why mass murders remain mysteries


I was reading about the Aurora shooter, James Holmes, in the August issue of TIME magazine and learned, not surprisingly, that many people have tried to “figure out” the folks behind the triggers of mass murders. After such horrifying events as Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Arizona shooting outside a grocery store, the wounds feel raw and people want answers.

Last week, a junior high girl asked me, “What would make a man do such a horrible thing?”

Her question resonates with families, friends, and social scientists in the FBI and Secret Service. We want to know why and we want to know what we can do to prevent senseless killings in the future. The research, unfortunately, is inconclusive. Though there are “sociological traits and behavioral cues that are associated with mass violence,” there are also a host of outliers that resist simple categorization.

The article closes with this,

In other words, there were few reasons to predict that Holmes was more dangerous than anybody else in Aurora. What law could account for such a person? Madmen will untie themselves from legal restrictions as easily as they depart from moral ones. But Holmes’ case, like the others, will be endlessly scrutinized, all in the hopes of recognizing signs that could stop the next mass murderer. (TIME article, “Preventing Mass Murder, Can We Identify Dangerous Men Before They Kill?” by John Cloud)

That doesn’t sound very hopeful. But there is something very important – do you see it?

“…Holmes was no more dangerous than anybody else in Aurora.”

Now, that sounds to me like total depravity, but let’s talk like laypeople for a minute. Basically, with all the research and months-long studies by the best of the best, we still cannot come up with a powerpoint presentation that explains exactly why mass murderers do what they do. We cannot figure out what makes them snap, except that they seem to be a lot like… well, a lot like “us.”

Hold on a minute. I know it sounds scary, but there’s something beautiful hidden here, so don’t miss it.

The article is right – it’s hopeless. Even “science” has failed to give us an answer this time (ironically, what some call “science” might be leading people towards this kind of behavior – see The Sunset Limited).

Hopeless happens to be exactly where God’s story starts making a whole lot of sense. The only one with enough power to break in to such a frustrating human system is someone completely outside of it, someone who doesn’t operate under the same constraints. If God can reach down and meet me in my hopeless state, then He can certainly meet my neighbors and the guy I met at the pool and the next mass murderer. Because, remember, he’s just like us.

It won’t ever find its way onto the list of sociological traits and behavioral cues, but isn’t it true that the heart of a man reveals his motive?

With every tragedy, we are shaken from our stupor and forced to look at the human heart. We don’t know who the next mass murderer will be or where he will strike, but we do know his actions come from a wayward heart.

So, who will share the message that the most wayward of hearts – hearts that seem to delight in evil – have an invitation to come home?
Who will admit that we are all capable of evil and we desperately need to be freed from the sin that binds us?

Who will solve the mystery of mass murders – that it is all about the heart?


is the anchor deeper?

It’s hard for me to imagine someone who welcomes death and darkness like I welcome light and love – someone who longs to be in utter, distant loneliness forever. There are such people and Cormac McCarthy introduced me to one such person last night in his screenplay, “The Sunset Limited,” an HBO film.

The entire film takes place in a cramped apartment where two men take ahold of the other’s worldview by the collar and give it a thorough shaking. Their lives could not read more opposite, but their human-ness keeps them in a wordy banter between death and life.

Several times it felt like the wind got knocked clean out my lungs, so direct was the attack on the anchor to which my soul is bound. After Black (played by Samuel L. Jackson) rescued him from a suicide attempt, White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) refuses to give up hope on one thing: giving up. He plans to end his life and finally find peace in the nothingness – the void, dark, solitary space beyond. Everything he valued in life as a respected professor revealed itself as an illusion and in his ‘enlightened’ state the only logical response was suicide.

The despair was palpable as White spoke – like death’s bony hand had already strangled the life out of him, twisting up his insides. When his eyes attempt to betray the death in his soul, his words pound harder the nails on his vacant coffin. Emptiness.

Black (Jackson) is a man of conviction and a self-proclaimed ‘outlaw’ when it comes to faith. He lives in a rough tenement, surrounded by junkies and crackheads, and claims to not have a single thought apart from his Bible knowledge. He lives simply, available and eager to be used by God in the lives of broken people. And White (Jones) would have nothing to do with his charity.

With the striking boldness of a man who has seen death battle in front of him all his life, Black debates the meaning of life with White (and on several occasions requests an everyman paraphrase). Though we are pulled this way and that, the end of the film closes without resolution. We suppose that White left the same man who walked into the shabby room, a pending suicide statistic. We suppose that, though Black is shaken, he remains faithful to the God who took him down to the train tracks the night before.

The irresolute ending feels like a rope unraveled. Brilliant dialogues pull the pieces apart across 91 minutes. In a last, desperate effort to reach White, Black responds to the man’s hope for the cold darkness of suicide,

“Maybe you could just keep that in reserve. Maybe just take a shot at startin over. I dont mean start again. Everybody’s done that. Over means over. It means you walk away. I mean, if everthing you are and everthing you have and everthing you have done has brought you at last to the bottom of a whiskey bottle or bought you a one way ticket on the Sunset Limited then you cant give me the first reason on God’s earth for salvagin none of it. Cause they aint no reason. And I’m goin to tell you that if you can bring yourself to shut the door on all of that it will be cold and it will be lonely and they’ll be a mean wind blowin. And them is all good signs. You dont say nothin. You just turn up your collar and keep walkin.”
― Cormac McCarthyThe Sunset Limited

Black suggests that if White’s life has brought him to make such a terminal decision as suicide, then he’s come to the end of himself. If there is nothing to salvage (nothing except death itself holds meaning), what could be lost in starting over but that which could be gained by starting over?

When White responds with probably the most horrifying monologue of the entire film, we can almost taste the human depravity as it drips off his lips. Void. Cold. Death.

And the viewer must decide what or who is capable of arranging the unraveled strands into something meaningful. The viewer must battle with his own demons and despairs when everything is shaken free of its settled skin.

The viewer must decide if he is the anchor or if the anchor is deeper than his frail, human skin.