By Barry Rubin
I really thought there was nothing to say or write about the shootings at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre. The prattling, smug, and often unsubstantiated talk filling the airwaves and print pages really added nothing. But then I realized that there is indeed something important to conclude from this tragic episode. And it’s one of the most important things — perhaps the most important of all — to understand about history, civilization, humanity, and society
None of us is perfect. We all have weaknesses and shortcomings. And some have more than others. We see a daily display of jealousy, anger, hatred, ignorance, misunderstanding, clashing goals or interests, and the whole panoply of bad things that humans think, say, and do.
Just read the talk-backs to articles on almost any subject and you quickly find that kind of bickering, meanness, passion overcoming facts, hidden agenda, and the hundred other things that, as Hamlet says, “The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.”
This is the world we live and die in. Perhaps we succeed or fail, in our own eyes or those of others. Perhaps we don’t have as many material goods as we would like or as much fame or as much respect or as much power. Frustration is not some accident that crops up; it is woven into the very fabric of life.
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And so someone cracks, as happened in Phoenix, Arizona, or in Aurora, Colorado. They might crack more quietly as serial killers do, or publicly as do those who suddenly turn on strangers. Or the cracking can take place on a world stage, as rabid dictators with howling followers go to commit war, massacre, oppression, and terrorism.
Or it can be on a tiny, human level in the daily acts of rudeness and sins to which we are victim and that we commit even to loved ones.
There is no solution. Certainly, individuals can be helped; problems can at times be diminished. But there is no political ideology or government program or redistribution of wealth that is going to cure humanity’s ills.In today’s secular, even anti-religious, Western society, those who are religious are seen as aggressive, intolerant, and foolish. But there are two things that a decent religious person possesses that others don’t: A belief that there is a divine judge, which may make them curb their behavior; and a desire for self-improvement, to reduce their sins and strive for something higher.
With all the cults, self-help programs,and psychiatrists, how often do other people pursue such a path?
Starting in the nineteenth century, humanity seemed on a roll. And indeed great things were accomplished. Medicine eased suffering and extended life; science spread knowledge and improved living standards. So much was done for the good.
Yet in large part the twentieth century contained as much or more hell than the Dark Ages. The understanding that humanity could do a lot better made possible wonderful progress. The hubris that it could be transformed utterly in a utopian manner by the right political philosophy or system made possible horrible suffering.
If we accept humanity’s imperfection there is an important political message contained therein. No ideology, no institution, no panacea can be trusted with power over ourselves. The greatness of real democracy and the wisdom of America’s founders are already being once again transformed by clichés, mouthed even by the politicians who don’t understand these things and are in fact fighting against them.
Yet the point of that system is simply this:
Individual liberty, restricted when necessary but never lightly nor too extensively, is the best guarantee for avoiding the systemic imposition of other people’s frailties on oneself: their desire for power; their belief that they have all the answers; their conviction that you should live and think as they do. Once such sentiments were the stuff of conservatism against which liberalism revolted; today they are the essence of the new radicalism that has — temporarily? — seized the banner of liberalism.
And that brings us back to a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. It was first and foremost the responsibility of this young man to put his life into order, and then that of his family, and then that of those around him. To wait for the government authorities to take action promotes a fatal passivity. If he had not had access to guns — though even in the states with the tightest restrictions criminals seem able to obtain them — or if someone else in that theatre had possessed their own, things would have turned out differently in terms of the number of casualties.
Or perhaps his crack-up at no longer being able to keep up at the university, or inability to remain rational, or failure to find a job or place in society, or whatever combination of ingredients it was would have manifested itself in some other way. Perhaps, turning his anger inward, in suicide. Unable to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he decided to take arms against his sea of troubles, and shoot down innocent bystanders.
But there are some clear, true lessons from this and hundreds of other such incidents big and small.
First, there is something wrong in every person. This is far larger in some than others. People are not perfectible and all too many are not even functional. That is never going to change.
Second, when the traditional ideals of individual responsibility, family cohesion, and ethical behavior break down a society is in very serious trouble. And if that problem isn’t addressed, there’s really nothing worth talking about at all.
On the other hand, reportedly four of the twelve people killed were men who sacrificed their own lives to protect dates or girlfriends. Any society that can still produce such heroism is far from lost.
But, third, the dominant forces in Western civilization today don’t even think those issues are worth addressing. So what kind of future can one possibly expect?
Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.