American society rests on sacrifice—specifically, human sacrifice. The latest commentator to make this increasingly common claim was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Responding to the massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, Dowd lamented: “Once, when I thought of child sacrifice, I thought of ancient shibboleths. Now, however, I think of child sacrifice as a modern phenomenon, a barbaric one that defines this country.”
Dowd went on to rehash a standard liberal take on the issue: The deity to whom children are being sacrificed is, of course, the gun. Despite this familiar partisan message, Dowd’s column stumbled upon an unpleasant truth: Human sacrifice does, in fact, inhabit a central place in our modern civilization. By way of the peculiar cultural ritual of the mass shooting, we periodically render a certain number of lives to a mysterious force. We disagree over how to name that force—“gun culture,” “toxic masculinity,” “white supremacy,” corrupting media influence, and general psychological malaise are all candidates. But beyond these differences, most of us now respond to these incidents with the fatalistic resignation of Agamemnon and Abraham when they offered up their own children to the divine.
Like most in the media, Dowd finds this paralysis mystifying: “America is not a mythical kingdom ruled by fickle gods or black magic. Our fate is not in the stars.” But the secular framework she shares with most commentators is part of what impedes understanding of a phenomenon with an ultimately religious character. The emergence of a new ritual that appears to conjure up an ineffable metaphysical force is beyond the scope of our standard media narratives but is familiar in the annals of religion.
None of the usual culprits fully accounts for the persistence of the specific phenomenon of the mass shooting, nor for its cultural centrality, out of proportion to the relative number of victims. In countries with similarly widespread gun ownership, the random public massacre isn’t nearly as common. Countries more violent than our own haven’t given rise to this particular form of murder. Here, we may therefore glimpse one way the mass shooting resembles historically documented instances of human sacrifice: It is a culturally specific ritual, largely incomprehensible in other cultures. But to go further than this, we must move beyond the standard framings of the sacrificial theme.
Dowd’s invocation of human sacrifice should ring a bell. A similar argument was made by liberal commentators throughout the pandemic, when states that loosened Covid-related restrictions stood accused of the same heinous rite. The partisan logic of the human-sacrifice j’accuse relies on the default contemporary view of this practice as a relic of less civilized cultures. Hence, to impute it to our enemies is to accuse them of barbarous regression.
On guns and Covid, Democrats hurl this accusation at Republicans, but in the abortion debate, the sides are reversed. A GOP congressional candidate in Colorado has described abortion as “the sacrifice of a child at the altar of Baal”; Catholic prelates have lately used similar language. Despite the resemblance, the perspective on sacrifice evinced here is distinct from a secular liberal one. For Christians, a sacrificial rite isn’t merely an antiquated relic. It points to the genuine spiritual need for atonement satisfied by Christ’s crucifixion—and yet, humans always risk backsliding into older pagan modes of sacrifice.
While contemporary human-sacrifice recriminations are often tendentious, the theme surfaces in a range of culture-war flashpoints, because it points to a fundamental conflict over values. Nominally, modern societies value few things above the preservation and extension of life. Their denizens, therefore, struggle to comprehend cultures that valorize martyrdom. Only individuals who willingly give their lives to save others’—front-line health workers, soldiers, and the like—may be celebrated without controversy, since this sort of sacrifice appears to leave the basic value of life preservation unchallenged.
But this collective repudiation doesn’t mean sacrifice has been fully relegated to the past. The liberals who have recently accused their partisan enemies of human sacrifice tacitly present themselves as morally above such a callous undervaluing of life. In reality, we denizens of modern civilization all tacitly accept some deaths as the price of preserving other social goods. For instance, vehicular fatalities, factored into actuarial tables as predictable collateral damage of modern life, rarely elicit political outrage.
