The mass shooting has become the signature horror of our time and place. Such events have become monstrously common, and yet we seem to understand them no better today than we did twenty years ago. An often-quoted essay in The Atlantic from 2015 examined the plague of mass shootings as a kind of “slow-motion riot”, where each subsequent horror makes its successor more likely. But this is merely to say that mass shootings become more common as mass shootings become more common: a description, not an explanation. When pondering these events, it quickly becomes clear that apart from the obviously mad (Tucson, 2011), politically motivated (Alexandria, 2017), or utterly mysterious (Las Vegas, 2017), the great majority of the perpetrators are disturbed young white men who do not know their fathers. To understand the roots of this strangely modern evil, we must also consider the parallel rise of the “involuntary celibate” or “incel” phenomenon, which had gone largely unremarked until its own recent explosion into the menagerie of American nightmares. Mass, indiscriminate slaughter of the type which has become so terribly familiar is the final step on a path that begins with the resentment of loneliness.
Fatherhood is the vocation of every man, and the pillars of fatherhood are discipline and sacrifice. These are best inculcated through challenge: a boy confronted by an obstacle or circumstance he cannot immediately overcome has a wonderful ability to make himself equal to the task at hand. He will constantly measure himself against his peers, and strive– even if he will not admit it– to outdo them. In so growing, he develops reserves of strength and confidence, and naturally becomes a source of support for those around him. This is the fatherhood to which all men, even the celibate religious, are called. This sacrificial way of living is among the most important lessons a boy learns from his father. If his own father cannot teach it, he is at a serious disadvantage, unless he finds one who can.
But modernity, especially in America, has made it easy to go through childhood and adolescence without facing serious challenges. Diversions both frivolous and pernicious have never been more available, and among the most dangerous of these are video games and pornography. Some of these things are intrinsically sinful, and others are not, but apart from whatever vices they may encourage directly, they are pernicious because they teach habits of wasting time, and they demand nothing from one who partakes of them. Even those which are not necessarily sinful in and of themselves are dangerous in that they acclimate a person to a life surrounded by objects: both to expect pleasure more or less constantly, and also to derive his pleasure from passive consumption. They enable one to avoid cultivating discipline, and instead to spend vast amounts of time devoted to solitary pleasure in unreflective hedonism. Such diversions, whatever form they take, are corrosive because they demand nothing, teaching the lesson that pleasure can be had for free. Instead of sacrifice, there emerges a perfect, inward-directed selfishness: the very antithesis of fatherhood. This state can easily persist unnoticed until one’s late teens.
At this time, the young man finds himself an incel. Having spent his adolescence ignoring other people, he awakes to realize that he has been ignored in turn, and discovers at a comparatively late hour that it is not at all to his liking. He finds himself alone, and finds it unpleasant. He never learned any degree of self-mastery, and has no skills to speak of outside of video games. This makes him unattractive in many ways, not simply to women: he has developed no reserves, and has no abundance from which to offer. He becomes conscious of his own loneliness, and the beginnings of a galling despair. Though he aims his resentment at his state of celibacy, this is not the source of his misery. Even if it ends, it will be out of a desire to be served, rather than to serve. His emptiness will remain, because it arises from the inward orientation of his soul.
Here he is faced with a choice. Spiritually stunted though he is, he can yet become a man. Or he can continue on his path, plunging back into diversions with a zeal redoubled by fear, to live out an ingrown life where he will be at least superficially content as long as he can afford an internet connection– which is to say merely anaesthetized. This is nothing other than the road to Hell described in the vision of St. John Bosco. He can attempt, by ever-more-inventive recourse to diversions, to plaster over the wounds in the human heart for a while. But even their remaining sparks of glamour fade at last, and he is doomed to eat his heart out in bitter solitude until it becomes an ulcer of hate. This hate is the only thing he has to offer to a world he long ago decided was useless. This path leads to one of two earthly destinations. He will kill himself: by slow overindulgence in alcohol and drugs, or by more direct means. Or, to assert his own existence, he will kill others in the most monstrous way he can imagine.
The best antidote to this horrible poison is the imitation of sacrificial love exemplified by Jesus Christ. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes that he is torn between the joy that awaits him in union with God, and the joy of living on to continue serving his beloved earthly community. Paul settles on the latter out of sacrificial love. He does not weigh his own pleasure or even his own happiness against the good he has been called to do. The man consumed by bitterness is torn instead by indifference. Instead of abundance, he has nurtured within himself only a void of godless self-sufficiency. Instead of love, he has developed resentment and envy, and struggles only to decide whether his own life or others’ is more hateful to him. To be saved, he must learn anew to turn outward, and make himself available to do good for others as a father. He must learn to love gratuitously, to make sacrifices for others, and not to expect pleasure as his due. In a word, he must become magnanimous.
As to what we as Christians can do for these young men, I fear I can present little more than bromides. We are all likely acquainted with individuals at various points along this baleful trajectory, and so I would ask only that we prayerfully consider how God may be asking us to help draw them out of themselves. There have always been bitter, lonely men, and mercifully few of them choose to become monsters. But the environment of modernity is especially suited to create them in greater numbers than ever before, so it was perhaps inevitable that that same small fraction would become significant enough to sustain a constant trickle of horrors. Modernity has made it easier than ever to grow to manhood without becoming conscious of the need to make sacrifices for other people. In so doing, young men are not only enabled but positively encouraged to wander in desert places where evil spirits abound. Is it to be wondered at if some fall under their dominion?