On this fine Christmas Eve, we all need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves a simple question: What in the world is wrong with us?
We desperately need an answer, because it’s happened again.
At 12.33 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13, 18-year-old Karl Pierson walked into Arapahoe High School in Littleton armed with a shotgun. Apparently, he intended to kill a librarian. Fifteen minutes later he was dead and a fellow student had been rushed to a hospital in critical condition from a gunshot wound. Another student was also hospitalized, treated and released. For hours afterward stunned groups of students filtered out of the school, most of them fearful and unsure of what happened.
What we know of the gunman’s background presents a schizophrenic picture. Neighbors describe his family as “very nice,” and “a normal, middle-class family” like many of their neighbors. Students who knew the shooter, however, call him “very opinionated” and note that he had “political views that were outside the mainstream.” This is borne out by his Facebook posts, which featured vitriolic attacks on conservatives and paint a picture of an aggressively argumentative young man. Some acquaintances said he was “picked on.”
Media speculated Pierson’s attack was triggered by an action of the employee he targeted, who was the coach of the school’s debate team; Pierson was a successful member of the team until September, when a conflict with the coach led him to threaten the man’s life. That resulted in a “disciplinary measure,” which evidently surprised and angered him further. When he entered the school 10 days ago, he was clearly acting on those emotions.
To outward appearance, Karl Pierson was an intelligent, well-spoken child from a normal, middle-class family. He did not seem mentally unstable. So why did he do it? The really disturbing question might instead be, “Why not?”
For all of our society’s hand-wringing over violence of this type it is also working day and night to make such tragedies more common. Until he was brought up short by the debate coach, Pierson quite likely had never heard that his performance was substandard, that his reasoning was faulty, that his opinions were irrelevant or his personality abrasive. Educators today are very protective of their students’ egos, so the hard words “this needs work” are rare. We think this kindness, but it is really poison. Uncorrected errors grow, and one who never fails has no opportunity to learn the rich lessons failure provides. Adversity is something we all must face, and one who has had no practice with it early in life will tend to fragility, reacting in unpredictable and even dangerous ways.
Alone, this educational fashion might lead only to a generation or two of socially maladroit, ill-educated narcissists. However, when mixed with modern society’s growing obsession with immediate gratification and violence, the results can be spectacularly bad, as they were on Dec. 13.
This fascination is puzzling. According to most national statistics, violent crime has decreased in the past decade, so there’s no real-world tie-in. But our most popular movies, books and video games show our taste for the hair-trigger, the bloody retribution, the hail of bullets. Spatter’s the game and the redder, the better. One wonders which of the Hollywood types behind these vicarious versions of the Roman Empire’s blood sports thought that “Call of Duty – Ghosts” was an appropriate gift to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace?
Speaking of whom, an honorable mention to all those diligently working to remove God from this country’s public square. They, too, have a supporting role in the sort of event that transpired at Arapahoe High School because when one erases the possibility of divine love, mercy and personal worth based on eternal, instead of immediate and utilitarian, values one kicks the props out from under those who need these things most. Those doing the undermining sometimes claim they are doing so in the name of expanding “freedom,” but what they are really doing is increasing our sense of anomie — our isolation not only from one another, but from anything greater than ourselves. That isolation has the power to destroy.
But in the end this is a season not of despair but of hope, so let us do that. Let us hope that Claire Davis’s soul finds peace after her brutal murder. Let us hope that from this tragedy comes wisdom, and that we find in it a reconsideration not of our laws, but of our lives, our goals and our work. Let us ask ourselves what we believe, and what we serve.
It may not fix what’s wrong, but it would be a start.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.