Deaths tacitly or overtly treated as part of the smooth functioning of society may be calculated into averages and expressed as a “rate.” But it is impossible to imagine a “human-sacrifice rate.” A sacrifice is an excess death—in a moral, rather than a statistical, sense. Georges Bataille, the French philosopher who reintroduced the problem of sacrifice into modern thought, defined it as an “unconditional expenditure” of life, irreducible to any utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. This is what makes sacrifice a moral scandal for modern people, but also what gave it its power in the past—and still does.
When partisans accuse others of supporting human sacrifice, they take some category of deaths that has been normalized and attempt to reclassify it as unacceptable excess. What makes mass shootings distinct is that no one denies their excessive character. They aren’t hidden away in actuarial tables or outsourced to automated processes; if they were, it’s unlikely they would occur at all. Whenever they happen, they predictably occupy the center of public attention for a short period. In this way, they resemble ancient sacrificial rites, which were typically public spectacles.
One generalization that can be made about mass shooters, regardless of their discernible ideological persuasion or religious convictions, is that they don’t share the standard view of sacrifice as a shameful relic or an embarrassing externality. Like contemporary Islamists and the eager participants in the sacred ball games of Mesoamerica, they make its pursuit the central motive of their existence. Even those who lack any recognizable ideological or religious affiliation are often participants in a self-referential cult of martyrdom built up around the prior mass shooters whose actions inspire their own. Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold not only initiated the ongoing wave of massacres in schools in 1999, they went on to be explicitly revered and imitated by many subsequent killers.
The mass shooting resurrects the logic of human sacrifice. First, because it involves the wanton destruction of something valued above all else (life itself). This was always the disturbing rationale behind child sacrifice: The preciousness of the creature who was rendered up to the gods was precisely what gave the act its power. Second, because its enactment responds to an unstoppable force we find incomprehensible, yet submit to—in practice, if not in thought. The stories of Isaac and Iphegenia suggest that ancient peoples were no less blind to the visceral horror of child sacrifice than we are, but often enough, they felt compelled to submit to it with a fatalism similar to our own.
Today’s shooters recognize that their culture isn’t above human sacrifice, as the rest of us like to imagine. Like the denizens of older cultures who were willing spectators of brutal acts of immolation, decapitation, dismemberment, and disembowelment that occurred in central public plazas, we accord the requisite cultural centrality to their actions. We play our scripted roles in the resulting ritual, which in some cases involves accusing others of human sacrifice. This participation ensures the perpetuation of the sacrificial cult.
Behind the mass-shooting epidemic is a deeper crisis of values that is religious at root. What do we hold sacred beyond life itself? As a culture, we no longer have an answer to this question. In response, mass shooters have created a diffuse, nihilistic religion whose singular aim is to subvert the value placed on life. Confronted with their brazen reassertion of a sacrificial violence ostensibly anathema to us, we acquiesce, granting them the spectacle they demand, and thereby reaffirming Bataille’s claim that “unconditional expenditure” is a source of irresistible power.
It’s no coincidence that the mass shooting gained momentum as a cultural phenomenon during the “end-of-history,” halcyonic 1990s, when increasing material affluence was believed to have eclipsed all transcendent values. Francis Fukuyama’s diagnosis of this development, often misunderstood as naïvely celebratory, also resurrected Nietzsche’s notion of the “Last Man,” the complacent denizen of the modern world who values only immediate comfort and security. Films of this period, such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and David Fincher’s Fight Club, summoned up the antithesis of the late 20th-century Last Man: the individual who rebels against the placid, post-ideological consumerism of the period by opting for irrational violence.
The mass shooter is a real, rather than fictional, consequence of the same developments. His actions expose, again and again, the spiritual hollowness at the core of history’s most powerful empire: a power granted by a violence that is now mostly disavowed, outsourced to proxy wars and automated in drone attacks. It’s conceivable that political reforms could result in fewer new adherents joining the mass shooters’ death cult, but stamping it out will necessitate a broader cultural transformation.
Without a recovery of shared transcendent values beyond material well-being, the terroristic assertion of death over life will irresistibly attract our collective gaze, much as the monstrous rites of human sacrifice did in so many earlier civilizations.