Tragedy in Nashville
Recent horrors in Nashville, Tennessee have left Christians around the world brokenhearted, grieving with the families of the children, schoolteachers, and staff who were slain. At the same time, media pundits from across the social and political spectrum have sought for an explanation, appealing to various (and predictable) issues: the availability of guns, speculations about the shooter’s childhood experiences, the failure of pharmaceutical medical intervention, the violent anti-Christian register of transgender political rhetoric, and so on down the list.
The truth is that some of these factors – and many more besides – may be part of the eventual explanation for what transpired, serving either as a necessary condition or as a contributing cause. But the root cause is much bigger and goes much deeper than any one of these considerations. At root in this horrific tragedy is sin’s corrupting influence expressing itself in the killers’s three-dimensional hatred: hatred of self, hatred of God, and hatred of neighbor.
By the killer’s own admission to a former classmate immediately before her assault on the Covenant School, she was on a self-loathing suicide mission.1 In relation to God, her self-expression and identification as a man was a rejection of her Creator and how He designed her in her mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13), a hatred of God expressed in her destruction of six of His image-bearers. But most obviously, her massacre of innocent Christian children and adults was indicative of her hatred of neighbor spilling over into what some commentators have labeled an act of “transgender terrorism.”
With her Manifesto and plans currently kept under wraps during the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) investigation, there is little that can be said about the incremental steps she took in the ideation, conception, planning, and execution of Monday’s attack. In the analysis of the killer’s act of heinous sin, her Manifesto may reveal either a clearly expressed motive or a fog of mental derangement impossible to decipher. The eventual release of the shooter’s Manifesto is pending close inspection by experts in criminal profiling at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.2
However, the very existence of her Manifesto suggests that what she has done could be politically or ideologically motivated such that her wicked deed falls within the definition of what is called “lone wolf terrorism,” thus confirming the suspicions of certain pundits. According to a report funded by the United States Department of Justice, “lone wolf terrorism is political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; who do not belong to an organized terrorist group or network; who act without the direct influence of a leader or hierarchy; and whose tactics and methods are conceived and directed by the individual without any direct outside command or direction.”3 While this definition focuses on how a lone wolf terrorist perpetrates an attack, the motivation behind “political violence” is inherent to terrorism more generally.
Scholars have admittedly struggled to give a standard definition of “terrorism,”4 but it is widely acknowledged that terrorists perpetrate acts of terror (i.e., political violence) against highly visible and vulnerable targets in order primarily to intimidate society at large – and especially political opponents – by signaling that the public spaces frequented by the objects of the terrorist’s hate are unsafe. Terrorists, either by recruitment into a network (e.g., Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, IRA, the Weather Underground) or by mere affinity and individual radicalization (e.g., violent Islamist Nidal Hasan, anti-theist anarchist Jared Laughner, neo-Nazi white supremacist Wade Page), typically make some claim to represent an aggrieved segment of society or some political interest.
Law enforcement authorities have revealed that the shooter’s Manifesto and/or documented plans explicitly named possible targets – including Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) and the Covenant School of Nashville, TN.5 In evaluating her crime as an act of terror, we currently do not know that her Manifesto identifies a political interest or affinity group. We do not know the particular goals of her March 27th attack. Nevertheless, the existence of her Manifesto, the vulnerability of her targeted site (and victims), and the all-too-predictable sensation of widespread societal horror and insecurity which her deadly deeds have caused bear the characteristic hallmarks of terrorism.
What we do know is that her sin was premeditated, deliberate, and carefully planned. Her sin of breaking the sixth commandment (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) was heinous, a heinousness made greater “by reason of several aggravations” (Westminster Larger Catechism [WLC] 150): by her targeting “any of the saints, particularly weak brethren,” by her going “against the express letter of the law,” by the impossibility of any reparation, by her deliberateness and willfulness in perpetrating it, and by her unimaginable malice (WLC 151). Her rampage resembles the sin of Cain who ruthlessly murdered his brother Abel, the worshiper of God (Gen. 4:1-9).
Much like Cain, the shooter was on a hunt for self-expression on her terms rather than God’s. Whereas Cain despised God in his heart and by his outward worship, she despised God in her heart and by her outward “gender identity.” There is no divine approbation for false worship, and there is no divine approbation for self-delusion, especially when it is imposed upon others. Without any sure foundation for her identity, she – like Cain – resorted to murderous terroristic violence.
By her act of violence, she has egregiously transgressed the law of God, taken the lives of six of her neighbors, and lost her own life. But why? Unless and until her Manifesto is released, her motives will be shrouded in mystery. Even with the release of her Manifesto, her motivation may remain unclear or uncertain.
Whatever her motivation, the killer has made a violent entry into the media spotlight for a cycle. Her contested identity as a woman preferring to identify as a man makes her a particularly tragic figure, but not deserving of anyone’s pity. This makes her sympathetic reception by certain media outlets particularly shocking (and chilling). If and when the shooter’s Manifesto is published, perhaps she will be recognized as the terrorist that she is by merit of her actions, and the words of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) will ring true, “All forms of violence are a quest for identity…. Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. So it’s only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers: these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed… People in all times have been this way.”6
Photo Credit: Riminaldo, Orazio Cain and Able, ca. 17th century, Oil on Canvas. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/cain-and-abel-orazio-riminaldi.html, Accessed 4/3/23.
- https://www.newschannel5.com/news/she-checked-her-instagram-she-didnt-expect-a-message-from-the-covenant-school-shooter ↩
- https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11917903/Transgender-shooters-manifesto-released-public-soon-FBI-analyzed-it.html ↩
- Lone Wolf Terrorism in America: Using Knowledge of Radicalization Pathways to Forge Prevention Strategies” by Mark Hamm and Ramon Spaaj (February 2015) available online here: https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/248691.pdf ↩
- For example, see the authoritative work by Alex P. Schmid entitled Political Terrorism: A Research Guide to Concepts, Theories, Data Bases and Literature, originally published in 1984 and currently in its second edition (2005: Routledge). ↩
- https://nypost.com/2023/03/29/police-strongly-believe-nashville-school-shooter-audrey-hale-had-other-targets/ ↩
- See “Violence as quest for identity (sic) – Marshall McLuhan predicted the future in 1977” on YouTube, 3:10-4:05 (https://youtu.be/XZfvqMUoHQ0). ↩