The Isla Vista tragedy

The facts are now beginning to emerge about the actions of Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista yesterday in murdering 6 people. There is much to break the heart in this story.

The immediate circumstances are disturbing enough. The day before the carnage, in which Elliot stabbed his three flatmates to death before driving around shooting several others, the young man uploaded a video, Elliot Rodger’s Retribution, to Youtube in which he detailed his plans for the next day and the reason he was doing them. It has now been removed from his channel (by Youtube?) but is easily found by Google search. Watching it one sees a young man filled with resentment and bitterness at his rejection by women, lamenting his still being a virgin at 22. The fact that he was not unattractive and from a well-to-do background would make one wonder why he was apparently rejected by women. The video itself gives the answer: the boy is horribly egocentric to the point of narcissism. So we might conclude he was the ultimate spoilt brat.

A screenshot from Elliot Rodger's video announcing his murderous plans.

A screenshot from Elliot Rodger’s video announcing his murderous plans.

Well, before we all condemn him to hell, a few more facts are worth considering. Elliot had Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a form of autism and affects the way a person experiences the world. While it can manifest itself in anti-social outbursts, it is generally hidden from casual view in most sufferers. The condition affects particularly sufferers’ social interaction, social communication, and social imagination. To put it crudely, it makes them social misfits to a greater or lesser degree, despite their desire to be socially integrated. There is no known cure and no specific treatment for Asperger’s. It is an insidious disability.

It seems his parents did everything right. Elliot had been treated by several therapists, and his social worker had been worried enough to contact police a few days before the shootings. It is hard to determine at this point what action the police took, but probably there was not much they could have done, given certain aspects of American law.

One aspect of concern is the cherished American right to bear arms. Even otherwise good Catholics can reveal an almost pathological devotion to guns, and any mention of gun control to some Americans is tantamount to treason. The National Rifle Association is well-funded and exerts immense influence, enough to stifle most legislation seeking gun control. They even object to background checks for gun licences. In American you can own assault rifles, and in some places wear your weapon openly. Many (most?) will tell you that it is essential to prevent oppression by their government – a government they freely and regularly elect. It is no wonder that there are sections of American society that are effectively in a state of war with government and law enforcement. Another argument is that armed citizens can protect other citizens from criminals. It didn’t work yesterday. Moreover, it carries the danger of making citizens into self-appointed vigilantes with often tragic consequences (eg George Zimmerman). It also leads to a civil arms race, with people owning more and more powerful weapons.

While self-defence can be defended on biblical and magisterial lines, the active promotion of unrestricted ownership of firearms cannot. Even self-defence has its limitations in light of our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek, and to lay down one’s life for one’s friends as the highest form of love. The Christian right to self-defence is not unlimited.

So one is left asking how a young man, mentally ill and in ongoing treatment and who had manifested enough signs of impending disaster for the police to be alerted in advance – how could he own not just one but several guns, and have them at hand when he reached crisis point, a crisis point that was recognized in advance? This is a question not just for American society but for us all: how do we deal with the mentally ill who show the signs of becoming dangerous? In the UK they can be sectioned by a doctor under the Mental Health Act, usually a temporary measure that allows the troubled to be assessed and treated over a period of time. This would prevent them having access to weapons, although access to firearms is much more difficult in Britain anyway. There is no right to bear arms, and every right to expect not to have to face them. Even most police are unarmed, and armed police work under strict rules, which work well. It means that there is a lower incidence, and a much lower tolerance, of gun crime here than in the US. Australia enacted tough gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 which saw 35 shot dead at a popular tourist spot. There have been no mass shootings since then in Australia. No one can argue that Australia is not only immensely free, but politically stable and with strong legal checks and balances that keep governments under control. Australians do not need guns to protect themselves against their own elected government.

So we can now but pray for the 6 victims of the shooting who died, the 7 who were wounded, and their families as they face the trauma of lives changed so brutally. Let us also pray for Elliot and his family. He was a mentally ill young man whom society failed to help. Indeed, society allowed him to have the guns that made his outburst so deadly. That, at least, society could have reasonably prevented.

This not intended as an American-bash. The Church in the States is a vibrant one, full of exciting prospects. No one can deny the American contribution to the world, but there is also a negative contribution, as with most countries. Its guns mania is a social sickness that the rest of the world does well to immunize itself against. John Oliver has an interesting take on the American mania for guns. Being English but living in the States, he has a distance informed by familiarity that makes his commentary worth noting. There are three short videos, listed in order.

