Civilization on the brink


I’ve always resisted the temptation to comment on mass shootings, partly because it is difficult to add anything new or useful to the discussion, and partly because I don’t want to contribute to the notoriety the perpetrators seek.

But when there are two such horrific events in less than 24 hours, staying silent no longer seems the best course. The reactions to the shootings, always so predictable and misguided, seem doubly inept, and I wonder if the people shouting them at us even listen to themselves anymore.

It’s always because of a malevolent outside force that swoops in and pulls these poor souls out of their dark corners to unleash violence on the world.

It is poverty or video games or perverted religion or, in this case, “white nationalism,” whatever that is.

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It is the fault of whoever said whatever it was that a feeble mind interpreted as an excuse to commit terror, in this case President Trump and his “divisive rhetoric” or out-and-out racisms, take your pick.

And, always, it is the guns. Why can’t we please have some “common sense gun control”? Never mind that unless we figure out a way to make them all disappear, there is no way in a free society to prevent some people from misusing them, no way we should deny decent people access to them.

At some point in all the bloviating — it just came sooner this time — I want to shout at the TV screen: No, no, no, you’re avoiding the real issue. We all are moral agents, solely and totally responsible for our actions and their consequences. All the rest is missing the point.

But of course, they are quite deliberately missing the point.

For people to be responsible for their actions, they must be held accountable for their actions, and for that we need a society that sets clear, unambiguous lines between right and wrong and consistently and uniformly punishes those who cross over the line. We’ve been running away from that kind of moral clarity for — well, at least for my lifetime — and we’re paying a heavy price for it.

Not just when a monster with a semiautomatic weapon starts shooting indiscriminately into a crowd. But every time a drug deal goes bad and an innocent bystander gets caught in the crossfire. Every time a murderer gets a plea bargain to testify against another murderer. Every time a sexual predator with money and influence gets by with a wink and a nod.

Cities use to have laws against loitering, which they found useful to ignore, unless there was an “undesirable” person or group they wished to hound. It was the essence of arbitrariness and capriciousness, a law not used to let us all know our boundaries, but to let us know who had to obey the boundaries and who did not.

Today, we have an entire criminal justice system based on that model. Cross the line, get punished or perhaps not, one big crap shoot.

And balancing on top of it is capital punishment, which we are afraid to get rid of, but are more and more reluctant to use. Yes, we seem to be saying, there are ultimate crimes, so we want to keep the ultimate penalty, but only as an empty threat.

Little wonder that we let the small evils pile up unnoticed and then flounder in confused horror when the evil becomes too big to ignore. Benjamin Franklin once said something about a republic, “. . . if you can keep it.” The same might be said for civilization itself.

Leo Morris is a columnist for the Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to awoods@aimmedia

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