Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, was thirty-six when he began his bombing campaign. Charles Manson was likely at least that age at the onset of his murders. John Allen Muhammad, aka the D.C. Sniper, was about forty-two, and Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City Murrah building at the age of twenty-seven.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School at eighteen and seventeen, respectively. Adam Lanza was twenty when he murdered twenty children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Dylann Roof was twenty-one. Payton Gendron opened fire at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo at eighteen, the same age as the alleged shooter who murdered nineteen children and two teachers on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas.
The ages of these two groups are far apart, and their distance expresses a hemorrhaging wound near the soul of contemporary American culture: We have become a society filled with very young men who are ready and willing to throw away their lives and the lives of others.
Yes, America has experienced a meaningful decline in violent crime from the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s. But the value of this decline is obscured by ever-younger killers and their ever-younger victims. The designation of eighteen as legal adulthood is a misleading technicality. We are living in an age of literal child-on-child murder. What can make the conscience tremble if not this?
There are some who sneer at people, like me, who offer prayers in times like these. Prayer, they say, is non-action: an ineffective, meaningless piety meant to maintain the status quo on gun control. Yet it’s these same scoffers who instinctively pivot to the topic of gun control whenever a child takes the lives of other children, and their political rage is no less a religious recitation simply because they confuse Congress for God. An inability to talk about anything other than gun control threatens to deaden our lament and neutralize a vital conversation about why so many of our country’s most lost, most hateful people are boys with their whole lives ahead of them.
Young American men are adrift: jobless, friendless, sexless, creedless. For many of them, the only color to their days is the blue light that emanates from the computer, smartphone, or video game TV. It is said that some of these adolescent terrorists have mental illnesses. This could very well be clinically true. But in another sense, couldn’t that kind of lifestyle itself be a source of disorder and anguish? Historically, mass killers were usually men who were old enough to have lived and abandoned a former life. The current generation of shooters have had no life to abandon. We cannot afford to stop asking why.
The idea that policy proposals must take precedence over cultural or spiritual efforts is misguided. For one thing, the two are not as separate as some suppose. A “red flag law,” for example, would empower concerned citizens to persuade authorities to temporarily seize the weapons of a suspected murderer. But the effectiveness of such a law would depend very much on interpersonal relationships. You cannot see a red flag in someone you never see. Many young men today are socially invisible, perhaps clocking in and out anonymously at a meaningless job but lacking the kind of thick attachments that make life worth living. As the pandemic has repeatedly demonstrated, government attempts to engineer behavior always overpromise and underdeliver.
Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. Even granting that the temptation in moments like these is to overstate the frequency of mass killings, the fact remains that the social and spiritual condition of young American men accords perfectly well with their ascendant role in these horrific events. Public schools aren’t working. Community outreach isn’t working. Even many churches seem unable to effectively shape males who are too young to wake up at 7 a.m. for a breakfast fellowship, but too old to do crafts in the basement during church. Just recently I spoke with a colleague and former pastor about the phenomenon of evangelical churches filled with marriable Christian women but no men to match them with. The gaping absence of these fellows is glaring, even from the balcony on Sunday morning.
What’s to be done? For one, we need to accept our own finitude and resist the dogma that says every horrible thing has a technocratic solution if we are merely willing to receive it. Many of these young men will not be reachable by everyone. The breakdown of the family, technology-driven isolation, and the decline of the church as a social center mean brokenness and homicidal pathology can hide better than ever. Pray.
Second, meaningful change has to start in the home. Parents who stay married and stay present for their children give their kids hope in a way little else can. Particularly for teenage boys, unlimited, unmonitored use of the web is a moral crisis. How many tragedies would have been averted if somebody had simply seen a search history?
Finally, there must be some way to help and ennoble young men who simply don’t fit inside the high school–university–office job pipeline. There are too few options right now for boys whose interests and personalities make college a waste. We need to build options for them. We need to re-dignify masculine power and drive, and that can be done in churches that talk about men the way Scripture talks about them: not as problems to be reeducated but as potential warrior-kings who hold the fate of society in their hands.
Why? Because they do. And one way or another, we will always be reminded of that.
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.
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Photo by Chooi Guan Lim via Creative Commons. Image cropped.