We know a bit more than we knew yesterday about the awful events that took place Sunday night in Las Vegas. We know today that the death toll is approaching 60 with more than 500 injured. And, of course, now we know a good deal more of the stories of those who are the victims of this massacre, both those who have died and those who are still fighting for life.
We know something more about the perpetrator, the murderer. We know his name was Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old retiree, who was a habitual high-stakes gambler. We now know that somehow he was able to transport more than 20 weapons to that 32nd floor perch from which he aimed his guns. And we know a good deal more about those guns, including the fact that at least one of them operated as an automatic weapon. It is now argued by police authorities that he was using what is known as a bump in order to turn a semi-automatic weapon into one that functioned as an automatic weapon.
But what we do not know today is what we did not know yesterday, and the vexing thing is that we may never know. The one question being asked over and over again by law enforcement authorities, by those in the media and by everyday Americans and others around the world is why.
That raises a question I was asked yesterday from the media. The question is this: why is an answer concerning motivation so important to us? And this from a Christian worldview perspective underlines something about what it means that we are indeed moral creatures. We are also rational creatures. This is a part of what it means to be made in God’s image. As rational creatures we want to know a rational reason or at least some motivation we can rationally understand, whereby someone would undertake such a murderous rampage.
But, of course, that underlines the fact that there is no rational answer to the question. There is no rationality to such an act of evil. But we still want to know something. We want somehow to make the answer explicable to ourselves as to how this happened. That is an understandable desire. It’s a very understandable even commendable impulse.
In a case of mass murder like this, it is likely to be an impulse that is frustrated. The level of premeditation is also something we know in greater detail than we knew yesterday. Premeditation that included the use of multiple cameras by which Stephen Paddock intended to watch the police as they might approach his hotel room. It is now believed that seeing the police coming he decided to kill himself before they could storm the room.
Amidst the host of questions raised by such a massacre, one of them is this: How should we even speak of it, especially in public, especially in a controversial and politicized context? Greg Sargent writes a column for the Washington Post. He identifies his own perspective as leaning left. And in the aftermath of the massacre in Las Vegas, he dared to ask the question – how do we speak about those events and their meaning? What is behind them and what are the implications of this kind of mass murder in America? He then suggests there is a right way to politicize mass shootings and a wrong way to politicize them.
Now that might sound absurd on its face, but he’s using the word politicized here in a rather neutral manner. Suggesting that one way or another, this will become an issue of our political conversation. He dares to say there is a right way and a wrong way for that to happen. He makes very interesting points. One of his key issues is this: “There’s nothing wrong with trying to discern the belief system of mass killers, provided that this is part of a broader effort to learn all we can about the killer; provided that this belief system itself is not reflexively tagged as the cause of the shooting; provided that other causes are given due weight; and provided we don’t use the shooting to tar our ideological opponents and their worldviews.”
He concludes in that paragraph: “We all know what that latter tactic looks like. Let’s not do it.”
Indeed, let’s not do it. So, let’s look at Mr. Sargent’s proposal straightforwardly. He does understand that there is an impulse to try to discern the belief system of mass killers. Then he makes several provisos as I read his paragraph. He said it has to be,
“part of a broader effort to learn all we can about the killer;”
No lack of agreement there. He then says, “provided that this belief system itself is not reflexively tagged as the cause of the shooting.”
He means by that that if, for example, there is a mass murderer who is identified with a certain belief system, such as Islam, it should not be merely reduced to that. Well, again, there’s a basic agreement on that point, but he goes on to say “provided that other causes are given due weight.”
The question there, of course, is what due weight would mean. And then he says,
“provided we don’t use the shooting to tar our ideological opponents and their worldviews.”
And, of course, he’s right. We do know what that looks like. He goes on to say “that said, there is nothing wrong with politicizing mass shootings in a different sense: They are,” he argues, “the right occasions for intense arguments over how to prevent them in the future.
Now there’s something to that argument, of course, because Americans cannot turn away from this new story. It has the national attention. Political leaders have to speak to the massacre, and they have to say something that is meaningful or at least close to meaningful. And furthermore, there are policy and legal issues very much at stake. In the aftermath of this kind of shooting, you can count on the fact that both sides in the gun control argument will be mobilized to try to argue that the massacre is or is not relevant to that question and would or would not have been prevented by some specific or generalized proposal concerning gun control.
At this point, intellectual honesty should require us to understand that most of the proposals that are made in the aftermath of this kind of massacre would actually not prevent this specific kind of crime. But Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, at least deserves credit for trying to urge raising the level of this discussion to a higher plane in the aftermath of this kind of massacre. In light of the fact that there will be controversy, and that will take place in a politicized environment at the very least, we ought not to misrepresent those on the other side of the political environment in terms of our representations.
Now at this point I want to note something else about what we now know in the aftermath of that horrifying attack in Las Vegas. We now know that arguments against moral responsibility immediately have fallen to the wayside. In recent decades there have been many efforts to try to minimize or reduce our understanding of human moral responsibility. It has been argued that economic and social factors are to blame. That psychiatric or psychological issues are to blame. There are academics who argue that free will in terms of moral decision-making is actually just an illusion, and human responsibility is ephemeral. But here you will note that such suggestions look not only irrational and theological, they look to be immoral at the present moment. No sane person is arguing that the killer in Las Vegas does not bear responsibility for his actions.
Academics and others may give themselves arguments trying to reduce organized human moral responsibility, but you will notice just how quiet they are in the aftermath of this kind of undiluted evil. At this point, the denial of human moral responsibility looks not only foolish but evil itself.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.