There is a man who is misunderstood, alienated from the world he lives in. He is uncomfortable in the company of others, incapable of figuring out how to be one of “the guys.” He is impatient with the expectations of authority figures. He doesn’t like having to conform to rules. He can be opaque. He can be quick to anger. He struggles with “inner demons,” struggles to be understood, like he is speaking a language no one else knows. He feels unloved and neglected, or sometimes loved too much, smothered. He is contemptuous of a crowd whose approval he cannot attain. He is intelligent, resourceful. He has ideas of his own. He is quiet, he is purposeful. One day, his solitude fuels action. On that day, he kills. On that day, he often dies.
This man is young, hardly a man at all. Yet, he is a bogeyman made flesh. His name is Jared Loughner or Eric Harris or Dylan Kliebold or James Eagan Holmes, or, today, Adam Lanza. And, his story resonates terribly with us at a moment when we collectively mourn twenty-six children and grown-ups whose only crime was going to school on a Friday. The newspaper reports tell this story, just as the reports about another shooting in Aurora, Colorado, did this summer. Although we know that mental illness is partly to blame, we also can’t help but think that some kind of evil must be at work. Because grievous harm has been done and can never be undone. This man was a “loner” whose loneliness has now destroyed the safety and security of a community, making all of us fear the very places where we come together to do the daily business of life and leisure. We are shocked, we are scared, we wonder what could have been done to stop him. As a society (insofar as Facebook, Twitter, and cable news represent it), we talk a little about gun control and mental health care. About how “something” should be done to prevent this from happening again. As individuals, we vow to take that quiet kid in the corner of the classroom or in the house next door more seriously as a possible threat, as the dangerous problem that he has the potential to become. We remind ourselves to watch out for weirdos, for quiet types, for young men who just don’t “fit in,” for the loners who lurk in our midst.
There is another man who is misunderstood, alienated from the world he lives in. He is uncomfortable, impatient with the trivial niceties demanded by genteel company. He is, as the line goes, rough around the edges. He has few human connections, perhaps only to someone now dead or long gone, someone whose memory disquiets his mind. Calm on the surface, his waters run deep and are troubled. He is steadfast in his own convictions, wary of obligations imposed upon him by others. He is proudly insensitive to the needs of his fellow men and women. He is intelligent and resourceful. He is quiet, he is purposeful. One day, his solitude fuels action. On that day, he kills. On that day, he often dies.
This man is not young and he is not a monster. Instead, he is the hero of our culture’s urtext, the American Western. Shane, the Man with No Name, Tom Doniphon, Ethan Edwards, Will Kane, the Preacher. By whatever name he is called, he is the Solitary Man and his life is a story of loneliness and lethality that loops for all of celluloid eternity. And, rather than fear him, we celebrate and admire and desire him because he is a hero-loner not a weirdo-loner. He is a rugged individualist who lives by his own code of honor, a personal morality untouchable by arbitrary laws, corrupt institutions, or the mutable punctilios of the unthinking masses. Yes, he alone decides who should live and who should die. Yes, he seems “broken” in places, beyond the reach of friendship. Yes, he is unfit for human love. Yet, we trust his decisions implicitly because he is a good man and because we crave his protection even as we may bristle at his presence. He is a loner who possesses the virtue of iconoclasm married to righteousness.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t make this comparison to “blame” Hollywood for gun violence or to equate the very real killing of children with the fictional killing of the bad and the ugly. But, the fact that we loathe and worship solitary men in American culture seems to me something of a paradox. A society that makes sacrosanct the rights of the individual–an unquestionably paramount political value–is a society built on the precious principles of democracy and human equality. One that reveres individualism as an ethic all its own is a society that is at war with itself. And, thus we Americans find ourselves mourning, fearing, and misunderstanding one another today just as we did after Tucson and Aurora and as we will no doubt do again one terrible day in the future.
