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Let’s stop using the word ‘tragedy’ to refer to mass shootings

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Time to stop talking about what happened in Uvalde and, before that, Sandy Hook and Columbine and the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church and on and on as “tragedies.” We use that word to numb our sensibilities. To call them tragedies is to put them in the framework of drama, and thus remove them from ordinary life. Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that tragedy’s job is to effect a “catharsis". First, you make the audience feel compassion and fear, and then you purge those emotions so the audience leaves the theater feeling cleansed. That’s not what’s happening in the wake of these hideous and shameful acts. People don’t leave scenes having achieved catharsis. If anything, all of us are plunged deeper into misery and despair and confusion, the opposite effects from what Aristotle had in mind.

Then there’s the canard about “mental illness” that always crops up in these situations. There may be occasions when crazies are on the scene, but to refer acts of violence to mental illness is a disservice to humanity. It reduces the options to a binary concept of healthy vs. sick, and we are more than that, much more.

At root here is not mental illness or health, but sin. Sin? Didn’t we get rid of that antiquated notion? Have we not progressed beyond this outdated theological concept? No.

We have not progressed because sin is embedded in the human condition. If I murder someone, it’s not because I am mentally ill. It’s because I hate that person’s guts and am willing to take a life. Maybe my pride has been trampled on. If I calculate to kill a dozen unsuspecting kids in a school, I am not mentally ill. I am a monster who doesn’t give a damn about human life, who does not respect that every person is made in the image of God. And I am likely a monster because I hate myself, with no sense that I am made in the image of God.

Oh but there’s the problem. We have replaced God with ourselves. Nietzsche wrote about this a century ago, and the prospect did not make him happy, because he knew that human beings are incapable of functioning ethically without some overriding sense of moral imperative. I really don’t care if you call this God, because I am well aware that atheists can be ethically responsible folks, but when you lose that overarching sense of moral purpose and common dignity and respect for the being of others, you become a monster.

So these abject collapses of moral integrity that are so frequent that we have become numb to them are not tragedies that are the result of mental illness. They are acts that need to be addressed for what they are: sins against humanity. I might add that killing the perpetrators is not a solution, either.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke well when he said that you cannot legislate morality but you can legislate the conditions in which morality can exist. That’s what the rule of law is for. It recognizes human sinfulness and tries to counter for it. Is it, therefore, not possible that a partial solution to the problem might be to ban any and all sales of automatic and semi-automatic firearms? These weapons are made for one purpose only. You can’t legislate morality but you can legislate the conditions. I cannot understand why our legislators fail to act on this obvious stopgap. To me the failure to act is also a sin; willful disregard for human life can come by omission as well as commission.

Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is priest emeritus of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Church.

Contact him as gabrielcroch@aol.com.