic mentality. Fritz Wagner
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