[I realize this will upset many American Catholics, but I ask them to think carefully about the subject, and to pray about it. Comments that make a reasoned contribution to the debate will be welcomed; those that are abusive, insulting or mere banner waving will not.]

Of Guns and Priests

A busy Christmas and New Year, new tasks taken on including redesigning the abbey’s website (a work still in progress but light is at the end of the tunnel), and a speechless-making horror at the gun debate currently recently re-ignited in the States have kept me from here. Mea culpa. If the forecast levels of snow actually come to pass here tomorrow, there may be more time than I had bargained for.

In fact, I did touch on the topic shortly after Sandy Hook. Still, the gun debate is a live (as in grenade) topic in Catholic circles as much as secular ones. While there is always need to beware of simplistic arguments in any direction, it is hard to see how difficult it is for so many Americans, not least conservative Catholic ones, to see the need for gun control. Dubious arguments about other countries with gun controls and higher rates of death by firearm do nothing to allay the disquiet. No serious advocate of gun control would argue that there is more to the issue than merely restricting access to firearms. Culture plays a significant role in a nation’s level of crime. Brazil is not open to direct and unconditional comparison with the USA. It has levels of urban poverty, as well as police and political corruption, that are in a league beyond that of America.

Likewise, to follow another line of argument, until recently the Swiss had an almost full armed population, which arose form the population at large forming a standing reserve militia to be activated in case of invasion. Firearm homicides there were stunningly low. So, the argument goes, the issue cannot be guns. Well, the Swiss did not go toting them around like trophies or fashion accessories. There were not rapid-fire assault rifles. They were locked up and never removed from their housing except for their regular maintenance. They were in case of foreign invasion and nothing else. The American gun lobbyists’ rhetoric is aimed at their own government, not foreign invaders. While the Swiss have a stable democracy which they trust, Americans have nothing like the same trust in their democratic government. Their mistrust leads them to carry guns. The logical conclusion if that way of proceeding does not bear thinking of… or maybe it does, now more than ever.

Another argument recently reissued by the lobbyists is self-defence: we need guns to protect ourselves from criminals (and others?). Given all the mass shootings in the USA, how is it that none of these have been prevented by gun-toting citizens? And who needs a military assault rifle to protect their families? For pity’s sake… If a man has a knife, he might kill one or two people before he is overpowered. If Adam Lanza had gone to Sandy Hook Elementary School with a knife, he would not have been able to kill 28 people. Instead he accessed the arsenal in his mother’s home and armed himself with a Bushmaster rapid-fire rifle, among other weapons. Most knives are designed to cut food or other objects; all guns are designed to kill. Is that not obvious?

America has many problems, as do all nations, but one almost unique to them is the sin of idolatry of the gun. Because the right to bear arms is in their constitution, they will and must exercise that right. Guns are a symbol of their freedom. Little matter that the constitution was written more than two centuries ago, and the authors also wanted to be able to raise a militia in case the redcoats returned. In other words, the second amendment seems very much to have been a product of its time, a time long past. It is particularly disturbing to see priests loudly opposing gun control, posting pictures of all sorts of weaponry that again raises the question of the American idolization of guns.

Priests check the firearms of Marines who will be sent to Basilan province in southern Philippines during the 110th founding anniversary of the Philippine Navy in Manila

It’s not America… but similar scenes there are highly likely.

One fact stands out clearly, the overwhelming majority of fatal mass shootings have occurred in the USA, where a large majority of citizens can buy and use an assault rifle. School shootings seem to be a particular speciality in the States.

SchoolShootingsThis map shows school shootings throughout the world since 1996, and can be accessed in full interactive detail here. I, for one, am happy to be living in a country with gun controls. It is hard to see how Catholics can be pro-life and also pro-guns. Maybe I am slow…

On a happier note, there is news that the Vatican will issue a new manual for priests, on how to say Mass properly. Alleluia! At last we have a single resource that all priests can refer to in order to guarantee that Mass is celebrated according to the mind of the Church rather than the individual priest’s. I wonder at the adequacy in some places of the preparation for celebrating Mass and the sacraments. This manual will help to remedy any inadequacies, it is to be hoped. Publication is due this summer. You can read more over here.