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Monsters in Our Schools October 11, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in James Carroll.
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James Carroll  |  October 9, 2006

How are we to think of monsters?

In recent weeks, men have savagely attacked children in schools. In Colorado, one was murdered, while five were assaulted. In Pennsylvania, five were murdered, with five others left wounded. In both cases, the expressly targeted victims were girls. Pre meditation included sexual assault. Whole communities were traumatized. Across the nation, the fragile surface of civility was shattered. The American epidemic of violence was made immeasurably more threatening. Children everywhere could feel vulnerable to new and inappropriate insecurities. And in both cases, having wreaked such havoc, the assailants escaped retribution by suicide.

Tomorrow, top US law and education officials will meet to consider the safety of schools — an urgent project. But what about the men who committed such heinous crimes? Faced with such moral chaos, how are we to think of them?

One hears it said that every monster is someone to whom, at some point in the past, something monstrous was done. Because it affirms a principle of order, however perverse, the idea has appeal, and may be discernibly true in some instances.

The Colorado shooter, Duane Morrison, left behind a letter making an explicit connection to his sufferings as a child. But it is wrong to draw a causal link between a person’s former experience of victimhood and his subsequent role as a victimizer.

This is most obviously so because the majority of victims, across a range of horrors, do not go on to inflict like suffering on others. Those who have encountered life’s vicissitudes, even when inflicted out of cruelty or malice, are at least as likely to be marked by special magnanimity as by callous self-centeredness.

“Who is the slayer?” Sophocles asked. “Who the victim? Speak!”

In Colorado and Pennsylvania, the difference between slayer and victim could not be clearer, and ethical coherence requires insistence upon that difference. The murdered children and the wounded survivors exist in a realm of meaning defined by grief and compassion; the men who assaulted them wound up in an altogether separate realm, defined by righteous indignation and condemnation.

One hears it said, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” — another appealing moral axiom. But again, one wonders.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, before attacking the girls in Pennsylvania last week, laid bare his unresolved conflicts with guilt and grief, reaching back decades and involving children he remembered molesting, as well as a child of his own who died after birth. But on what scale can such burdens be weighed against the carnage Roberts wrought? Even were it possible to comprehend all that fractured the man’s personality, leading to his deed, such understanding would preclude neither stern judgment, nor rage.

From the Amish community after the shootings, there were public expressions of restraint, including sympathy for the killer’s family. The image of an all-forgiving God was invoked. In Colorado, the family of the slain girl requested, through a spokesmen, that people take their tragedy as an occasion to perform “random acts of kindness.”

Such large-hearted responses were as unexpected as they were edifying, even moving. But sometimes forgiveness can seem properly left to the Almighty, while we humans yield to a visceral burst, an imagined clenching of the fist in the faces of our newest enemies: You don’t storm a school, fellows! You don’t line up children for grievous exploitation! You don’t execute them!

Thinking of those children, how is it possible not to hate their executioners?

One hears it said, “Not guilty by reason of insanity.” If Roberts and Morrison were alive, they would probably be regarded as insane. Certainly, defense attorneys would be arguing as much, and their right to do so is a precious tradition in the law.

That society seeks to avoid responding to grotesque actions with equally grotesque retributions is a sign of humanizing progress. Defense of the moral order from the deeds of monsters requires a refusal to become monsters in return. Indeed, that refusal is embodied in the common responses I have cited here, each of which points as much to empathy as to condemnation.

But before empathy, there must be truth. The slaying of innocent girls in the sacred precinct of a school is a self-excluding act. However the crime is adjudicated, the man who commits it has banished himself from the human family.

Morrison and Roberts, each with his last suicidal choice, acknowledged that harsh fact of life. They themselves answered the question with which this sad and angry column began.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.  

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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