Vengeance as Virtue

The 17-year-old who slaughtered his schoolmates in Santa Fe, Texas, was on a mission of retribution. According to news reports, he confessed that he selected some kids to survive the massacre so that his “story” could be told. His narrative, if it’s ever made public, is not likely to find many sympathetic listeners, but it should be heeded. It can be expected to differ only in its details from the stories of retribution we welcome in our fiction and in our expressions of national policy.

It was revenge, after all, that motivated us to support our armed attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. As recently as last month, our aircraft launched missiles against targets in Syria to teach the leaders of that nation a lesson. There was no discernible public dissatisfaction with that attack. The Santa Fe killer has never known a time when his leaders were not exacting revenge on some distant enemy or another, always with widespread approval among the citizenry. If he was a cinema buff or video gamer, the lessons learned from our vengeful real-life adventures were reinforced with fictitious stories of retribution as virtue and justice.

If we’re shocked to hear some of the Santa Fe survivors tell us they were not particularly surprised that this happened at their school, we shouldn’t be. We’ve terrorized our children with “active shooter drills” and “lockdown” maneuvers. And just days before the shooting started in Santa Fe, the world’s youth were exposed to graphic depictions of armed force, as any number of teenagers were gunned down by Israeli snipers for hurling stones, in what our leaders tell us was an act of self-defense. The Texas boy’s story will–unsurprisingly–invoke the need for lethal force in defense of self.

What should surprise us is the amount of dissonance Americans are able to tolerate. The news coverage has so far censored out all discussion of the social forces that make this sort of atrocity inevitable. Newsmen aren’t asking how these dead children are different from the ones our ordnance kills every day in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip, but we seem to be OK with that. Most of us seem able to square a deep commitment to bombs and bullets with disapproval of violent crime. Seems as if logic and history should compel us to admit we’re a nation of vengeful, heavily armed cowards who should expect this sort of thing from time to time. Vengeance has become a sacrament of Judeo-Christian culture. Couple that with an abundance of guns and ammo, and you’re going to suffer atrocities every so often.

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