I am not easily shocked anymore.
Perhaps it is my profession, where the constant exposure to human suffering and pain harden the spirit and keep emotions at a safe distance. Perhaps it is the almost imperceptible but relentless inoculation brought about by the constant stream of violence and vice which pour forth from the dazzling screen faced daily from the comfort of cottage and couch. Perhaps it is the cynicism and callousness from one too many movies showing gratuitous sex; one too many art exhibits with fecal creativity or blasphemous pretension; one too many headlines of school shootings or child rape. It all seems to blend together, like some Clockwork Orange deprogramming script shimmering on screen as we sit with eyes held open against our will, the beauty of Beethoven lulling us into the normalization of depravity.
Each scene, more horrid than the last, flashes by, horrifying in the moment but soon forgotten, our calloused souls no longer responding, our eyes transfixed in cold determination on money and the material, routine and ritual. We have swum in the cesspool so long we no longer notice the smell.
This week, some things broke through the indifferent haze. Like some unheralded emetic, the cynical disdain for a culture gone corrupt turned instead to nausea — physical, to be sure, yet far more: a nausea of the soul, a dyspepsia so deep in the spirit that no hardened defense could mask its rolling waves of disgust and dismay.
There was, at the first, the video: a teenage girl, lured into a trap, then brutally beaten by six other girls her age for thirty minutes continually, carefully recorded on video for upload to YouTube.
Then came the Yale “artist” who repeatedly impregnated herself by artificial insemination, then aborted the fetus with drugs, carefully saving the results for display wrapped in plastic and Vaseline for her senior art exhibit.
Then this morning, in the local paper: a man — a school bus driver — convicted for sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl left alone on his bus.
One could multiply such incidents, ad nauseum, on almost any given day, in any part of the world — beheadings and genocide, ghoulish scenes of body parts and bloodied walls from yet another heroic martyr seeking virgins through hyperviolence. Yet these events, small on such a savage scale, in some way troubled me more than most.
One wants to rail at a society gone mad, at a civilization which has lost its bearings and moral compass, at a decadence fed by materialism and secularism, force-fed with the rotgut wine of postmodern relativism, drunk with the notion that ideas have no consequence and idols worshiped bring no destruction.
Yet the time for such anguished mourning seems long past, its passing but a point in a pitiful past history. We have, it seems, entered the post-human age.
Our secular prophets have heralded the Good News: there is no God; we are but accidental apes. We have been liberated from the bondage of religion and morals; we are, at last, in this twenty-first century, at the pinnacle of human achievement and potential. The shackles of superstition are broken, the potential of man unbounded, his glory unlimited but by the constraints of his imagination.
Yet as we celebrate our exalted humanity, the technology we worship brings glimpses of a darker reality, flashed in some subliminal message quickly dismissed as aberration or sideshow.
We may reflexly think of those who partake in such ghastly exhibitionism to be but beasts– but to think thus insults the animal, whose nobility far exceeds our own. For the animal kingdom is violent, brutish, and predatory — but it is so with purpose, its violence constrained by the drive to survive, or mate, or protect its territory. It is only the human animal who ventures into the subhuman, in glorification and gleeful pursuit of perversion for pleasure, of violence as theater. It is this theatrics of barbarism so prevalent in our age which bespeaks something far darker, more sinister, more terrifying. For to be human is to share the beautiful and the good with the hideous and evil; it has been so since the dawn of history. But to celebrate perdition, to promulgate a pornography of barbarism, to cast it abroad over media and message seems the unique and chilling characteristic of our current reckless age.
Civilization has always withstood the barbarians with low walls lightly guarded. It has depended far less on strength of force than strength of character, a consensus among the civilized that certain behavior and unrestrained license threaten its very existence. Laws and the power of enforcement cannot long resist the dark demons of depravity unleashed from within; the power of Rome proved feeble when there became no difference between the citizens within and the barbarians without. The Dark Ages which thus ensued seem now long forgotten, even as we arrogate the privileges of freedom while destroying the self-control and restraint on which it depends.
Our own Dark Ages seem soon upon us. The knowledge and technology which have brought us to such great heights will document in vivid color the breaching of the walls and the slaughter of the children.