I make this observation about America’s solitary men, then, not to place blame on anyone per se but instead to shed a little light onto a political mystery. Why, when so many Americans say that access to guns should be restricted, do our politicians refuse to enact sensible gun control? In a poll taken after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2010, even 36% of self-identified gun owners said that gun laws should be made stricter. Yet, despite the President’s no-doubt sincere tears and the expressions of astonishment and outrage made by politicians, pundits, and all of my Facebook friends, it seems fairly clear that nothing is likely to change. Just as nothing changed after the Tucson and Aurora shootings. Why is this so? Political cowardice? Yes. The big money of the National Rifle Association? Certainly. And, why, when 78% of Americans believe that our mental health care system does too little to identify the weirdo-loners before they turn into murderers do we not have a safety net adequate enough to do so? Is it the stigma of mental illness? Yes. The antipathy towards “Big Government?” Sure. But, perhaps there is something more.
Perhaps nothing will change because heartbreak and astonishment and outrage aren’t enough to uproot the deep ideological commitment Americans have to the image of the rugged individualist, the mythopoetic hero of a frontier never-land, the hero-loner. Perhaps, as a society, we are too beguiled by the illusion of that solitary figure’s place in our history to embrace collective action, to place our individual trust in the public institutions that we have built to protect our families and communities, to see beyond the mirage of a radical, “self-sufficient” past, and fortify the bonds of our complex civil society today. Perhaps we are living in the thrall of a yesterday that never was.
But, this ideology isn’t just a vestige of our mythical past.* It is a vaunted political principle of our hyper-modern present. In the fall of 1987, British Prime Minister and free marketeer par excellence, Margaret Thatcher, explained with stunning honesty that “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” This is the savage political logic by which elites in the United States have organized our economy and our politics over the past thirty years. It is the ideology to which one of the two major political parties in our democracy adheres without apology or qualification, and before which the other has too-often cowered. In this way, it has become the default consensus of our political culture. And, so we celebrate self-made men as paragons of American manhood instead of as the misanthropes that they might very well be.
Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the creed by which most of us live our lives. To be sure, we are individuals and many of us make up families. But, beyond the confines of those intimate circles, we are a nation of communities that knit together the fabric of a civil society, one that encompasses some three hundred million very different people. We are teachers and garbage collectors and doctors and nursing home workers and store-owners and salespeople and firefighters and pastors and school counselors. And, we work together every single day to do our jobs, raise our children, care for our elderly. To measure by the lives we live, we are more like the flesh and blood men who, in a brick and mortar building in Philadelphia in 1776, ‘mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor’ to each other than we are like a mythical cowboy riding off into a painted sunset. Yet, we routinely defer to know-nothings who call the thick social bond upon which this democracy was founded by the name of “tyranny” and the individualism of a concocted frontier the “real America.”
What seems to be missing here is an awareness that the weirdo-loner of our painfully real today and the hero-loner of our imagined yesterday are, in some sense, American brothers. They reveal to us the boundaries of our civilization. They thrust us into the no-man’s land where anarchy prevails and where we are each made frighteningly vulnerable in our “freedom.” The paranoid misanthrope we vilify, the paragon of manhood we idolize. Of course, we want to live in a world where the hero rides in and saves us from the villain. We so desperately want this to be possible. And yet it isn’t. We cannot thrive together as civilized men and women while also preserving the spirit of a wild frontier where individual “freedom” flourishes unbounded. We cannot keep the hero-loner alive while protecting ourselves from the weirdo-loner. Failing to resolve this contradiction threatens the coherence of our society.
But, to rescue that coherence requires more than facebooking about–or even voting–for gun control and better mental health care. We must summon the collective will to defend the very idea of society in word and deed. For, when we venerate “rugged individualism” as the preeminent American virtue, when we allow fabulist politicians to equate school teachers and garbage truck drivers with the Leviathan, when we reify anti-social values in our political economy, we do a different kind of violence to our children. We plant a seed of suspicion in their minds that the society of their fellow human beings is a source of oppression rather than a sacred and mutually advantageous bond. We communicate to them that they are, in some very real and terrifying sense, on their own. And, when some of them become alienated from the rest of us, when some of them lose their connection to our reality, as some no doubt will, these messages make that alienation seem righteous, they make that loneliness seem like a virtue. And, then, there are the guns and we know how that story ends. It is certainly possible, I suppose, that this is the stuff of which American heroes are made. But, most of the time, it just makes for stupid, savage tragedy.
*This was the part where I started blaming people.