David Brooks: People Aren’t Blaming the Virginia Tech Killer?
The mass killings at Virginia Tech this week were deeply, fundamentally, morally wrong. The gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, who took the lives of 32 innocent people, is responsible for a hideously evil act.
I don't believe these statements are controversial. I think the overwhelming majority of people, from all walks of life, all levels of education and income, all parts of the country, all races, religions, creeds, and genders, would not only agree, but had roughly identical thoughts themselves within seconds of learning about the tragedy.
But David Brooks seems to believe there is some controversy here. In his column today, Brooks points to headlines in newspapers and magazines that have asked "What Made Him Do It" and "Why They Kill". Brooks suggests that by delving into things like the brain chemistry of mass murderers, these articles shift moral responsibility for the act away from the killer and toward "wider forces."
Brooks insists we shouldn't stop studying brain chemistry. We just need an explanation that "puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center." But he's arguing against a straw man. There are few, if any, voices out there who would absolve Cho of moral responsibility for his actions. The moral argument is so obvious -- it is so clearly, evidently, blatantly wrong to murder 32 innocent people -- that it almost goes without saying.
Brooks' column, and my dispute with it, gets at the heart of a willful and recurrent distortion by the conservative Right. It goes far beyond neurochemistry. Simply put, explaining something is not the same as excusing it. Trying to understand why a violent act occurred does not mean the perpetrator is absolved of moral responsibility.
It just means that our attempt to understand doesn't end with the casting of moral blame. If we allow ourselves to get beyond just saying that Cho Seung-Hui did an evil thing, we can begin to explore things like our nation's easy access to guns, the lack of comprehensive mental health services for people who need them, or a pervasive American culture that urges men to act violently in order to prove their masculinity (see the excellent column by Bob Herbert that ran next to Brooks today in the Times). These are things that we, as a society, can do something about, hopefully preventing or mitigating future tragedies. Recognizing these "wider forces" and discussing them is not at odds with recognizing individual moral culpability.
The looming parallel in my mind is September 11th. In the aftermath of the attack, those who sought to understand the larger context were demonized. Anyone who attempted to understand Islamic fundamentalism was denounced as an America-hating terrorist sympathizer. The Right aggressively promoted the idea that the only acceptable response began and ended with moral condemnation. The terrorists acted because they were evil: end of story. We are now experiencing the foreign policy response that results from that kind of willfully limited thinking.
This is not a foreign policy blog. My point is that we, in fact, see very little analysis or discussion that absolves individuals -- whether they are terrorists or mass murderers -- of moral responsibility for their actions. That's as it should be. But we do see a tremendously widespread and influential effort by the Right to make sure the discussion ends with nothing beyond a denunciation of the individual's moral culpability. And that's a problem because it prevents us from recognizing and implementing society-wide solutions that could save lives.