A Culture That Kills Its Children Has No Future

An America vacillating between violent struggle and idle nihilism is shuddering toward its end.

Red, white, and blue candles snuffed out with smoke coming from the wicks
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The grieving people of Uvalde, Texas, a town in the Hill Country about 80 miles west of San Antonio, now confront the irreplaceability of life in one of its most ghastly and unnatural incarnations: the murder of at least 19 children and two adults, with several more injured. In their mourning they will join dozens of other communities scattered throughout the country where school shootings this year alone have injured or killed people, and in their special torture—these children were elementary schoolers; they still had the faintly round faces of babies—they will join the families of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in another episode of stochastic annihilation only 10 years ago.

Yet somehow that brief report of conditions on the ground understates both the scope and the nature of the problem. The nature of the problem, as best I can tell, is that American life isn’t about what is good but is rather about nothing at all (which is, at least, broadly inoffensive and inclusive of most tastes and creeds) or about violence itself. The scope of the problem includes every facet of life that culture touches, which means most every element of daily life.

Violence begets injury begets death, and any culture debased to vacillating between violent struggle and idle nihilism is shuddering toward its end as a culture of death. And a culture of death is like a prophecy, or a sickness: It bespeaks itself in worsening phases. Right now, we find ourselves foreclosing upon our own shared future both recklessly and deliberately—and perhaps, gradually, beginning to behave as if there is no future for us at all; soon, I sometimes worry, we may find ourselves faced with a darkening present, no faith in our future, and a doomed tendency to chase violence with violence.

The murders in Uvalde barely begin to describe the scale of American violence, but they do provide insight into its character. School shootings are only a subcategory of mass shootings, which are themselves only a subcategory of gun crime. America sharply surpasses other comparably developed countries in each of those classes of violent crime. A country in which those indicators aren’t necessarily signs of terminal decline is conceivable. But these aren’t the growing pains of a society making difficult advances toward an orderly peace. These are the morbid symptoms of a society coming undone, and they arise largely from policy choices made by interested parties with material motives.

Call that deliberate foreclosure of the future, a category of offense that also includes the impoverishment of American mothers and children far out of proportion to their international counterparts; blithe indifference bordering on outright malice toward any policy or practice suggesting care for the climate, environment, or preservation of the majesty of the natural world; the subtle but rising set of pressures and risks coupled with an overall sense of stagnation that, taken together, amount to the reason Millennials now have the lowest birth rate of any generation on record. The reckless foreclosure of the future is perhaps most visible in the daily, wanton mistreatment of others that is part of the warp and weft of American life.

But perhaps the most troubling symptom of our cultural rot is the sense, detectable already in some people, that there simply is no future for us at all. This sentiment takes many forms, whether individual or national. Some people are taking their own lives in despair or exhaustion, a phenomenon reflected in spiking suicide rates. Some say there’s going to be a “national divorce,” a coward’s term for a Second Civil War, and some say there ought to be such a war, and it’s difficult to distinguish the two; either way, if you take them at their word, there is no future for the United States of America. Some say the planet is dying and we’re already living on borrowed time. Those people have something like an end point in mind.

Then there are some who say that every terrible thing—including even this untenable thing that no civilization could endure, this demonic murder lottery of schoolchildren—simply must go on, and somehow, they are winning. After all, wasn’t the Newtown massacre like the breaking of a seal, the final entry in a national catalog of stunned loss that had begun with Columbine? It wasn’t that there would be no more losses. It was only that we could no longer be stunned. Yesterday, before the families of Uvalde had buried their children, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a televised interview that he would “much rather have law-abiding citizens armed and trained so that they can respond when something like this happens, because it’s not going to be the last time.” That is to say: It’s going to go on indefinitely. It’s not an end, exactly, but life inside a permanent postscript to one’s own history. Here is America after there was no more hope.

We are already living through this. It is hard to bear. All around us things that ought to matter shrink in proportion to things that ought not to; a sense of real agency in politics or government feels limited, distant; lives that used to seem perfectly accessible to your average young person seem impossible now, while darkly fantastical lives—like those of the mass shooters whose profiles are now too many and too common to differentiate, with their weird paramilitary bravado and meme-inflected manifestos—are growing more familiar to us. I fear they’ll become more familiar still. When we say, in despair, that “these men are by-products of a society we’ve created; how could we possibly stop them?,” we could be referring to almost anyone in the great chain of diffuse responsibility for our outrageous, inexcusable gun-violence epidemic—the lobbyists who argued for these guns to be sold like sporting equipment, the politicians who are too happy to oblige them, the shooters themselves.

Moral decline of this kind produces strange and grotesque effects as it works its way, acidlike, through a society. Resignation takes the form of anger, mistrust, hypervigilance, depression, withdrawal. Nihilism arrives not as society fading quietly to dust but as fruit flush with lurid color, ripening until it bursts. It is the fruit of a culture of death.