Joe Sobran was my favorite columnist before he died in 2010. He offered more good sense per paragraph than anyone else.
In 1993, William F. Buckley publicly fired Sobran from National Review. I had known for three decades that Buckley was the liberal establishment’s token conservative intellectual. That act confirmed it. He had also become the neocons’ tool. Buckley buckled.
Here, Sobran comments on the Littleton massacre, also known as Columbine. Two teenagers killed a dozen schoolmates and a teacher. They injured 21 others.
People ask: “Why?” Sobran asked: “Why not?”
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The Littleton murders are still provoking “solutions” for the problem of youths who choose to shoot their classmates. The usual method of these “solutions” is to imagine how this particular horror could have been prevented, and then to generalize the answer into some sort of national law or social program. More gun control, better counseling, spotting “early warning signals,” and so forth.
But if any measures could have prevented these murders, they may not apply to others. The next crime to shock us as Littleton did won’t duplicate Littleton; it will be something else, something different in all the details the supposed “solutions” address. The uniqueness of this crime — and of many other crimes — gets lost in bogus analysis. A couple of specific teenagers were determined to do evil. If they had been prevented from doing it the way they did it, they could have found another way.
Maybe the real trouble is that modern culture simply refuses to face the fact of evil. “If God does not exist,” as Dostoyevsky wrote, “everything is permitted.” As if to underline his words, one of the killers fatally shot a girl when she said she believed in God.
If God does not exist, right and wrong are reduced to subjective preferences; even human life loses its dignity. “Thou shalt not kill” means no more than “I hope I won’t get shot.” Laws become the amoral collective preferences of the majority.
But what if the killers, as at Littleton, are prepared to die in the course of their crimes? There are always those who won’t be deterred by laws. This is a fact of life. Christian culture has always recognized original sin, man’s eternal and irrational inclination to do wrong. But to the denizens of modern culture, the idea of original sin is nonsense.
Modern culture is a negative, not a positive thing. It’s what is left when you subtract Christianity from Christian culture — so it’s a barren, bloodless, desiccated, and uninspiring thing, sometimes called “secular humanism.”
Modern culture recognizes nothing above man, so there is nothing worth dying for and sacrifice is absurd. It recognizes no God and denies the soul, the afterlife, and ultimate justice.
It tells us we should fight against Hitler (or some Hitler-of-the Month like Slobodan Milosevic), but it can’t explain why a young man should be prepared to give up his short life, the only existence he will ever know, when “sacrifice” means no more than suicide.
In a secularized universe, nobility and honor have no meaning. Neither does chastity. Yet these are virtues recognized by most other cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought honor and chastity were worth dying for; they worshiped the virgin goddess Diana, and they praised the chaste matron Lucrece for killing herself, for honor’s sake, after having been raped.
Secularized culture, being negative, is only legalistic. It can’t move the heart or fill the imagination. It merely encourages grievances about an ever-widening range of supposed civil wrongs, under the general heading of “discrimination.” All social relations become legal and political relations.
We can even amend Dostoyevsky in light of the twentieth century: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted, especially to governments.” The state that recognizes no absolute right or wrong will keep trying to enlarge its own power, even to the point of declaring some people subhuman if they get in the way of social engineering or even personal pleasure.
Our own government has made abortion a legal right, while pretending to be “neutral” about religion and morality. Deciding that some lives may be taken at will is anything but “neutral.” It assumes that unborn children are nothing but biological matter. At bottom, it assumes the same thing about the whole human race. It assumes that for human beings, there is no higher happiness than unrestrained sexual pleasure; after all, “higher” and “lower” are only relative terms.
For some people, there may be something sweeter than sex: revenge. That was what drove the Littleton killers. And why not, if God does not exist? The Littleton killers were products of the very culture that is trying to disown them — a culture that has ignored Baudelaire’s words: “Satan’s cleverest wile is to convince us that he doesn’t exist.”
This article inspired the title of a new collection of Sobran columns of the same name:Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society (fgfBooks.com, 2015). This column was published originally by Universal Press Syndicate on May 13, 1999.