When Prayer Alone Does Not Suffice

Even as Americans keep the latest victims of a mass shooting in their thoughts, they have an obligation to figure out how to prevent any recurrence.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The attack on members of Congress at baseball practice in Alexandria this morning is, by one count, the 195th mass shooting of the year. Thankfully, this time it appears that nobody was killed. The same can’t be said, alas, for the gun battle in a Fresno home on June 6, or the workplace eruption in Orlando on June 5, or the shooting in St. Louis on June 2.

Mass-casualty gun violence, like all forms of violence, has declined from its terrible peaks of the early 1990s. Yet it remains prevalent in the United States on a scale that staggers the rest of the civilized world. Earlier this month, we grieved the terrible car and knife terrorist attack on London Bridge. In the United Kingdom, jihadis employ knives precisely because they cannot readily lay hands on guns. The consequence is that committed ideological murderers, operating in teams, inflict fewer fatalities on the rare occasions they strike than do American casual killers every few days.

In only one of all the completed and attempted Islamic terrorist atrocities in the U.K. since 9/11 did the killers even carry a single gun: a 90-year-old Dutch revolver so battered that they never tried to use it.

Yet despite the predictable recurrence of these crimes, Americans have developed a strong taboo against ever discussing or even thinking about them. When the killer strikes, it is “too soon.” The next day, it is “too late”; we have all moved onto the next topic. Then comes the next massacre, and it is “too soon” all over again.

Like ancient villagers, Americans accept periodic plagues as a visitation from the gods, about which nothing can or should be done. The only permitted response is “thoughts and prayers”—certainly never rational action to reduce casualties in future. Even to open the discussion as to whether something might not be done violates the taboos of decency: How dare you politicize this completely unpredictable and uncontrollable event! It is as if gun violence were inscrutable to the mind of man, utterly beyond human control.

The fact that such things do not happen anywhere else with anything approaching the same frequency—that too is the work of some ineffable mystery. Who can say why such things happen so seldom in Canada and Australia and Britain and Germany and France, and so often in the United States? Who would be rude enough even to wonder?

A few hours before the attack on the Alexandria playing field, a lower-income housing tower erupted in flames in London. At least six people lost their lives; 20 more remain in critical condition at latest report. In an interview conducted even as firefighters battled the blaze, the mayor of London said, “There will be a great many questions over the coming days as to the cause of this tragedy and I want to reassure Londoners that we will get all the answers.” About fires, apparently, it is permitted to use human reason. But not about firearms! Against the much greater toll from those, the only remedy—the only approved response—is to send “thoughts and prayers.”

Prayer refreshes the soul and clears the mind. It opens the way to repentance and improvement. But prayer alone does not lift from human beings the duty to do what they have the power to do. And that’s not my personal opinion. It’s also the opinion, emphatically declared, of the God to whom believers in the Bible address their prayers. In the stately words of the King James translation, Isaiah 1:15:

And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.