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It’s August that really should be named January, after the two-faced god.
The month can come on like a blast-furnace, scorching everything dry, but all its heat cannot hide the reality that the sun is setting earlier, day after day.
August says that it’s still summer, but every kid sees the rising specter of a new school year while parents are assaulted by the feverish sales connected thereunto. Pastors gulp at plans left unfinished for the whirl soon to begin, while academics feel a clutch in the gut over the article unfinished, the books unread, and the oncoming wave of customers formerly known as students whose demands and happiness college administrators insist must be met. What doctors and lawyers, techies and gig-chasers, business operators and line-workers feel about this time of year I don’t know. Maybe same old, maybe also a sense of lowering doom.
The behavior of nations comes down on the latter side. Barbara Tuchman’s great work, The Guns of August (1962), decided me on history for a career, and ever since reading it I can’t help but note guns going off in more Augusts than just Tuchman’s 1914.
To be sure, Americans like to start their wars in April—all that rising sap of nature’s spring, called testosterone in males. There was 19 April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, 25 April 1846 along the Mexican border (who’s “invading” whom?), 12 April 1861 at Ft. Sumter, 21 April 1898 along the coast of Cuba, and 6 April 1917 when the United States formally joined in the fun of World War I.
But August has had its innings too. Besides the start of World War I, we can look at the last evening of the month in 1939, when 1.5 million German troops prepared for a pre-dawn invasion of Poland, kicking off World War II. Adolph Hitler fabricated a story of Polish aggression to legitimate the attack. Four years later the Americans chose earlier dates in August to unleash atomic warfare upon Japan (Hiroshima on the 6th, Nagasaki on the 9th) on top of even more lethal fire-bombings of Tokyo etc. in the weeks before.
In my life-time it was on 4 August 1964 that Lyndon Johnson fabricated an incident off the coast of Vietnam to push the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress, insisting ever after that it gave him a blank check to prosecute no end of war there. Similar plans on false pretenses were buzzing in Washington during August 2002, though the propaganda mill for an American invasion of Iraq did not gin up until early September. “From a marketing point of view,” White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card infamously explained at the time, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”
Is it the heat that drives people crazy, or an urgent sense of time slipping away? Not just governments, either. Single gunmen (and males it is 99.9 % of the time) act up too. Of that we were all reminded again last weekend. To be sure, Santino William Legan, a 19-year-old loner and reader of anti-Semitic literature, jumped the gun, so to speak, by shooting up the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28, killing three and wounding thirteen. Observers and commentators, including legislators, were shocked and horrified and quickly offered up thoughts and prayers for the victims.
The following Saturday afternoon Patrick Crusius, 21, ended his trip of 660 miles from suburban Dallas to shoot up a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He killed twenty-two and wounded twice that many more. The store was filled with mostly Hispanic customers, including eight Mexican nationals. Crusius’s grandparents, with whom he had been living, were “devastated” at the news and offered up prayers for the victims. Lots more observers and commentators and politicians joined the thoughts and prayers chain too.
The final big score of the weekend came early the next morning when Connor Betts, at age 24 a virtual senior statesman in this rogues’ gallery, opened fire on a late-night entertainment venue in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine and injuring 27. Among the dead was Betts’s younger sister, Megan. Double thoughts and prayers for that family, I guess.
Making Sense of the Senseless
From a quick scan of news-feeds, the carnage seems to have triggered outrage on the Left and uneasiness on the Right. Progressives point the finger at the white nationalism evident in Logan and Crusius as stoked by the White House. They renew their calls for gun control, especially of the “military style” (conservative PC forbids calling them “assault weapons”) rifles used in all these killings. After all, what rational society would allow a macho malcontent who used to compile “kill lists” of various males and “rape lists” of females in his high school to legally possess a weapon that could fire off 40 shots in 30 seconds? Would allow any civilian, for that matter?
More sensible conservatives (we’ll leave to the side such luminaries as the Ohio state representative who blamed the weekend on homosexual marriage, drag queen advocates, violent video games, recreational marijuana, and Barack Obama) respond that, yes, yes, an anarchic market in guns might be part of the problem and political extremism too, albeit (in Betts’s case) on the Left as well as the Right. But the real problem, they add, is a moral and spiritual vacuum spreading across society, particularly alluring to febrile young males but most perfectly incarnate in the hollow heart of Donald Trump himself.
I’m wondering why we can’t do a both-and rather than an either-or here. In the long run lethal violence by young sociopaths might at least be constrained by some fundamental changes in the culture. But—as conservatives are wont to say—that’s not primarily a job for government and such a change takes a long time to gain traction. Meanwhile, there are things that government can and must do, as progressives maintain. A ban on assault-style weapons and universal background checks and waiting periods for any type of gun purchase would seem apt places to start.
It Is Religious Problem
By all evidence, such proposals face long odds. The reason for that is a spiritual problem indeed—and not from a lack of religion but from bad religion. Historian Garry Wills identified the syndrome seven years ago in the wake of the murder spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. His summary can hardly be improved upon:
“That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year ), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).
“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”
Read Wills’s entire article. Perhaps your shock of recognition will be matched only by despair that so little has changed in the seven years since Sandy Hook—or will change, probably, in the wake of last weekend.
Our frames of meaning, the deep tides of religion, tend to morph slowly, and such a change is rendered even more difficult when the high priests of our supposed Christian religion, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., celebrate the cult of the gun, spread it in their institutions, and urge a righteous display of firepower should any rise up against it.
A Christian Voice?
It’s time, as I’ve said before, for a true Christianity to arise amid the shambles of Falwell’s false Evangelical sort. And I suppose I’ll have to keep on saying it till my death because—to repeat—this kind of cultural change tends to evolve slowly.
But never fear, gentle reader, I’ll not be saying it again for awhile on this site because my wife and I are off for a semester of teaching abroad. Our internet access will be spotty, so I thought it best to leave this slot in The Twelve rotation to someone else.
Meanwhile, August seems to be a good time to get out of this country. Do not doubt, however, that it will remain, ever, in my thoughts and prayers.