We call them lone wolves.
As if they are monsters that emerge from the forest, suddenly and inevitably. As if they are not people, but animals whose motives we will never be able to decipher.
In 1945, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to 8 years in a Russian labor camp. He wrote about his and others’ experiences in a book I’m reading, The Gulag Archipelago. The conditions he describes are horrific, the loss of human life unimaginable, and the violence doled out by interrogators and prison guards absolutely chilling.
He was victimized over and over by human beings who enacted violence without any visible remorse. Wolves.
He condemned their actions, obviously, as any moral person would. But he also refused to speak as if they were less than human. He wrote:
“As the folk saying goes: If you speak for the wolf, speak against him as well.
Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?
It is our own.
And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: ‘If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?’ It is a dreadful question if one really answers it honestly.”
It is a question I shrink from. I compare myself to the man who shot up Las Vegas and see no obvious similarities. But I inquire anyway about what might be monstrous in me, what violence I might be capable of, if not hemmed in by society or empathy or law or love.
To ask those questions, to know those answers, helps me be a person whose choices are actual choices, not just default docility.
In the week since Las Vegas, plenty of people have talked about guns (edit: and will talk about them after Sutherland and beyond). And yes, let’s talk about guns. It’s a worthy conversation, especially if we all keep our ears and hearts open to each other.
But if guns remain the only focal point, I can’t help but think we’ve arrived on the scene too late.
I can’t help but ask:
What path does a person take to arrive at the 32nd story of a hotel with murderous intent? How does a person twist his heart before he aims a gun at a crowd? Which environments and traits and traumas and choices combine for a person to attack hundreds of people he doesn’t even know?
We call these actions senseless violence.
But we must make sense of them if we intend to create a world where wolves no longer scatter crowds.
It’s becoming a matter of survival to ask: What is it about us—all together—that produces people who act out their despair or blistering rage with gunfire?
Why are some of us growing up to be wolves?
I’m not excusing that man’s responsibility. He stood at a window and put his finger to a trigger. Responsibility for the horror he rained down on a crowd is his alone.
But as we move forward after yet another tragedy, I wonder how we can each take our own responsibility.
In conversations online, I’ve seen angry, heartbroken, astonished reactions lead to connection and thoughtful action, which seems exactly right to me. But in other conversations about how to prevent this kind of tragedy, I’ve seen a disheartening number of dismissive, condescending, even vile responses to disagreement (sometimes from people I know personally). No side of the political spectrum has exempted itself from words of contempt, words that mock and demean and dehumanize. Some even wish for violence or tragedy to befall the people they disagree with.
(I cannot be smug myself. When reading horrible words, even if I don’t engage, a part of me has hated the words enough that I hated a part of the person saying them. So I’m complicit, too.)
What is it about us—all together—that’s producing wolves?
Not just words. Obviously.
Not just disagreement on social media. Obviously.
Like the violence itself, those are just manifestations of whatever we still have within us that is divisive or self-righteous or lonely or inhuman or cruel.
We can legislate safeguards into place, but if we’re broken as a culture, if we’re violent as a nation, if we lack empathy as a people, then we’ll careen right through the guardrails.
I don’t know the mindset of a wolf.
But I imagine that someone trying to obliterate as much humanity as possible before turning to self-annihilation has to be living out a chilling sort of nihilism. Every bullet might be a declaration of meaninglessness, a sort of revenge on those who walk around in a life worth living. Shooting into a crowd of strangers may be a violent shout into the dark that nothing matters.
What gives me hope are all the voices calling out, saying, no, no, no, these people matter, these people mean something. Hear their names. See their faces.
Enough of us care, which means this kind of violence is not inevitable.
So what should we do?
The good or generous or courageous thing we each feel called to.
Refuse senselessness. Enact peace in every interaction. Donate blood. Look people in the eye. Tell the truth. Have the conversations that burn inside you without burning the people you have them with. Insist on seeing people as people, even idiots on Facebook who don’t agree with you—especially them.
Say with what you do: you matter, you matter, you mean something. Yes, you.