Monday, February 11, 2008

What Made Him Snap

PEOPLE DON'T just "snap" and become violent. So says security consultant Gavin de Becker, author of the excellent book The Gift of Fear, which explodes "the myth that most violent acts are random and unpredictable and shows that they usually have discernible motives and are preceded by clear warning signs." I mention this in the wake of the recent shooting rampage in the Saint Louis County, Missouri town of Kirkwood. However, the New York Times writes In Missouri, City Asks What Made Killer Snap:
The day after a gunman opened fire at City Hall, killing five people before the police fatally shot him, residents of this affluent suburb southwest of St. Louis struggled to come to terms with what they called the unthinkable.

And the question on everyone’s mind was: What caused Charles Thornton, a friendly town gadfly known as Cookie, who for years had been a fiery opponent of City Hall, to snap?
According to de Becker, a main cause that drives a person to violence is the feeling that his honor has been violated. This makes sense from the viewpoint of Catholic moral theology, for according to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Among the goods which are external to man honour holds the first place, above wealth and power. It is that which we especially give to God, it is the highest reward which we can bestow on virtue, and it is what men naturally prize the most.
In the aforementioned book, de Becker describes how violence often turns on minor points of dishonor, such as the refusal to pay back insignificant debts, or being publicly slighted. Violence could have been easily averted by minor acts of restitution: but often those in power would rather stick to principles, regardless of cost. He gives an example of an employee who thought that he was owed $200, and the employer who denied it based on a technicality. It would have been cheap to restore the employee's honor, but instead the employer paid in blood.

Although it is morally acceptable to seek honor and to defend one's own honor, we must not forget about Christian humility, which is a higher virtue, and which bears all hardship patiently.

De Becker notes that his security consulting firm is only needed in the United States, because of the great violence of our culture, which is problem which we handle very poorly. We mentally divide the world into two kinds of people: safe normals and violent crazies. This goes back to the Enlightenment idea that people in the natural state are morally good and that bad behavior must be due to some kind of biological pathology. People who are seen as being in the "safe" category are allowed, even encouraged, to act freely, even in bizarre ways, while those in the "violent" category are to be hounded, treated, or institutionalized.

Of course this view is false, and the Christian doctrine of original sin shows that we are all morally flawed. Even virtuous people can be goaded into doing bad things; and a person who is on the way to being violent can be easily dissuaded from that path by moral support and a few good words.

Kirkwood is described by the NYT as an "affluent suburb", although the shooter came from Kirwood's poor black neighborhood of Meacham Park (misspelled in that article). This adds a serious complication, for we are not only considering personal morality and prudence, but also social justice. It is no secret that the Kirkwood City Fathers consider Meacham Park a liability, and even managed to eliminate half of that neighborhood through heavy-handed private use of eminent domain. Many neighborhood residents, however, view themselves as victims and the shooter as a hero, in a manner more inspired by Karl Marx than by Jesus Christ. Both sides are wrong, and prayers are needed for all.

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