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Violence and the Wedgwood Shooting 

September 22, 1999

By Daniel Lesser

 Living a stone's throw from Fort Worth, the tragedy at Wedgwood Baptist Church had extensive local news coverage, so I took the opportunity to observe and reflect on some of the reactions to the shooting. This morning, the créme de la créme was the woman who called into a local television station to tell us that she still believed Jesus was at work during the shootings. The evidence? There were still 6 unused cartridges. Jesus decided to save other young people over the seven killed, by having the gunman blow his brains out, so we really ought to praise God for his intervention.

In the same breath, she went on to tell of her other religion, the Second Amendment, gun control wouldn't work after all, as "psychos" can murder just fine with other implements (another rationalization from others along these lines being that if we had more guns somebody could've played O.K. Corral with the gunman). But as we must remember, the difference in the American murder rate as compared to that in other industrialized nations is not due to those other nation's gun control--it was just God up to his old tricks again, playing favorites. Praise Him!

And then this afternoon I observed another reaction at the office of the University of Texas at Dallas student newspaper--the Mercury. To summarize--a long-winded conversation with the Baptist sports editor wherein I learn that congenital defects and the Church murders were actually good, as Jesus had a plan that we can't really understand from our lowly status of human worms. Though we can be assured that despite his lack of protection for his followers, even in the midst of their supplications, he loves us so very much. The problem of evil is no problem at all--if we only had a God's eye view of the situation.

We are told to keep the faith, justice a.k.a. vengeance will come from "Awesome" God's hands, as was said on Wedgwood Baptist's homepage. God's ways are ineluctably mysterious--we shouldn't question why there are genes in the first place which give people genetic predispositions to alcoholism, schizophrenia, and manic-depression. We are made in God's image, out of a silly-putty prone to imperfections. And so we must keep the victims in our prayers, despite its demonstrable inefficiency at stopping violence through some telekinetic marvel or another, as maybe God will mold it right the second time if we ask nice enough.

Apparently by the tears, you almost wouldn't know that the martyrs--as they are sure to be called--are in heaven playing harpsichords, while the wicked evildoer, Larry Ashbrook, (if the Far Side's metaphysics are to be believed) has probably already gotten his accordion and is suffering eternal damnation for having a miserable, lonely, paranoid, and pathetic existence capped off by an explosion of rage (by most accounts). One would almost think that the consolations of heaven pale in comparison to having one's loved one safe and sound in this very world. One would almost think that preventative measures both in mental health care, by providing the proper funding so that the most severely mentally ill don't find themselves imprisoned, homeless, or dead, as well as considering Janet Reno's recommendations for gun control, might have a greater effect than Governor Bush's brilliant plan to cure the "wave of evil" through what amounts to tent-revivals. And if some of the comments to be found on the homepages of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News are to be believed, then Governor Bush has quite a few hearty "amens"--as if prayer stopped the black plague so many centuries ago, and could stop the plague of violence today.

Why did it happen? Simple, the gunman didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Lord n' Savior. "No true Christian would ever kill anybody." Isolation, mental illness, and the ready availability of firearms had nothing to do with it. A seething, boiling rage is of course caused by demonic possession as I learned from a recent edition of the Dallas-Fort Worth Heritage, a Conservative Christian publication. The world is erupting in spiritual warfare, all the evildoers trying to annihilate good God-fearing Christians. Take cover Christian soldiers! Supernatural intervention coupled with harsh godly laws ought to really make those "psychopathic" minions of Satan quiver--of course, we'll only execute the un-born again, if they find Jesus we want them to preach the Gospel (Witness Pat Robertson's pleas for convicted murderer Karla Tucker).

But such nostrums are to be of no surprise. The letters to the editor, the radio talk shows, and the conversations of the hour will certainly have their laundry list "explanations" and "solutions" of the most generalized and perfunctory nature, punctuated by insipid claims that "we just don't know why, so it was the devil." Apparently the brain isn't of much interest when the devil can be made a scapegoat, and the desire to blame rather than understand rules supreme.

Coincidentally, a day before the shootings transpired at Wedgwood Baptist Church, I happened to pick up a book entitled The Biology of Violence, which has a bit to say about the matter, by a neuroscientist by the name of Debra Niehoff. I am still waiting to put it down. How is it that one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature nurtured comes to find itself exiled to some mysterious abode inaccessible to human reason and observation?

As Debra Niehoff makes eminently clear, for better or for worse, human beings have evolved aggression as an indispensable survival tool, as part of a fight or flight instinct to protect against predators and competitors. It is not necessary to know the evolutionary minutiae, however, to determine that aggression is part of the human make-up--observable physiological changes accompany behavioral aggression, with fluctuations in hormones and neurotransmitters. And as we can see from the wide variety of disorders that can afflict the body--the brain, an oft forgotten organ of the body, is also not exempt from slings and arrows of outrageous temperament, the degeneration of dementia and schizophrenia, the dramatic kindling effect found in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and so on--the list of disorders being quite lengthy. And because of this, it is unsurprising that certain states of physiology and psychopathology are concomitant with violent outbursts.

Unfortunately in this society, riddled by primitive superstitions about human behavior, unshakeable belief in absolute free will, and undue suspicion of the "not-guilty by reason of insanity" plea, we are left to with only pejorative labels indicating our hurt whenever a slaughter occurs--nothing that would accurately convey what has happened. One would hope in vain that demonology went out of fashion when society stopped drilling holes in "lunatics'" heads in order to release the evil spirits. But for the more fundamentalist sects that doesn't seem to be the case, even if such beliefs are as ludicrous as geocentricism when it comes to the data that has been gathered from the behavioral sciences.

While it is seems fine to chuckle now at those who imprisoned Galileo due to his heliocentric theories, Debra Niehoff makes it clear that when it comes to mass incarceration at present, it may very well be the case that our society's fondness for prisons stem from a similar hatred of heresy--that of the biological variety. The orthodoxy in this case is the "tough-on-crime" conservatives as well as the utopia-enamored Left--both have failed in key respects to come to any clear understanding of the implications of seeing violence as a biologically driven, multi-faceted phenomenon. This reluctance to consider biological roots could be best interpreted as somewhat undue concern about any possible misuse of such data in eugenics, or the possibility that *Gasp* biological explanations lend themselves to an extinction of the ever vaunted "responsibility." At worst it could be interpreted as a case of dogmatic rationalizations for ignoring any further evidence that might undercut some sacred "geocentric" view of human society or another. The fallacy inherent within these perspectives is that if we didn't have legions of neuroscientists dedicated to finding out how human behavior operates, biological principles wouldn't still be in effect.

Ignorance of causes, while providing leeway for politicians to huckster votes for their incompetent crime-fighting measures through the ruse of rhetoric, will not negate the actual causes from operating, to the detriment of any workable solution. To reverse the infamous saying, the devil's greatest trick is making us think he exists, as it closes minds from trying to understand the ghastly in naturalistic terms in order to conceive of realistic prophylactic measures. While many of the reactions to the shootings at Wedgwood are understandably sentimental, and it may take away some grief to attribute the shooting to a cosmic battle between the "Prince of Darkness" and the "Lord God"--it is little rational, nor at all helpful in the quest to elect politicians who have better ideas than posting the Decalogue to magically cease violence.

[Daniel Lesser is a junior at the University of Texas at Dallas majoring in historical studies. He also studies Near Eastern languages. Daniel has considered a career in journalism, espionage, creative writing, and may yet move to a cave in the mountains to eat berries and hide from student loan collectors.]

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