Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. Even granting that the temptation in moments like these is to overstate the frequency of mass killings, the fact remains that the social and spiritual condition of young American men accords perfectly well with their ascendant role in these horrific events.
Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, was thirty-six when he began his bombing campaign. Charles Manson was likely at least that age at the onset of his murders. John Allen Muhammad, aka the D.C. Sniper, was about forty-two, and Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City Murrah building at the age of twenty-seven.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School at eighteen and seventeen, respectively. Adam Lanza was twenty when he murdered twenty children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Dylann Roof was twenty-one. Payton Gendron opened fire at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo at eighteen, the same age as the alleged shooter who murdered nineteen children and two teachers on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas.
The ages of these two groups are far apart, and their distance expresses a hemorrhaging wound near the soul of contemporary American culture: We have become a society filled with very young men who are ready and willing to throw away their lives and the lives of others.
Yes, America has experienced a meaningful decline in violent crime from the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s. But the value of this decline is obscured by ever-younger killers and their ever-younger victims. The designation of eighteen as legal adulthood is a misleading technicality. We are living in an age of literal child-on-child murder. What can make the conscience tremble if not this?
There are some who sneer at people, like me, who offer prayers in times like these. Prayer, they say, is non-action: an ineffective, meaningless piety meant to maintain the status quo on gun control. Yet it’s these same scoffers who instinctively pivot to the topic of gun control whenever a child takes the lives of other children, and their political rage is no less a religious recitation simply because they confuse Congress for God. An inability to talk about anything other than gun control threatens to deaden our lament and neutralize a vital conversation about why so many of our country’s most lost, most hateful people are boys with their whole lives ahead of them.