What is it in a man that causes him to do the unthinkable? Why would a student, afforded higher education and the opportunity to advance in life, instead choose to study acts of terrorism and violence? Why would a young man arm himself with firearm after firearm, stocking himself with enough ammunition for a military operation only to turn it against the innocent and defenseless? Exactly what temptation does a person fall into that leads him to force his peers against a wall and systematically execute each one who admits to a Christian faith? Why Christopher Harper-Mercer, why Umpqua Community College, and why now?
Horror, shock, and grief after the Umpqua shooting are reactions not limited to a particular side of the American political spectrum. We all feel mixed emotions of disbelief, sadness, and anger that such a terrible event could occur on a college campus. Such an environment is normally a place where education is prized, disagreements are civil, and mass murder is unthinkable – a place that should be safe. Tragedies such as what happened last Thursday have the potential to unite America in a shared experience of loss, and to bring together people from all corners of the country in mourning for those who were victims on that dreadful day.
But this shared experience does not change the fact that, amidst the grief surrounding such a tragedy, serious questions must be answered. The American people, who now seemingly accept a risk every time they venture onto an institution of higher learning, deserve to know why this man did what he did and what can be done to prevent further acts of violence. We need answers -- thoughtful and insightful answers -- which can provide a level of explanation that will help us make sense of this tragedy. It is only from this place of understanding that we can painfully but justly move to closure, as we empower ourselves to take the right and proper preventive action to keep the Umpqua shooting from happening again.
No such answers have yet come from President Obama and his administration. The day of the event the President provided a public statement in which a mere two sentences were devoted to the identity of Christopher Harper-Mercer. Conceding that little was yet known about him or his motives, Obama argued that Harper-Mercer should simply be grouped with other terrorist shooters who have “sickness in their minds.” The President moved on from here quickly, having instead much to say about the state of our country at large. In so doing Obama evidenced just how unimportant Harper-Mercer’s motives would be, once uncovered, to his narrative of the event.
And this is main problem with President Obama’s approach, just as it is with the arguments of the anti-gun lobby. It isn’t simply that the effectiveness of gun control is in doubt (as many conservatives are currently arguing), but rather that the anti-gun lobby has already accepted a narrative to explain school shootings in general. With or without investigation, the events that unfolded at Umpqua College fall into place in this narrative and become added fuel to an already blazing fire. Whether or not Christopher Harper-Mercer was a neo-fascist, a white supremacist, a radical Islamist, or none of the above matters little when the preconditioned narrative already accepts the instrument rather than the perpetrator as the focus of judgment.
Or, in the case of Obama’s narrative, it can be said that Christopher Harper-Mercer’s life and motives do not matter because the blame doesn’t fall squarely on him. Instead, as the President argued, it is the American people who are to blame for fostering an environment in which such atrocities can occur. The reason we have done this, he explains, is because we as a people are “numb” to mass tragedy. Calling our sympathetic thoughts and prayers “not enough,” President Obama argued that our lack of sympathy is evidenced in that the “cause of continuing death for innocent people” is no longer a “relevant factor” in our political decisions. As a result of such idle numbness, we as Americans give terrorists the opportunity to mass murder civilians. Ultimately, according to our President, we as the American electorate should accept that it is our fault that this tragedy occurred, for it is we who continue to make a “political choice” to “allow this to happen every few months” in our country.
A far wiser president than he once stated that “we must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker” and that “it is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” To know exactly what we should do about the shooting at Umpqua College, we should know exactly what happened and why. And before any larger conversation on the nature of gun control versus the right to bear arms can recommence, we should first reflect on the assumptions we bring to the table. For it may well be that it is the narratives we cling to, rather than our sympathetic thoughts and prayers, which aren’t enough.