The consequences for a society that calls evil acts “tragic”

I am glad to see that at least one mainstream columnist, Ben Shapiro at, is protesting the ubiquitous use of the word “tragedy” to describe the preventable mass murder at Virginia Tech, just as I criticized the use of the word “senseless” in the same context. Considering the profound moral and intellectual damage done to our society by such misuse of language, the thought has occurred to me that there is a need for an organization to campaign against it. At present, the problem is getting worse, not better. It used to be that mainly liberals called criminal acts “tragedies,” but now it seems that lots of conservatives (a.k.a. “conservatives”) have been joining the chorus as well.

Shapiro’s piece opens up a new angle on this problem that expands on what I was saying last week. If we think of an easily preventable mass murder—a mass murder committed by a person who many people in his environment knew was a psycho with homicidal thoughts—in the same terms in which we think of a natural catastrophe, i.e., as a “tragedy,” what does that mean? It means that, just as stopping a hurricane or an earthquake lies outside our power, stopping a maniac with obvious homicidal tendencies from committing homicide—by taking the non-liberal step of removing such a dangerous person from society—also lies outside our power. In other words, to act in a non-liberal way is as outside human power as to stop a hurricane or earthquake. And since it not possible for us, as liberals living in liberal society, to act in a non-liberal way, any destructive act of evil or madness that could have been prevented only by non-liberal measures must be seen as the moral equivalent of a natural disaster. Ultimately, any bad thing that can be stopped only by non-liberalism—ranging from mass murder to mass Muslim immigration—becomes a fate that we must simply endure.

Thus liberalism, denying the transcendent moral and spiritual truths on which Western culture is based, returns the West to the fatalistic outlook that has characterized most non-Western and primitive cultures. Just as, in Islamic or in ancient cosmological societies, no thought or act can stray outside the pattern established by Allah or by the gods of the cosmos, in liberal society no thought or act can stray outside the bounds set by liberalism. Rendered incapable of judging or opposing evil, liberals begin to bow down before it, and ultimately to worship it. At the end of this process of spiritual devolution is the gigantic stone head of an Aztec god I saw years ago in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the cruel and terrifying incarnation of a malign universe.

- end of initial entry -

Dimitri K. writes:

Among all who I know, you have obtained the deepest understanding of Islam and its similarity to Leftism/Liberalism/paganism. One important value that is missing in those belief systems is Higher Reason. Another value that is missing is the Loving Father. Those two are interconnected of course, because if someone loves you, he acts reasonably towards you. I spent my childhood among Russian working/lower class, who did not care much about their children. The children were malicious, tended to group in gangs and hated everyone who behaved well and were not like them. It resembles the behavior of Muslims, who never had a chance to talk to their father, because he rather resembles some authority than a parent.

* * *

The blogger Vanishing American has a brilliant quote from Thomas Fleming about the ubiquitous false use of “tragedy” to describe a mass murder:

It is all too true that most Americans are like most people everywhere in all periods of history: They speak without thinking. But unreflective peasants relied on proverbs and cliches that were deeply rooted in historical experience. Our cliches and mental tics are almost always bits of propaganda invented by liberals ignorant of human nature and human history.

That’s the best part of the Fleming quote, but the whole thing is worth reading.

However, in a classic bit of Flemingesque misanthropy, Fleming takes a good insight overboard when he says that the radically decayed character of contempoary Americans makes him lean toward gun control. Vanishing American shows admirable balance and steadiness of mind when he replies:

Fleming makes many good points, and on reflection, I think I agree with his reservations about arming our fellow citizens. As he says, “Few of them seem to have any part of the old American character,” but on the other hand, I would rather take my chances on my fellow citizens, however befuddled their notions are, than to give up the right to bear arms.

J.A. writes:

Tragedy refers to something bad happening that could have or should have been prevented. A hurricane is a natural disaster, but it is a tragedy if people die in a hurricane or tornado because they live in flimsy mobile homes or because the weather service knew a storm was coming but didn’t give adequate warning, etc etc. So the Virginia shootings are tragic because there were warnings and it should have or could have been some intervention before it happened.

