Twenty dead in El Paso. Nine more in Ohio. Both shootings are malicious acts to be condemned. But they are also part of a larger phenomenon to be understood: eleven killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue, 58 killed in Las Vegas, 17 killed in a Florida school. These wanton massacres—coming with numbing regularity—are symptoms of a sick body politic.
The newspapers are full of stories about white nationalism, the apparent motive for the El Paso shooter. This is indeed a dangerous ideology. We ran a careful analysis of the perverse appeal of right-wing identity politics last year (Matthew Rose, “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right”). Some commentators focus on the widespread availability of high-powered guns in our society. This, too, is a clear danger.
But neither explanation goes deep enough. Two generations ago, there were dangerous ideologies abroad and plenty of unstable young men. When millions returned from military service after 1945, guns were even more readily available than they are now. Yet there was no epidemic of public massacres.
There were vicious murders in the ensuing decades. Charles Manson comes to mind, along with serial killer Son of Sam. Black Panthers openly carried rifles in Oakland. The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. Yet even in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a troubled, sometimes violent time—we did not turn on our TV sets every few months to learn of yet another shooter in a school or shopping mall.
The regular mass shootings put an exclamation mark on the social decomposition of the United States. The warning signs are everywhere. Anyone visiting Seattle or San Francisco is struck by the packs of feral youths living on the streets. People shoot up in public. The smell of marijuana is now commonplace in most major cities. A friend who runs a large company in the Midwest told me that it’s hard to find people to hire—most who apply can’t pass drug tests.
The evidence is not just anecdotal. Out-of-wedlock births have risen over the last generation. More and more young people grow up in unstable family situations. As Charles Murray documents in Coming Apart, working-class Americans are increasingly atomized and dysfunctional. Given cultural collapse, it’s not surprising that America now sees declining life expectancy, a remarkable phenomenon in a rich, developed country. Among white working-class Americans, the decline is catastrophic, akin to the situation in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A fish rots from the head down. The social dissolution of our nation is a direct consequence of the mentalities, policies, and actions of our ruling class. It is damning that tech moguls take extreme measures to insulate their own children from the devices and social media platforms they market so vigorously to the rest of us. It’s damning that our ruling class makes a fortune on violent video games, does nothing to limit pornography, and presses for drug legalization amid an epidemic of overdose death.
Behind these obvious betrayals of the public good, powerful trends erode the foundations of a healthy social order. The therapeutic mentality is hostile to moral discipline. The agenda of inclusion almost always promotes a soft relativism. Transgressive chic mocks old-fashioned standards. All of these and more are strongly favored by the people who have been running our media, schools, and cultural institutions for the last two generations.
I’m sure those same people will insist that the El Paso massacre indicates that we need still more therapeutic intervention, still more multicultural education, still more efforts to root out “toxic masculinity.” They will say that we have not gone far enough. Too many people, they will tell us, are sunk in traditional ways of thinking, beholden to religious “fundamentalists” or otherwise impaired and unable to attain the properly progressive outlook.
Reality suggests otherwise. Say what you want about W. A. Criswell, the famous preacher who was a fixture for decades at First Baptist Church in Dallas, but of this we can be certain: His rigorous Christian message had nothing to do with the massacre in El Paso. On the contrary, any sober observer will recognize that the receding influence of men like Criswell is correlated to the rise of mass shootings. Social scientists will warn that correlation does not prove causation, but they also know that where there’s smoke there is often fire.
I pray for the souls of those killed last weekend. And I also pray that we will be delivered from the leadership class that has done so much to ruin our society over the last two generations. Their pseudo-progressive ideas about culture are bankrupt. They have promised freedom but delivered a culture of death.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.