No Answer for Littleton
The mass shooting of high-school students in Colorado has inevitably been called “a tragedy,” a word commonly misused in our culture. In classic Greek tragedy there was a conflict between two principles each of which was true in itself but which could not be harmonized. A true tragedy has about it a kind of terrible grandeur, a solemn sense of fated necessity, and the word should not be applied to events that have no positive dimensions that the human eye can see.
I here enter into the almost compulsive chattering to which events of this kind give rise, as every person in some way licensed to express a public opinion is expected to do so. But I also suggest that most of what has been said about Littleton is of little value, except in helping us to attain catharsis for our emotions, the illusion that by talking about it we are somehow doing something.
Events of this kind show in starkest form the ultimate emptiness of modern liberal culture. I don’t mean by that the facile claim that, by its general permissiveness, liberal culture caused two adolescents to gun down their classmates and themselves. I mean rather that modern liberal culture has no way of even beginning to cope with such events and the very fact that they occur itself demonstrates how shallow that culture is.
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James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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