Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Everyone's problem is no one's problem": Elliot Rodger, the UC Santa Barbara shooting spree, and Dorothy Day

With distressing regularity, young American men are committing mass murder.  The Columbine killings in 1999,  the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Jared Loughner's killing spree in 2011, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December 2012.  And now we learn about Elliot Rodger, a 22-year old student at UC Santa Barbara, who killed six people last week before taking his own life.

Every case is different of course--particularly with regard to the casualty lists. So far, I think, Seung-Hui Cho's attack at Virginia Tech holds the casualty record: 32 killed and 17 wounded.

But most follow a common pattern.  First, all the attacks were planned and some were planned meticulously over a period of many months. All the attackers were students or had recently been students at American schools or colleges. All the attackers gave some warning or clear indication that they were contemplating violence. And all were male. (The Amy Bishop killings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville was a case of workplace violence and is in a different category altogether.)

In most cases, the attackers killed themselves before they could be captured; but Jarod Loughhner and James Holmes (the Aurora, Colorado movie-theater shooter) were captured alive.

In most of these cases, the attackers used at least one semi-automatic weapon to shoot their victims. Often they were well supplied with ammunition and extended-ammunition magazines. But Elliot Rodger stabbed three of his victims to death and injured some people with his automobile.

All these cases have provided fodder for media commentaries--from Bill O'Reilly of Fox News to Frank Bruni of the New York Times. (After all, Frank can't devote all of his columns to attacking the Catholic Church.) And everyone has a solution for stopping these killing sprees, which seem to be escalating in frequency.

Some argue for better gun control--particularly restrictions on access to semi-automatic weapons and extended-ammunition clips. Some argue for better mental health care. Some blame violent video games, and some blame America's supposedly misogynistic culture.

I found myself wondering what Dorothy Day would say about all of this. Dorothy died in 1980, but she saw her share of violence and mental illness. Her writings and diaries contain frequent descriptions of  mentally ill people that the Catholic Worker took in and sheltered. Indeed, she wrote in 1972 that "[i]nsanity is the problem of our era. . . . One can call it many names, alienation, withdrawal, depression, nervous breakdown--we have them all . . ."

Dorothy thought the Catholic Worker's farm settlements were one solution to violence.  She called one CW farm "a school for the living, a school of nonviolence."  Musing in her diary in September 1972, she reflected on our society's tendency to see violence as a collective problem, not a problem that requires an individual response. "'Everybody's problem is no one's problem,'" she wrote. ""Seems to me there is some kind of proverb or aphorism like that."

Dorothy did not have any clear solution to the problem of violence in American society, although she thought state-sponsored abortions--by sanctioning violence against the unborn--might be contributing to the problem.

I do think, however, that Dorothy would counsel us to be kind to all the troubled, unstable people we meet, even though mentally ill people can truly be a bother and an irritation.  Dorothy and her CW comrades certainly lived by that philosophy. They sheltered a number of truly exasperating people--people who clearly suffered from mental illness.

And this causes me to wonder whether Elliot Rodger would have murdered six people last week if just one person had showed him a little kindness on the day before he went on his killing spree.  But who knows? Maybe someone had been kind to Elliot Rodger on the day before he stabbed and shot people. But maybe that person wasn't quite kind enough, patient enough, compassionate enough to turn the tide.

I'm not saying of course that Elliot's friends and acquaintances share responsibility for what Elliot did. But I am saying that we all have opportunities in our day-to-day lives to show a little patience, a little compassion, and a little kindness to the abrasive and annoying people we meet. We never really know, do we, just how close to the edge that any person might be in any given moment.


Dorothy Day. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008.

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