, Salem, MA


January 5, 2013

Column: The massacre of innocents

The senseless tragedy in Newtown, Conn., prior to Christmas continues to haunt me. We have had school shootings in this country before, to be sure, but the age of the victims puts this case, in my mind at least, in a category by itself. Too bad for public discourse that the “lesson” of this tragedy quickly became a bone of contention between those who want to limit gun rights and those who think “mental health issues” and our culture of violence bear the blame.

Am I wrong when I say that most sensible people believe that this is an all-of-the-above no-brainer: some restrictions on military-grade weapons and attention to mental health questions and criticism of our violent popular culture should be part of any solution?

Americans are a pragmatic people, so perhaps they should not be blamed too harshly for immediately conceiving of the tragedy as a “problem” that needs a “solution.” In fact, I applaud this mindset; it’s a feature of American culture that distinguishes it from many others where quiet resignation to the wheel of fortune reigns supreme.

At the same time, one can be forgiven for wishing there was more room in our culture to air the metaphysical, even theological, questions — the blaring, imponderable “whys” — such violence invokes. But perhaps this is a burden public discourse cannot bear.

I’m on firmer ground in looking to the Church for assistance. Not surprisingly, I’ve paid more attention in recent weeks to the Feast of Holy Innocents than I have in the past. For liturgical churches, this feast day has traditionally taken place between Christmas and Epiphany; today it is customarily celebrated on Dec. 28. The feast day arose to commemorate the infants in Bethlehem whom Herod slew (as recorded in Matthew 2) when in “furious rage” he realized that he had been misled by the Wise Men. Several traditions consider these slain children to be the first Christian martyrs. As Augustine wrote: “These then, whom Herod cruelly tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as ‘infant martyr flowers’; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.”

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