The first shootings were less than three miles from my home.
The locked doors announced by this sign inconvenienced me as I tried to stock my parish basement with some empty boxes for food distribution. I suppose we Christians brought that inconvenience upon ourselves.
But, to say the least, my inconvenience pales in comparison to what others lost. Four young people, ranging in age from 16 to 26, were murdered by 24-year-old Matthew Murray, who had been nursing a grudge against Pentecostalism and Christianity for years.
Here's a touching excerpt from a eulogy given by a friend of 16-year-old victim Rachel Works:
Four close friends of Stephanie's and Rachel's also spoke, though it was Aimee Donahue who evoked the most emotion.
Dressed in black - even her fingernails were painted black -- Donahue was supposed to see Rachel this week. Donahue lives in Virginia and the two have been close friends for two years.
She lamented the moment she got the news her friend had been shot and killed, saying she "cried for 13 hours." She said they both loved The Lord of the Rings and called each other Sam and Frodo - the duo of protagonists from the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.
"I think what hurts the most is that all I think about is the things she'll never get to do, but I can do," Donahue said. "Why did I live and she die?"
And then she referenced the end of the The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo leaves Sam behind and tells his best friend to complete the story he began to write.
"There are still some pages left for you, Sam. Your story will go on," Donahue said. "So, I have to finish my pages - maybe some of hers too - because my story is still going on whether I like it or not."
People are calling Works' murderer crazy, citing an incident where he claimed to be hearing voices:
One night Werner was awakened by Murray's chattering and complained: "Hey, Matt can you just stop that. What are you doing?
"He just turned and said, 'Dude, I'm just talking to my voices,'" Werner recalled.
"Richard ... you don't have to worry," Murray reassured him. "You're a nice guy. The voices like you."
Werner would go on to say: "We didn't know if he was being serious about it or he was just messing with everybody's head." I have to doubt insanity in this case. Though filtered through one man's memory, this incident sounds far too polished. It's like a deliberately creepy line one would hear in a B-movie. That is to say: it's just what a young unoriginal outsider would say to scare a roommate.
In contrast to the Works and Donahue girls' playful imitation of noble Frodo and loyal Sam, the news reports that Murray would imitate the wretched Smeagol/Gollum. Perhaps we do become what we pretend to be.
Our culture often has great difficulty interpreting violent malevolence. We are quick to place it in the "crazy" category, even if there are no clear signs of psychosis in its perpetrators. This is in part an understandable move: there are never good reasons for killing innocent people. From this premise, we say that therefore murderers lack reasons for their action, therefore they are insane.
Yet this confuses mental insanity with spiritual insanity--that is, sin. Though we talk a lot about freedom of choice, we sometimes imagine that the willing choice of an evil deed is impossible.
Armchair character analysis is always risky, of course. But there is certainly a type of person that fetishizes violent insanity, one that looks at Gollum as a figure not to be pitied but emulated. Murray seemed to have enjoyed the aesthetics of chaos and brokenness. Why else would he have made an ironic performance of Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park at a Christian Christmas party? Why else would he have gone on at great lengths about the depths of his despair? Why did he laboriously blame his strict upbringing for ruining his life?
This stylized approach to life, with its pretensions to psychoanalysis and its choice allusions to music and movies, could be used to the good. But these killers reference not revelatory artworks or the words of heroes but each others' fevered hate-riven writings. Murray himself quoted the writings of Eric Harris, the lead murderer at Columbine, as if he were Murray's prophet of doom, a devilish mock-Isaiah.
While it would be ideal if we could erase all memory of these killers from popular culture, that is not going to happen.
These young killers do have parents who loved them very much, and speaking ill even of those wickedly dead should be tempered for their families' sake. But in a world where public figures are attacked for every minor gaffe, a murderer deserves similar outrage.
Murray was a child of the internet era. His last bloodthirsty words, titling this post, were meant for public consumption. He's a ripe target for flaming.
These murderers require unapologetic attacks unforgiving of their motives, irreverent towards their self-importance, and contemptuous of their violence. I proceed in that spirit.
Judging from what is reported in the press, Matthew Murray was a thin-skinned, self-pitying megalomaniac who wrote horrible poetry about how screwed up he thought his life was. The quality of his poetry and his themes can be summed up in a tremulous doggerel: Oh, what a fragile and noble soul,/suffering from so many forces beyond his control!
Murray wanted to be bisexual, but no woman would have him. (For some ludicrous reason, some gay activists are eager to claim this mass murderer as one of their own.) The Mormons baptized Murray, though he left them after two weeks. He couldn't even get the Satanists to approve him: his standards were that low.
The 25-year-old Murray quoted the writings of Columbine murderer Eric Harris, an eighteen-year-old possessed of neither talent nor insight. Ever the victim, in a subtle, original, and proportionate simile Murray compared his strict upbringing to a police state regimen. Christianity and his parents had caused all his problems. To him, his pains were the greatest of all. He was more sinned against than sinning.
In his writings, the real victim is obvious. The deaths of those four young strangers are peripheral.
[They were also peripheral to anyone who was eager to score a quick debating point in the first days after the shootings. Conservatives tried to blame secularism, atheism, and Islam(at first the killer was reportedly wearing a "skullcap"). Liberals tried to blame the easy availability of guns. Rank opportunists, before the victims were even identified, disgustingly blamed Christianity, New Life Church, Youth With a Mission, and the putative homophobia found therein. Sometimes they sided with the murderer in his own hate-ridden self-justifications. Some blog comments were a hideous reminder that every bloody internet story with national attention will attract the worst people: those incapable of grieving for the innocent.]
Murderers like Murray, not to mention their sympathizers, deserve mockery and ridicule. They merit no glamorous re-tellings of their story in film, song, or video game.
A mass-murderer should be malignantly caricatured in a dark comedy about his failed attack on a school or church. His utterly baseless motivations should be obvious and unsympathetically derided. The perpetrator should act obnoxiously to well-meaning people and then complain that nobody likes him. The character should take inspiration from Eric Harris, who ranted against the mentally retarded in his notebooks. Imagine a would-be shooter, convinced of his own greatness and intelligence, enviously resenting a Down's Syndrome teen for being his social better and moral superior.
This kind of deprecatory art would illustrate the revolting bile that leads a man to inflict his despair upon the undeserving. It would serve the social function of challenging potentially violent aesthetes on their own ground.
There are many professions of forgiveness from Murray's victims and their families, and I do not question their authenticity. Speaking for myself, I am good at excusing and minimizing genuine crimes. I can pretend to "explain" them. I am truly bad at actually forgiving the criminals who perpetrate such enormities. To forgive the kinds of characters I have intuited and imagined here requires more virtue than I yet possess. When I invoke the Prince of Peace this holiday season, I hope the purity of heart to forgive a clear-minded murderer will be my Christmas gift.