Okay, what about restricting it to wishing murderous ill upon someone? In her own response to the Sandy Hook slaughter, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates tweeted that hopes for gun control would be greatly advanced “if sizable numbers of NRA members become gun-victims.” Who’s to know when violent fantasies on social media prefigure a loner getting ready to mow down the kindergarten or just a critically acclaimed liberal novelist amusing her friends before the PEN Awards cocktail party? As it is, in American schools, mental-health referral for “oppositional defiance disorder” and the like is a bureaucratic coding racket designed to access federal gravy. Absent widely accepted cultural enforcers, any legislative reforms would quickly decay into just another capricious boondoggle.
It would not be imprudent to expect that an ever broker America, with more divorce, fewer fathers, the abolition of almost all social restraints, and a revoltingly desensitized culture, will produce more young men who fall through the cracks. But, in the face of murder as extraordinarily wicked as that of Newtown, we should know enough to pause before reaching for our usual tired tropes. So I will save my own personal theories, no doubt as ignorant and irrelevant as everybody else’s, until after Christmas — except to note that the media’s stampede for meaning in massacre this last week overlooks the obvious: that the central meaning of these acts is that they are without meaning. Herod and the Pennsylvania Indians murdered children in pursuit of crude political goals; the infanticidal maniac of Sandy Hook was merely conscripting grade-school extras for a hollow act of public suicide. Like most mass shootings, his was an exercise in hyper-narcissism — 19th-century technology in the service of a very contemporary sensibility.
Meanwhile, the atheists have put up a new poster in Times Square: Underneath a picture of Santa, “Keep the Merry”; underneath a picture of Christ, “Dump the Myth.” But in our time even Christians have dumped a lot of the myth while keeping the merry: Jesus, lambs, shepherds, yes; the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, kind of a downer. If the Christmas story is a myth, it’s a perfectly constructed one, rooting the Savior’s divinity in the miracle of His birth but unblinkered, in Matthew’s account of Herod’s response, about man’s darker impulses:
Then woe is me
Poor Child, for Thee
And ever mourn and may
For Thy parting
Nor say nor sing
By by, lully, lullay.