Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln, History, and Modern Angry Young Men

This post definitely falls under the category of "this 'n' that." It has nothing to do with writing and even less to do with super-heroes. 

I don’t know why a 20-year-old man walked into an elementary school in Connecticut yesterday and murdered 26 people, most of them children between the ages of five and 10.

I don’t know why a local Kansas City athlete recently murdered his girlfriend in front of her mother and then murdered himself in front of his coach.

I don’t know why a man with dyed hair shot people in a movie theater last summer.

I doubt anyone will ever truly know or be able to understand their motives.

Yet that doesn't stop others from speculating. The killers were “disturbed” or “mad,” some say. They wanted their 15 minutes of fame, say others. The education system failed them. Violent movies and video games influenced them.

Likewise, solutions to prevent further tragedies are the stuff of easy opinions. Better education. Stricter gun control laws. Beefed-up security at schools (and theaters and everywhere else). Bans on violent movies and games.

We are hurting as a nation and as a species.

When we hurt, we want easy answers.

Last night, I saw Lincoln—a vivid recreation of the struggle leading to the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. It is sobering and frightening to think that slavery could only be abolished through the Civil War: a four-year, bloody conflict that claimed over 600,000 lives.

But aggression, no matter the intent, leads to further aggression. Another “disturbed” young man took it upon himself to punish Lincoln by assassinating him. But his actions only led to a harsh Reconstruction and resentment between North and South that lingered for decades.

John Wilkes Booth’s 15 minutes of fame solved nothing. He did not make anything right.

I often wonder if these other “disturbed” young men (and they are always young men) see themselves as setting things right. They appear to have given up on themselves and to feel so powerless that they exert whatever power they can muster against those who are weaker still: the innocent, the unsuspecting, the children.

They abandon reason for the momentary thrill of feeling all powerful.

People always ask, how could this happen? Perhaps the question we should be asking is, why doesn’t this happen more often?  What enables some people to adjust to life’s harshness, its complexity, its unfairness and not go around shooting others? What enables most of us to go about our lives without seeking the attention that comes (even posthumously) from hurting and killing others?

It is the hindsight of history that enables us to look upon the Civil War as necessary insofar as it resulted in positive changes in American society. Generations of African Americans were freed from slavery forever. The United States emerged as a stronger, more unified country.

But the movie brilliantly illustrates how contemporaries viewed Lincoln as someone who usurped authority, and how he and his operatives lied to, bullied, and bribed Representatives into voting for the amendment. There’s a moment in the film when Lincoln tells General Ulysses S. Grant that they enabled each other to do horrific acts, acts which, Lincoln suggests to others, were “for the greater good.”

One can see, of course, the gaping chasm between Lincoln’s motives of preserving the union and freeing the slaves and the apparently selfish motives of young men who shoot children. And the film shows that, for all his power as commander-in-chief, Lincoln had to work hard to get things done, to persuade others to agree with him, and to entrust the success of his mission to forces he could not control: namely, the free will of others.

Perhaps that’s what’s missing from young men who murder: a desire to work hard toward some positive end which benefits others instead of the self, and a willingness to place one’s faith in something outside oneself.

Perhaps age has something to do with it. The young men who lash out at others might, in another time, have been the young men who enlisted in the Union or Confederate armies, who channeled their aggression against clearly defined enemies “for the greater good.”

Perhaps these young men act violently because they don’t want to risk looking foolish or perhaps they take themselves too seriously. Yes, I know: someone who commits horrific acts is already a fool. But several times in the film, Lincoln shows the capacity for keeping others focused by using humor to lighten a dire situation. He never feels the need to put on airs and pretend he's something he's not. He discusses Euclid with a young engineer while admitting he had little formal schooling himself.

In any event, watching this movie on the heals of this latest senseless tragedy offers the depressing suggestion that some things haven’t changed in 160 years: young men still get violent and kill others.  However, the movie also shows us that, if our ancestors got through their struggles, we can get through ours.

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