There is not much moral distance between a killer’s movie of shooting a former co-worker, and an ISIS promotional video featuring mass beheadings. Admittedly in the American context it’s a bit unusual: usually if you want to see mass murder on camera, you have to smuggle one into a Planned Parenthood clinic. In the age of Twitter and autoplay video, the instant sharing of yesterday’s murder footage was made far more horrific. It also raises questions about why – why an obviously disturbed individual would seek to spend their last moments trying to win a battle with the people they just murdered on social media, and then share the horrifying images of this act of violence, changing the act from murder to selfie murder.
You can’t confront existential problems without grappling with existence. The popular ontology of the day is deeply ridiculous and childlike — the phrase “I self-identify as” ought to provide sufficient illustration — and this will characterize much of the coverage of the selfie murderer. Now that we have some information on him and his motivations and history, we know that he bought into the assumptions of identity and modern grievance culture, differing only in the conclusions he reached with regard to his own personal imperatives. A gay black man who was repeatedly reprimanded for his harsh treatment of colleagues, he was an individual who consistently played the race card as a justification for how he was evaluated.
It’s this fact that I suspect directly informed the killer’s decision to film the murders. If we accept that creation is wholly of God, and that man is rightly defined as the part of creation that exists in God’s image, then the antithesis of being is the antithesis of creation, of God, and all the qualities attendant to it — goodness, charity, love. Evil is then defined as a sort of non-being, a nothing, a negation.
In Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door,” the Enemy’s main gambit is to persuade all life to “X” itself into nothingness. “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels,” one of her characters explains. “War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” Evil is proud and arrogant, but it is also undergirded by nothing — in the most literal sense. We can therefore interpret this man’s desire to film and share his murders as an act of desperation: a vain act of summoning of something from the depths of nothingness, a desire to call into existence the most brutal negation of existence. Just as the ISIS beheading videos do, he says “come and see what I have done.” It is a howl from the void.
America has difficulty reacting to something this horrifying. Some turn to belief in the overriding power of the state: “This never would have happened if policy X were in place!” Totalitarianism in America is not practiced nearly as much as it is assumed (though the latter can lead eventually to the former). A worldview rooted in the assumption that man engages in historical progress by the power of his own reason is left stupefied at evidence of retrograde movement. There is no obstacle or wrong for which the perceived remedy is not more state power. The ratchet effect is therefore evil leading to power leading to evil leading to power in an endless pattern.
We have largely lost the moral capacity to grasp the nature of evil. If our worldview is rooted in the assumption that man has both a created and a fallen nature, neither of which he can surpass or escape, we can know that atrocities like this will happen, and even though we fight against them, we do so in the context of “the long defeat.” Ending evil is not a victory within our grasp: it is the fight that counts.
In this light, the cohort with the capacity to forgive represents the societal road not taken. If we are to be a country of many faiths and peoples, the only path to take is that of those grieving Charleston Christians who forgave Dylann Roof – the path of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. We forgive or we war. We either bind up the nation’s wounds or we let them fester and rot. Anything else is a road to strife and murder.
It is unpopular to say this, and it is a deeply unsatisfying message for a society steeped in self-absorption and instant gratification. How do you ask a generation that leaves negative Yelp reviews for slow service at Burger King to wait a lifetime, or a century, or forever, for the perfected eschaton? How do you tell a generation accustomed to participation trophies that life is suffering? Even among people of faith, how do you communicate to the recipients of therapeutic Christianity that the probable fate of every single Apostle was martyrdom? How do you tell Americans in particular, inheritors of a national narrative of onward-and-upward, that the Founders they typically ignore were right: the struggle for liberty is endless, renewed with every generation, and primarily a struggle against one’s own self?
A selfie-murder is the ultimate expression of a man who will not be told any of those things, and the frightening thing is that he is not the exception. There is a choice to be made between Post-Charleston forgiveness versus post-Charleston anger, a choice that we have to make over and over and over again. The choice to forgive is tremendously difficult — to hear, and to do. And that is why this thing today will happen again and again.