America Comment

Like the Romans, Americans have become fratricidal

a memorial service to remember the victims of the mass shooting in the Oregon District of Dayton (Getty)

Our gun problem is at root a problem with human fraternity. Policies alone cannot fix it

Numb from a whole day of news on the mass murder in El Paso and Dayton, I was surprised by my eldest son’s suggestion that we watch together that 21st century classic: Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) based on the Philip Dick short story. My son had never seen it, and I hadn’t watched it since, well, 2002. But I immediately agreed to watch it with him because I remembered that the film was also on the question I’d been thinking all day: murder, and how to avoid it.

The film is set in the nation’s capital in 2054 where a new “pre-crime” division has been established to stop murders before they happen. Twin males and a third female form a trio who together have extraordinarily detailed foreknowledge of murders — and only murders. The trio’s “pre-cognitive” powers have been harnessed, and the crime division built around them is led by Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton. Early in the film, Anderton discovers that he himself will commit a murder in the future. Believing this to be impossible, the film revolves around Cruise’s character trying to prove his innocence, seeking “a minority report” — foreknowledge of a murder that disagrees with the foreknowledge recorded by either of the other two in the pre-cog trio.

The film is thus not-so-subtly pitched as a philosophical reflection on the question of whether human (or divine) foreknowledge is determinative of our actions, regardless of the choices we make, or whether we still have a choice. In the heat of one potentially murderous scene, one of the pre-cogs, Agatha, repeatedly tells Anderton: “you have a choice.” Without ruining the film for the three people who haven’t seen it yet, let it suffice to say that in the dispute between Catholic free will and Calvinist determinism, the film sides with the Catholics, and Spielberg ends the film with a kind of reverence for the capacity of the human person to choose life when everything points us towards death and destruction.

Yet our culture points us constantly towards death — and not only with guns. Abortion and physician-assisted suicide stand as antiseptic terms which veil a similar kind of determinism that hovers over everyday human decisions. Just as it is true that America has an abortion problem, it is true that “America has a gun problem.” In terms of lives lost, one is utterly disproportionate to the other. But they both flow from a more primordial problem about America we must face. It’s a problem that runs deeper than abortion clinics and automatic weapons.

Augustine criticized everything about Rome, and he never gave any policy proposals to the Senate. He criticized Roman fertility cults which emasculated men, prostituted and debased women, and generally tended to cut people off from the source of life itself — both in natural and supernatural terms. Like Philip Dick’s insight into the human soul in “The Minority Report,” Augustine sees the impulse towards murder as fundamental to Rome’s malaise. Behind all of Rome’s spiraling moral decline, Augustine concludes, stands a primordial murder. Rome was built on a fratricide — Remus and Romulus, the twin brothers who founded Rome, argued over the founding of the city, and Romulus killed his twin brother, and named the city for his own glory (Roma).

Rome didn’t have a gun problem, but they had the same problem we have in America: we are fratricidal. And that is not owing simply to something in the founding of Rome or America, but a fratricide prior to every nation, namely Cain and Abel whom Augustine calls “archetypes” for the city whose walls are “dripping with a brother’s blood.”

In the fifteenth book of his De Civitate Dei, Augustine writes:

“Cain’s was the diabolical envy that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil. A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all.; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.  Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself; while the conflict between Cain and Abel displayed the hostility between the two cities themselves, the City of God and the city of men.” (15.5)

I strongly suspect Augustine would see in El Paso and Dayton evidence of these archetypes, and especially evidence of a more primordial problem than guns alone. America feels like “the earthly city divided against itself,” one which is continually bent on murderous resentment of neighbor, and that’s bound to manifest itself in senseless violence. Benedict XVI once said that the world can make us neighbors but can never establish true fraternity. Surely our gun problem is at root a problem with human fraternity — the bonds of human affection in America have frayed. Even the way people have responded to gun violence has largely sought to scapegoat the violence by destroying political opponents.

I don’t know what to do about gun control. I am sure there are smart discussions which can be had which preserve the right to self-defense, and the necessity of avoiding the near occasion of our cities walls dripping with the blood of our brothers. But Augustine would teach us that the primordial problem will not be solved by policies, but by turning our hearts to the love of God which makes for true fraternity. Christ’s victory over sin and death reconciles us to God in such a way that we now can see Christ Jesus in every human being — and to the extent we turn away from this image of God in our neighbor, there are no policies which will stop violence. The city of man is founded on fratricide, and thus can never find its way to true fraternity. The more that society flees from the peace of Christ, the more it will find its cities bearing the mark of Cain.