LA replies:

In fact, you’re using the word in the proper and classic sense. While there are several definitions of tragedy, the classic definition is the fall of a good but flawed man. Thus a criminal act is not tragic. But a disaster that results from a moral failure in an otherwise good man is tragic. Also, just a plain disaster, resulting from nature or whatever, could be called a tragedy. A tragedy is a misfortune that results from some inherent flaw in an individual or in life itself, though not from evil. A key distinction between tragedy and non-tragedy is that tragedy does not involve evil or criminality.

Thus your description of the shootings as “tragic because there were warnings and it should have or could have been some intervention before it happened” is a correct way to view the situation, because you are describing the event as being due to a moral flaw on the part of the authorities and the community. But (and this is the key point) that is not the way that the community and the media and the American public have been seeing this event when they call it a tragedy. They have not seen the mass murder as the result of a moral failure on the part the authorities and the community to do something about Cho. They have not had been saying, “Look at this terrible thing that we allowed to happen through our blindness, our complacency, our liberal refusal to recognize the reality of evil.” If they had said such things, then it would be appropriate to describe the event as a tragedy. But that’s not what they’ve said. Instead, they have described the event as “senseless,” as some causeless horror that came out of nowhere. They thus deny the non-tragic, criminal, and evil side of the event; and they deny the tragic, moral-blindness-and-complacency side of the event.


My previous email is wrong technically because the dictionary’s definition of tragedy is very broad and includes every kind of disaster, act of God, etc. but what better word specifically defines a disaster that was preventable? Greek and Shakespeare plays are tragedies because of human weaknesses like lust, jealousy, hate, anger, etc. that could or should be transcended. 9/11 was a tragedy because there was intelligence information, warnings, and even best selling books (Tom Clancy, Sum of All Fears? a 747 is crashed into the US Capitol bldg., 1991) and movies Air Force One, Executive Decision, etc. of terrorist plans to crash planes into targets, but nothing was done to block potential terrorists from entering the country and taking flight lessons, improve passenger screening, secure cockpit doors, and change the obsolete fly the hijackers to Cuba response to a hijacking.

LA replies:

You are right, and I deal with these issues in the reply that I sent to you just before I received your second e-mail.

However, there is still a problem. You write:

“9/11 was a tragedy because there was intelligence information, warnings, and even best selling books … and movies … of terrorist plans to crash planes into targets, but nothing was done to block potential terrorists from entering the country and taking flight lessons, improve passenger screening, secure cockpit doors…”

Again, as with my first reply, you would be correct in saying this if the society saw 9/11 the way you see it. But that is not what people mean when they call 9/11 a tragedy. They just mean a bad thing that happened, as though it were a natural disaster. But it wasn’t a natural disaster. By calling it a tragedy, they remove the fact that it was an evil criminal act of mass murder. That is what is so wrong about calling evil acts tragedies. It destroys society’s ability to see morally bad things as morally bad and thus it weakens society’s will to defend itself against bad men and enemies.

To summarize, there are three ways of looking at 9/11, two of them true, one of them false:

1. 9/11 was an evil act by enemies seeking to harm us. This is true. Viewed from this angle, 9/11 was an evil act or an act of jihad war, not a tragedy.

2. 9/11 was a preventable disaster brought on by our society’s deep-seated moral blindness (which in my opinion is born of liberalism). This is true, and seen from this side 9/11 was a tragedy. This is the way that you see 9/11. But it is not what people generally mean when they refer to 9/11 as a tragedy. What they mean when they call 9/11 a tragedy is that:

3. 9/11 was a horrible thing that just happened, like a natural disaster. This is false. Since 9/11 was not like a natural disaster, when people call 9/11 a tragedy that is a false statement.

To repeat, when you call 9/11 a tragedy, you are correct. But what you fail to recognize is that virtually no one calls 9/11 a tragedy in the sense that you call it a tragedy. People generally call 9/11 a tragedy in the sense of its being the moral equivalent of a natural catastrophe, which it was not. Therefore their use of the word tragedy for 9/11 is false, just as it is with the Virginia Tech atrocity.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 25, 2007 07:11 PM | Send

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