Sunday, November 29, 2015

No country for angry old white men: A Catholic's reflections on Dorothy Day and the Colorado Springs shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic

Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old

Townes Van Zandt

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Robert Lewis Dear
America has two kinds of serial killers. First, there are the angry young white men who have serious psychological problems and often want to commit suicide after killing the maximum number of people. We've seen a lot of these guys: at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, the Aurora movie theater, and Sandy Hook. Their body counts are impressive.

Second, we have the angry old white men who are frustrated by their misspent lives and who often obsess on some personal injury or a particular social injustice. There are fewer of these guys, and in general, they kill fewer people. John Russell Houser, age 59, killed two people and wounded nine in a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater in July 2015. Robert Lewis Dear, age 57, killed three people and wounded nine in Colorado Springs earlier this week.

Houser and Dear had similar profiles. Both men were estranged from their families, both had had minor run-ins with law enforcement, and both were loners with mental health issues. Both killers' motivations are unclear, although Dear's attack may have been triggered by his feelings about abortion.

What can we say about murderers like Houser and Dear? We can pontificate about stronger gun-control laws like President Obama routinely does--taking time away from his golf game to express his outrage. We can lament the fact that our nation doesn't have better mental health care, which is a convenient way of saying the government should do something.

But the truth of the matter is this: America has always had angry old white men living on the margins of our society.  At one time, men like Houser and Dear might have had union jobs, which would have provided them with health care and a pension. But the union jobs are mostly gone, and we have millions of aging men with poverty-level jobs or no job at all and no health insurance. A great many of them once had wives and families, but these were lost in some mysterious way that men like Houser and Dear do not understand.

Suicide rates for middle-aged men are going up, and mortality rates are going down for people in Houser and Dear's demographics. White people with less than a college degree are killing themselves or succumbing to drug- and alcohol-related diseases in higher numbers than they did 20 years ago.

Let's face it: our society doesn't think much about angry old white men unless they shoot someone other than their relatives. At least, by killing strangers, Houser and Dear forced Americans to acknowledge their existence, which in their minds perhaps, is at least something.

What can we do to help prevent men like Houser and Dear from shooting people? And by we, I mean by us individually, not the government?

I think we can begin by showing some respect for aging people who are not important to anyone. We all subscribe to the slogan that "Black Lives Matter," but almost no one articulates the notion that old white guys matter.

And perhaps we can school ourselves to see the poor as Dorothy Day saw them--as the living embodiment of Christ. Men like Houser and Dear are poor, and they have serious mental health problems. They're no fun to be around. But Dorothy Day spent her whole life with people like them--smelly, mentally unstable, poor people. You can't read Dorothy's Loaves and Fishes without coming to the conclusion that she voluntarily chose to live in a nut house.

But most of us can't live like Dorothy Day lived; God has not given us the grace or charity to do so. But at least we can smile at people like John Russsell Houser and Robert Lewis Dear; we can lend them a helping hand when they come our way. Maybe a smile at the right moment would have stopped John Russell Houser from shooting people in a Lafayette movie theater. Maybe a smile in the parking lot in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic would have caused Robert Lewis Dear to leave his weapons in his car and simply drive away.

I know this is a simple, even simplistic thing to say, and I am giving advice I often don't heed myself. But I am certain of this: Our society, and each of us individually, bear some responsibility for the angry old white men who, bereft of family, friends, or jobs, begin shooting people for no apparent reason.

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Dorothy Day