Descendre dans la rue et tirer au hasard dans la foule—a beautiful language, French is, though the line, from Jean-Paul Sartre, means “going down to the street and shooting at random in the crowd.”
It’s from Sartre’s short story, “Erostratus,” titled after Herostratus, the man who in 356 B.C., burned down the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, so that his name would be immortal. In response, the Ephesians passed a law banning any mention of the arsonist, in the hope that he’d be forgotten and not spawn any imitators. They didn’t succeed; you can find his name if you look in any standard ancient history. Friedrich Nietzsche uses him as an iconic figure in Human, All Too Human. And Sartre modernizes him in the form of a weak and resentful man—an office worker named Paul Hilbert—who imagines becoming important by murder.
In a blog posting this morning, Victor Davis Hanson points out the extent to which the media accounts of the shootings at Ft. Hood have already turned therapeutic, far more in fear of stoking anti-Muslim feeling than in being accurate.
I haven’t seen enough of the coverage to know if he’s right. But the title of his post, “When Anger Goes Cosmic,” reminded me of Sartre’s story—and of the psychological truth that Sartre seems to have missed: The resentful, it turns out, do not imagine their resentments entirely as assertions of individuality against a dehumanizing world. The individuality of resentful anger, it turns out, is like a free radical in chemistry, looking for something upon which to latch.
The modern Herostratus, thinking of descendre dans la rue et tirer au hasard dans la foule, finds a rationalization of his fury in something like the system of fervid imaginings by radical Islamists. And the resentment feeds the system, and the system feeds the resentment, and then the murders come. We want it to be just the resentment of the lone madman, or just the madness of the paranoid system of thought, but it’s both: a perfect cycle of mutual confirmation.