Now that the shock of the Virginia Tech massacre has turned to scapegoat-hunting and finger-pointing, we can be sure that we will be offered numerous villains and causes over the next several weeks by the media. Commissions will be commissioned; studies will be done; facts will be cited, arranged, disputed, and denied; and blame will be placed on everything from society to video games to gun-makers.
A prophetic editorial in The Pratt Tribune called “The blame game begins,” puts it this way:
Pundits, police and politicians will ask that question and answer it with great conviction depending upon the prism through which they view the world. Someone or something must be made the scapegoat for the tragedy. Something must be wrong besides Cho Seung-Hui. Someone failed, probably many someones. Society will undoubtedly get its share of the blame.
One group that will continue to get overlooked in this blame game though is the scientific and educational establishment. The NEA’s platform of officially atheistic materialistic humanism will not be forced to ponder its share of the blame for the ticking time bomb that was Cho Seung-Hui. In an editorial published the day before the massacre, David Brooks writes:
[W]e postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.
Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.
…Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself. Individuals are predisposed not by innate sinfulness or virtue, but by epigenetic rules encoded in their cells.
Brooks is taking what modern “science” and biology has been saying for the last ten years at face value. He is merely regurgitating the pure materialism of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and popularizing it a bit. How could he possibly know that the next 24 hours would provide a most horrific test case for his words on the campus of Virginia Tech. One would expect that Brooks would have been appalled at the proximity of it all. When the “epigenetic rules” that encoded the trigger finger of Cho Seung-Hui did their thing the next day, what was going through David Brooks’ mind? Well, we have another editorial today to inform us. Brooks doesn’t back down. In heartless fashion that would even make Dawkins blush, Brooks writes:
“Man is the measure of all things,” the Greek philosopher Protagoras declared millenniums ago. But in the realm of the new science, the individual is like a cork bobbing on the currents of giant forces: evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing. Human consciousness is merely an epiphenomena of the deep and controlling mental processes that lie within.
At the extreme, many scientists now doubt that there is such a thing as free will. As Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Dennis Overbye of The Times earlier this year, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have a sense they are free.” But, he added, “the more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it.”
But even in the more mainstream level of the mass media, the scope for individual choice has been reduced, and with it so has the scope for morality. Once, Cho Seung-Hui would have been simply condemned as evil, but now the language of morality is often replaced with the language of determinism. The press this week has been filled with articles like “What Made Him Do It” (Newsweek) or “Why They Kill” (The L.A. Times), which run down the background factors that lead people to become mass murderers.
Responsibility shifts outward from the individual to wider forces. People interviewed on TV tend to direct their anger at the gun, the university administration, society and so on. If they talk about the young killer at all, the socially acceptable word seems to be “troubled.” He’s more acted upon than acting.
Not one to back down to social pressures, Brooks pushes forward and reminds us all that ideas do indeed have consequences. Although he seemingly exonerates Cho Seung-Hui and indicts everyone and everything else as possible determinate factors for his violent rampage, Brooks still can’t shake the notion of personal responsibility.
But it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists’ insights without allowing them to become monopolists. It should be possible to reconstruct some self-confident explanation for what happened at Virginia Tech that puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center.
After all, according to research by David Buss, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid homicidal fantasy. But they didn’t act upon it. They don’t turn other people into objects for their own fulfillment.
There still seems to be such things as selves, which are capable of making decisions and controlling destiny. It’s just that these selves can’t be seen on a brain-mapping diagram, and we no longer have any agreement about what they are.
In other words, matter is not the only thing that matters after all. Despite the “scientific” clarity and simplicity of statements such as: “human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code;” even the most brazen materialists among us can’t help but ask “why” when the machine “short circuits.” The cold, hard “science” that has done away with free will and left us with determinism and behaviorism, has little to offer when the bodies start to pile up. This same “science” and godless materialism has been spoon-fed to countless millions in the public schools in the name of separation of church and state for the last forty years. Yet, we want to act surprised when one of the machines takes its lessons outside of the classroom and into the world with the other machines. In reality we should be surprised that it happens less than it actually does. Most of us do not act on our homicidal fantasies because of a thing called moral restraint, one of those “immaterial” things that science can’t account for. But if David Brooks is any indication, even that may soon be a relic of the past.
. David Brooks, “The Age of Darwin,” New York Times, April 15, 2007.
. David Brooks, “The Morality Line,” New York Times, April 19, 2007.
. Brooks, “The Morality Line.”
. Brooks, “The Age of Darwin.”