The reality is that some killings are motivated by a frustrated sense of justice that takes a pseudo-military turn and others we simply don’t know why.
Today’s 3D Definition: Senseless
After the shooting at a Baptist church in Texas, several commentators have predictably repeated the adjective traditionally applied to all acts of gun violence. For example, Bishop David Walkowiak called it “incomprehensibly tragic,” and then helped our comprehension by highlighting the tragedy as a stable feature of US culture: “We must come to the firm determination that there is a fundamental problem in our society. A culture of life cannot tolerate, and must prevent, senseless gun violence in all its forms.”
And Senator Kamala Harris of California offered this: “Senseless gun violence has torn apart another community — this time in a house of worship. When do we say enough is enough?”
Here is its 3D definition:
US American: the usual term associated with one of the most commonly exercised freedoms guaranteed by both the First and Second Amendment of the Constitution: the freedom of expression (First Amendment) and the right to “bear arms” (Second Amendment).
The courts have consistently understood that attempting to combine those two rights when it results in murder cannot be justified even by judicial originalists.
One of the advantages of calling mass killings “senseless” is that it permits the speaker to affirm that “it’s not something I, a sensible person, would do.” This may, however, sound more like a truism when spoken by an average law-abiding citizen than an example of original insight. And yet it always appears.
The recent, clearly terrorism-motivated aggression of Sayfullo Saipov in New York City has predictably been deemed senseless by numerous observers. For example, because Saipov had been one of its drivers, an Uber spokesman made the following statement: “We are horrified by this senseless act of violence. Our hearts are with the victims and their families. We have reached out to law enforcement to provide our full assistance.”
The intent of this message is clearly this: Please don’t associate this with Uber — we are a sensible company.
Over recent decades, there seem to be two broad categories of mass killings: terrorist/racist killings and all the others in which no motive is apparent (Las Vegas). Even the Eliot Rogers massacre could be put into the terrorist/racist class because of his desire to “get even” with the entire race of women who failed to be attracted to him. It would make sense to call the killings with no obvious motive “senseless,” and apply a different adjective to the others such as “perverse.”
In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, where two motives appeared to be present — the killer’s sexual identity and Islamist terrorism — Time magazine published an article by a psychologist, Joan Cook, in which she asked the question: “How does the American public make sense of such senseless killings, especially when they seem to be happening over and over and over?” To answer her own question, she takes the easy way out and attributes it to “the psychology of hate.”
The reality is that some killings are motivated by a frustrated sense of justice that takes a pseudo-military turn and others, well, we simply don’t know, although they all tend to take a military turn, at least in the choice (and availability) of weapons. It might be wiser to look at the military component of US culture — a component that has elevated the violent response to perceived injustice, and sometimes simple malaise, into a kind of pseudo-moral ideal.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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